The mother tongue challenge

Even before Bobo was in the realm of possibility, I knew that I would like a child of mine to be able to speak my mother tongue. I am no Tamil scholar. I can barely read the language. I can’t write in it. My spoken Tamil is quite colloquial. My school education had favoured Hindi thanks to parents with foresight. 

Yet having rediscovered my roots in my twenties, I could not help but appreciate that I had inherited a wonderful language with a rich heritage. Not to mention, despite my English August-ness, I still loved the fact that I could get inside jokes in Tamil and could see movies in the language and somehow, subconsciously the language had become a part of me. 

D was not interested particularly about his progeny learning his mother tongue (we don’t share a mother tongue). So when Bobo was born, D was in charge of Bobo’s English education and I was going to be responsible for his Sangam (or not) Tamil.

In the beginning, it seemed a bit odd cooing to Bobo in Tamil. For one, D and I spoke to each other only in English. For another, I spoke to my immediate family in a combination of Tamil and English, switching to the latter when I got excited or irritated or happy or sad. English, infact, was virtually my mother tongue. However, I knew that if I did not get into the practice immediately, it would never happen. This was also borne out by research I did later which told me that babies can start distinguishing languages based on common sounds they heard, as early as ten months.

With the hours I worked, I had only a couple of hours every day of the working week with Bobo. This meant that was all the time I had to pour Tamil into his ears. I would speak to him in Tamil. I would read to him in Tamil (English books that were translated in my mind before the Tamil words came out). I would read him Tamil books, something I had not done since primary school, my lack of fluency evident from the very long pauses between words or even mid-word.

The rest of the day was with our Filipino helper and D, both of whom spoke English. Not to mention, everyone in Singapore speaks English so that is the sound you are exposed to the most. When my parents visited, Bobo got a lot more Tamil but only for a few weeks at a time. I tried speaking to D in Tamil (luckily he can understand the language quite well) but it was odd to have a conversation in two different languages and mostly I stuck to English.

When Bobo started to say words, and then speak, it was no surprise that he chose English. After all, here was a toddler trying to communicate for the first time, and naturally he would choose a language he was most familiar with and in which he had a very good chance of success. This was not to say that I wasn’t deeply disappointed. I had been going on for over eighteen months. All I had to show was a few words when I pointed at things and asked Bobo to say their names.

I had to be patient. I continued speaking in Tamil. Bobo began his pre-school and his English got better and better. He was also exposed to Mandarin at school, adding to the confounding mix. At two, there were still no visible results. It seemed like a futile exercise but now more out of habit, I continued to speak in Tamil. All his queries in English were met with a translation of his query into Tamil and then a response in Tamil.

He was also now allowed to watch TV in the weekends and his limited TV time was filled with DVD episodes of his favourite Dora, dubbed into Tamil. He watched the episodes quietly, not responding to the queries that Dora or Boots threw at him in Tamil.

In the meantime, I found to my pleasant surprise that speaking entire sentences in Tamil without using the simpler and easier English words, began to come naturally to me. Still better, my Tamil reading improved considerably. I, of course, was a long way away from reading a classic but I could get by when it came to short stories for toddlers. Even if Bobo did not learn anything, atleast I would.

Then around the time Bobo turned three, both of us were watching a video of his from when he was two. He seemed to know a lot more Tamil words a year earlier than he did at three. I was shocked by how little progress he had made and came up with a rule – Speak to mummy in Tamil or there is going to be no speaking to mummy at all.

The implementation of this rule was helped enormously by the fact that D was based in another city on account of work and had become a weekend visitor. The only person available to talk to Bobo was me and I would not respond to English.

The first couple of days were tough on Bobo. I figured that the pain was temporary. I had seen enough NRI kids whose parents claimed that they understood their mother tongues perfectly well but were too shy to speak in it. If I did not force Bobo to speak in Tamil now, he would never get the confidence to do so in the future.

