In the Indian language of Malayalam, “love” comes in many shades.

There is “sneham”, which encompasses all forms of love, including love for your family. Then there is “premam” for young love between people who are dating, “priyam” to describe romantic love, and a still more intense love known as “pranayam”.

Retired vice-principal Jalaja Pillay, 64, says, as she tries to explain the nuances to me: “It’s very difficult to translate into English because that intensity is lost.”

Her mother tongue is all the more closely entwined with love because her husband – a proud Ceylon Tamilian who knew only a bit of Malayalam – promised that he would use it when they started a family.

Nirmalan Pillay, 64, a lawyer who now speaks fluent Malayalam, says: “One of the things she asked me (before agreeing to the marriage) was, she wanted the children to be brought up as Malayalees. Malayalam should be spoken. I had no objection.”

He adds: “There’s a saying in Tamil that the mother tongue is given to the child through the breast milk. You get your language from your mother. Why would you want to take that away?”

The Pillays – (from left) Vidhya, Nirmalan and Jalaja – want to keep Malayalam alive in this part of the world.  Photos: ST

The Pillays – (from left) Vidhya, Nirmalan and Jalaja – want to keep Malayalam alive in this part of the world. Photos: ST

Historically, Malayalees come from India’s south-western coastal state of Kerala, which means “land of coconuts” in Malayalam. Immigration to this part of the world began in the early 1800s, and Malayalees are now the second-largest Indian sub-group in Singapore.

“Ayyo!” – meaning the same thing as the Chinese aiyoh – is a Malayalam expression. “Jackfruit”, too, comes from the Malayalam word chakka.

Owing to similarities between Malayalam and Tamil, many Malayalees – such as the Pillays’ 34-year-old daughter, Vidhya, a doctor – have found it relatively easy to pick up the latter.

Regional differences in the way Malayalam is spoken in Kerala, says Dr Pillay, resulted in comic misunderstandings when she visited India. In the south, “appi” is used as an endearing word for “younger sister”. But in central Kerala, where her maternal ancestors are from, it means “faeces”.

Dr Pillay says that she cannot write Malayalam but taught herself to read it when Malayalam-language cable television channel Asianet came to Singapore in 2010.

Many younger Malayalees do not read or write Malayalam. Acclaimed Singaporean poet M.K. Bhasi, 86, whose grandchildren speak to him in English, laments: “There are not enough children who reach O-Level standard…. Their exposure to the language is becoming less and less.”

Bhasi, who is also chief of the Singapore bureau of the Kaumudi Online newspaper, adds: “Even though Kerala is a minor state, Malayalam is not a minor language.” He notes that several recipients of the Njana Peedam Award, a national Indian literary prize, are Malayalam writers.

In Singapore, Malayalam is not recognised as one of the non-Tamil Indian languages. As a result, Malayalee students often take Tamil or Hindi as a second language. While some take weekend Malayalam classes at the nonprofit Malayalam Language Education Society (MLES), most drop out by Primary 3, finding it hard to juggle school commitments and a third language.

But MLES chairman Jayadev Unnithan notes that there has been a rise in student numbers recently, partly owing to increased awareness of the language’s importance and a growing number of immigrants from Kerala who want their children to be proficient in it. The MLES is helping Cambridge International Examinations to find qualified examiners so students here can sit Cambridge exams in Malayalam.

Unnithan, 51, adds: “Language is the most critical thing that links you back to your culture. It can transmit values, heritage.”

Jayadev Unnithan at one of his children’s language classes.

Jayadev Unnithan at one of his children’s language classes.

To discourage his children from procrastinating, he turns to an old Malayalam saying that his own parents used to tell him: “Madiyan mala chumakkum”, which means “the lazy man will end up carrying the mountain”.

Yet, for many Malayalees in this part of the world, cultural identity transcends the ability to read and write in the language.

Dr Anitha Devi Pillai, a lecturer at the Singapore National Institute of Education and author of From Kerala To Singapore: Voices From The Singapore Malayalee Community (Marshall Cavendish International, 2017), says: “I do not even know what my name looks like in Malayalam, but I speak the language with ease.”

Tharini Nair, 30, a senior service executive at a bank in Singapore, is proud to be a Malayalee. She observes traditions such as celebrating Onam, the Malayalee New Year, and wants the language to be preserved.

For her, the language fosters an affinity with other Malayalees.

“Sometimes when I’m at work or travelling, I hear someone speak the language and I turn and look at them. And their reaction is, ‘Are you a Malayalee as well?’” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Toh Wen Li