My grandfather’s dementia made him forget English and return to his first language. Will learning it connect me to my roots?

I remember when my grandfather started forgetting.

In 2014, he told me that he left eggs cooking on the stove and then walked out of his house to run errands. When he came back, the kitchen was foggy and smoky.

A year later, he had trouble understanding where he was, or who he was around. He could no longer read.

And then he began months of screaming, crying and despair as he lost more and more of himself. It’s the limbo period of dementia, going in between who you are and where the loss is taking you. Where you can recognize that you are slipping further and further away from your memories and your identity. That’s where the real pain is.

I could tell he was slowly falling down a well, with my family and I looking down at him, as he grasped to come back to the surface. But he could not, and he slipped into darkness.

What he also forgot was how to speak English. He reverted back to speaking Telugu, his first language from him. He only said the occasional English word, or sentence, but none of it was coherent. Still, those small instances gave our family moments of connectivity.

Olivia Bowden with her grandparents (Tata on the left and her Ammama on the right.)

But I, as a third generation kid in Canada who could only speak English, realized my last chances to get through to him were lost. This was a man who centered me in his life, and adored me, unequivocally. When I had some health issues in my teens, I expressed he would do anything to take on any struggle I faced, instead of me. Now he was suffering more than I ever imagined he could and I felt that I had failed him by not being able to even provide words of comfort he might understand.

Losing the ability to speak to him, I also felt parts of my identity and culture disappearing as our conversations were lost in translation.

Then in 2019, Tata (meaning grandfather in Telugu) passed away.

With him leaving, not only mentally but physically, I felt my roots becoming more and more distant. On top of not knowing the language, this thought was always heightened by the fact that I didn’t have an Indian name — something that often made me feel like I had to prove that my South Asian identity belonged to me.

I never learned Telugu, because he made a decision that Canada would not have him, would not have us, if the family relied on our language.

Born Subrahmanyam Yerramilli, Tata grew up in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. In the late 1960s he, my grandmother, mom and aunt moved to Mississauga from India as he was given a job as a nuclear engineer.

As my mom and aunt were growing up, I wanted them to speak English at home. My grandparents also didn’t mesh themselves in the small Indian community that was in the Greater Toronto Area in the 1970s, finding that it didn’t reflect who they were.

My grandma now tells me they felt that they had no other choice — how could they get a job, have friends, or take university courses if they didn’t prioritize English? All their neighbors were white, and they came to Canada alone with two small children. They didn’t want to be stared at, for their clothes, or their food — they wanted acceptance.

But still, inside the comfort of our home, we never forgot our roots. My grandma still wore a sari inside, making upma, a porridge-like dish made of semolina, and idlies, round rice cakes. In their basement is a puja mandir, which is a home temple for Hindus.

Olivia Bowden's mother, aunt and grandparents in the 60s.

However, this connection was constantly met with the tensions of integrating into Canada, a country that my Tata loved, but that ultimately washed some of our culture away. Ironically, it would be during the last moments of my Tata’s life that I would be unable to communicate with him, despite his enormous efforts to start a new life here.

That’s why at 28 years old, more than two years after his death, I finally set out to learn a primarily Indian language. Unfortunately, Telugu language classes are only available with private tutoring. So, now I’m learning Hindi (even though I have ancestors who probably wouldn’t be happy about that). Still, to me, it’s important that when I visit India I’ll be able to have basic conversations in a language other than English, and to absorb the world my family came from and more closely to understand parts of who I am and what I came from.

The Hindi I’m learning is very basic and conversational, but I feel some comfort in knowing I’ll be able to visit India with my family and be able to order a coffee. I am understanding Bollywood films more without subtitles. And though these may seem like small steps, it’s a world that’s a part of me, that my family felt they had to hide in this country.

While I’m encouraged to see this through, I can’t help thinking about what my family felt that they needed to leave behind to reap the benefits of becoming “Canadian” and to fit into a prescribed “model minority” identity here.

What I wish is that he had come to a different Canada, one where he didn’t feel he had to leave Telugu behind. If that’s even possible.

Olivia Bowden as a child in a sari.

It’s often why I’m drawn to writing about equity and culturally specific lens into all aspects of our institutions, from health care to education to housing. This pandemic has made it clear that our systems coldly exclude those who do not speak English fluently, even though Canada relies on immigration and uses it as a political talking point to gain favor on the world stage.

I don’t know if he’d be happy that I want to revive parts of his culture that he sought to leave behind, but I know that he relished in philosophical discussions and debate, something I will hold onto dearly and think about often.

And hopefully, I too can carry onto our roots through language.

Leave a Comment