On the third day, Bobo said something in English and as usual I asked in Tamil ‘I did not understand. Mummy can only speak Tamil’. Bobo turned away saying ‘I did not say anything’. I was tempted to just give him. After all, one of his parents was missing from the scene and he could not talk to the other parent. Then a few minutes later, Bobo’s love for talking overpowered his shyness and he asked me whatever he wanted to in broken Tamil.

Voila! The breakthrough that I had been waiting for had occurred.

Bobo began to form broken sentences in Tamil. I would wait for him to finish and then repeat the correct version of the sentence again in Tamil for his benefit. With practice, he got better and better.

Then my parents arrived. My dad immediately caught onto the fact that Bobo was good at speaking in English and he could optimise the limited time he would get with his grandson by speaking in English. My entreaties that he was supposed to set an example for Bobo by speaking in Tamil fell on contrite but forgetful ears. My mom made a more conscience effort to speak in Tamil but the fact was it was my dad who spoke the most to Bobo and had his ear.

Then a strange thing happened. Bobo’s Tamil began to improve. It turned out that my mom and dad spoke to each other in Tamil and Bobo had started to soak in the language. Also now that Bobo’s English was quite ok and it had become a subconscious part of him, he could move onto other challenges like mastering Tamil. By the time my parents left, Bobo could have a conversation with me in Tamil (albeit with very basic words and expressing very basic sentiments) without feeling self-conscious and dare I say, some enthusiasm. 

I am feeling terribly proud of both him and myself. It was a tough project to undertake and while I had never thought about the effort, I realise now that it would have just been so much easier on me and him to stick to English.

I am told that I still have a long way to go before Bobo remembers the language well into his adulthood. Constant practice will be needed. I am also not sure how I am going to teach him to read or write in Tamil, especially given that I cannot do the latter well myself. But having come this far, I think with a bit of effort, I might just make it work. 


Phi Phi scuba diving - Dive 2

Post lunch, we off to our dive spot for the second session. I was hoping that we would actually get underwater this time. This was going to be the last dive for the day and for the trip and we really had to do it.

This kind of stupid pressure is of course the key to panicking all over again. Which I duly proceed to do once I got into the water. I spent ten minutes thrashing around and breathing out through my nose, leading to frequent bouts of coming up for air. Meanwhile, P was battling her own demons and told me that if her ear were to start paining again, I should just go on without her. Yeah, right.  

Finally I calmed down and remembered to breathe through my mouth and life became better again. P also was meticulous about doing her ear equalization exercises. Katie held onto our hands and slowly took us down.

It was fascinating. There were all sorts of fish swimming past us and below us. Thanks to Bobo’s books, I could recognise the banner fish. And what looked like a sun fish and an angel fish. There were also several bright blue star fish clinging to the rocks. The vividness of the colours stunned me.

We descended further and I spotted a clown fish. I had been really hoping to see a clown fish so I could tell Bobo about it. And there it was!

However I was quite subdued when it came to expressing my joy. It was all very well finally being able to breathe underwater but there was no way that I would let excitement get the better of me and lose my regulator or let water enter my mask. The tricks I had been taught to handle these, would be enormous challenges to actually implement underwater and if I could avoid those situations, I would.

Right on the heels of the clown fish, we saw a Blacktip Reef shark (we found out the name later). A shark-spotting is considered a sign of a good trip and nothing could have made the dive better than seeing one. It was a shy creature, around a metre long, hiding away in the shadows. The sharp fin on the back was quite clear, so was the pointy front. Delighted, we swan past it.

For most part, we were seeing some beautiful coral or fish in the water. The sea bed descended gradually and we stayed close to the reef and the sea bed, taking in the sights. However, there were some points in the middle, when there was nothing to be seen but the dull green water with lots of tiny particles of dust (?) moving briskly with the current. It felt like we were in space.

We swam for what seemed like a long time. My throat began to feel a bit parched from all the salt water I had consumed earlier. I was hoping I would not end up puking (‘just puke into the regulator and soon you will have fish feeding close to you’ had been Katie’s helpful advice. Like I was going to enjoy that).

Finally Katie did the ‘ascend’ sign and we burst through the surface of the water.

It was over and we had done it! Katie gave us big grins. I eagerly asked her how far below we had gone and she said it had not been much. It turned out to be around 3 metres or so yet had felt like a mission to a different universe. Still, we had actually swum a long distance (this we could see for ourselves) and stayed underwater for close to an hour. We were divers!

P and I were tired and happy when we got back. A little relieved too to have done the diving after having come this far. Katie had told us stories of clients who had come but had chickened out in the end. But by far the most important thing she repeatedly told us was that the dive was ours to enjoy and we should only do things that were comfortable for us. If that had meant, staying on the surface, so be it. It had helped enormously to know that we did not actually have to do the 12 metres maximum.

The boat eventually reached the shore and we went back to the dive centre to get our certificates of appreciation. Later that night, I wrote my post card, describing the things I had seen.

It felt good.

Phi Phi scuba diving - Dive 1

On the morning of the dive, we had to be in the dive centre by 7 a.m., after breakfast. We duly presented ourselves and waited for the boat to be ready. Luckily, we did not have to carry our equipment this time and Katie was going to set it up for us. We just took our weights and walked to the boat.

Once the boat began to head to the diving spot, we got busy getting ready. The idea was to jump into the water as soon as we got to the dive spot. We wore all the stuff and then waited with our cylinders resting on a bench behind us. When the time came to get off the boat, Katie inflated my jacket with air from my cylinder. The two valves to control how much air was in the jacket would be operated by Katie. It would be key to maintaining my depth in the water. A quick ascent or descent can be dangerous, with nitrogen quickly filling up the body and leading to pain and a trip into the decompression chamber.

I had to stand at the edge of the boat, hold onto my mask and regulator with one hand and my weights with the other and just step off into the sea. I was surprised that I did so with little fuss. Atleast I knew that an inflated jacket would keep me buoyant and so was not too stressed.

Unlike the previous day, the weather was cloudy. This made the water dull but not cold. P and Katie jumped in right behind me. We had to kick our way a short distance to a reef. The area around it was shallow. We would do our three tricks there again and then begin diving around the area.

There is something about putting your face into the water and looking at the sea bed below and imagining that you had to be close to it that can throw you off kilter. I panicked. Immediately, I also forgot my breathing.

For the next half an hour, I struggled to stay below the surface getting my breathing right while P did a snorkeling session, patiently waiting for me to be ready. I finally calmed down enough to remember my breathing. And Hey presto, once you do remember to calmly BOTH breathe in and out through the mouth, it becomes easy-peasy to go underwater.

Katie began to slowly lead us down where our heads were just below the water. She had already taught us a few hand signs she would be using under water since we obviously could not chat under water. She showed us the OK sign to ask if we were and we both signaled back in the affirmative.

We went down deeper and I was not feeling panicky any more. Just a bit scared, but manageable enough. Katie had been swimming between us till this point. Now she hovered above us, holding our jackets and operating our buoyancy devices. I settled into the groove of things.

Suddenly, we began to ascend. Huh! I was doing ok I thought. When we burst through the water, I realised that P had signalled to be taken up. Her ear was paining.

One of the main risks of diving is that as we go down, there is an imbalance is the pressure between and the outer and inner ears. This can cause acute pain and eventually lead to the ear drum being damaged. It is important to do equalization exercises to balance the pressure every time you descend and even then there is a possibility of ear pain. In which case, you went back to the earlier depth and began to descend all over again.

P’s ear was not just paining but was also ringing.

Katie decided to end our session. It had been almost an hour and with the up and down from my ‘getting over my panic’ sessions, combined with P’s ear pain she did not think it was a good idea to go on.

We waved our hands and the boat came close to us and threw us a rope which we clung to while they pulled us in. Most people were already back in the boat. It was a relief to get out of the equipment and dry our hair and sit in the upper deck.

We docked near Maya Beach (made famous by the movie ‘the Beach’) and had our lunch. After a while, the non-stop gentle swaying of the boat made me feel a bit sea sick and I closed my eyes and lay quietly. 

Dive session #2 was still to come and I did not want to  be sick for it.

Phi Phi scuba diving - The Prep

When I called up P to check if she would be interested in doing diving, she replied in the exact manner in which I was hoping. She excitedly told ‘Let us do it’.

Two weeks later, we were in Krabi, wandering about its night market and scarcely believing that we were actually there. The feeling persisted as we got into a ferry the next morning to go to Phi Phi island where our diving centre was located.

Phi Phi is a small island and even from the jetty, we could see our hotel. However, the minute we entered its narrow streets, packed with dive shops, souvenir shops and restaurants, we had to navigate by sense, rather than sight to get to the Phi Phi hotel, which was going to be our base. It was close to the streets, to the dive centre and to the jetty. Even if its claims of being a four star place seemed a bit spurious, it was very convenient.

When I had done my initial research on the diving, I had picked Phi Phi since the weather was supposed to be good in February and it was rated one of the best diving destinations in S.E.Asia. It was also easily accessible for P (or rather relatively so) and me. We had already picked a diving centre, the Phi Phi Dive Centre based on the fantastic reviews on the net. Phi Phi is however filled with plenty of options and a lot of people just seemed to be walking into the various shops and booking a spot for a dive. There were enough P.A.D.I certified centres, the certification that provides credibility for a dive shop.

We had signed up for the ‘Discover Scuba Diving’ programme. This normally would involve a one day tour with two diving trips. However, given the butterflies that had taken up residences in our stomachs even as we spoke about the trip, we had also requested a theory cum shallow water practice session. And so, we appeared at 1 p.m. at Phi Phi Dive Centre. We were assigned Katie, a petite Texan girl, who was among the newest of the instructor crop.

Katie sat us down and meticulously took us through how to assemble and disassemble our equipment. This is not a standard part of most trainings but it did us good to understand what each part did and how to put it together and use it. This took us over an hour. Next it was time for our practical session in shallow water. Which basically meant a walk to the nearest empty spot on the beach, wearing our outfits and lugging our equipment along. This was easier said than done since a key piece of the equipment was an oxygen-nitrogen cylinder, which Katie estimated weighed around 20 kgs. First we had to get into our wet suits. Then tie the weight belt around our waists. Next our masks went around our necks. 

Finally we put on a jacket with the cylinder attached to it and carried our flippers in our hands. Backs bent over, we slowly made it to the beach and got into the water.

The trick to scuba diving is to get the breathing right. One uses only the mouth to both breathe in and breathe out. This is against the natural order of things and even though the principle is the same as snorkelling, the thought that you would be 12 metres below the surface when doing this can mess your mind. Our regulator, through which we had to breathe, was going to be our lifeline and we had to make sure that we got it right.

We sat in the shallow water and practiced our breathing. The weight of the cylinder had melted away the minute we entered the water. Yet the waves kept us off balance most of the times. Once we got the hang of breathing, Katie took us through the three key tricks. The first two involved putting the regulator back into the mouth if we lost it. This seemed fairly simple. The last one involved clearing water from the mask in case water entered it. This one was a bit tougher. We learnt (sort of) the three tricks and then we were done for the day.

We retraced our steps, the cylinder feeling even heavier after the practice session. I was beginning to get a bit worried about the actual diving session. This seemed like scary stuff.
I thought I was going to stay up all night worrying. The practice session had however, tired me enough to sleep. Yet, the next day I woke up early and thoughts began to race through my mind. This was obviously a bad idea. I had a kid back home and here I was throwing myself into stupid and dangerous activities. I thought of the post card lying in my hand bag, which I had superstitiously decided to post only after finishing the dive. I hoped I would be able to do it that evening.