Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

The Tamarind Rebellion

By Vishnu K.K. Nair

Every summer my mother took me to her family’s house in the tropical inlands of Southern Kerala in South India. From the distance, it looked like a samurai residence from the Edo period. But from close up the separation between the large wooden granaries and the kitchen was visible – an architectural marvel unique to Kerala courtyard houses. The house showed all the signs of aging: the sagging beams in the kitchen were a cause for concern; the large verandah that girded the whole house was beginning to crack.

The house sat next to a sprawling paddy field. Dawn and dusk gave distinct colors to the paddy field—green, yellow and red mixed with the tropical earthy smells. When the sun was bright and the wind stood still, the colors from the paddy field touched the wooden roof which made the house look like a majestic old spirit not ready to give up yet.

The house’s backyard was dappled with the shade of two wild tamarind trees. I spent most of my time hanging from the branches that spiraled into the kitchen windows. When I touched the ground, I picked the fallen tamarinds with half-broken shells. I have never enjoyed anything sour but the luscious tamarind, with a mix of sweet and sour taste used to melt on my tongue and made me pucker my face.

During one of my visits to the ancestral house, in April 2003, I had just finished high school. I would have to decide my career in few months and I was terrified to make any choice. Growing up in a collectivist culture I knew I had little independence in choosing my career; my family could override any decision I made. Although I had a strong sense of what I wanted to become, my everyday experience was strictly controlled by parents, aunties and uncles. None of my choices would have made any sense to them. North Korea has only one Kim Jong-un, but in my South Asian family I had to face many.

One afternoon, my family gathered around the verandah to discuss my future career. The sun was receding from the roof tiles and the shade of the tamarind tree created an unusual cooling effect on the humid day. My mother had invited my uncle and aunty and asked me to join their discussion. I struggled to face the crowd and decided to stand in a corner with a torn picture book my father gave me when I was a child, in silent protest over the unfolding situation.

My uncle sat on a recently polished wooden chair facing me. His patronizing look annoyed me but I decided to ignore it and observe his constantly moving eyeballs. His eyeballs looked like shiny fluorite crystals dancing methodically around the retina while he spoke unusually fast. Watching him speak was funny but I was amazed at his perfect control over the eye movement. Although he was a handsome man and an intelligent academic specializing in differential geometry, I had a strong repulsion for his nosy personality. My aunt, on the other hand, was witty and charming. She was short and had thick hair neatly tied into a bun secured with a white stone resembling a baroque pearl. She wore a nose ring studded with red stones on her left nostril, and touched it whenever she argued. She sat at the edge of the verandah facing my mother. My mother was tall, clever, practical, short-tempered and had an amazing sense of humor. She occasionally displayed dictatorial tendencies, which meant she would try to win me over in the argument that followed.

My mother suggested that I take up electronic engineering. My aunt agreed but also indicated that medicine would be another good option. My uncle favored engineering and listed its many advantages; he also suggested physics as a backup. But he was unsure about my ability to get into these courses since I was not his smartest nephew. This was certainly true—most of my cousins were exceptional in academics and I often felt inadequate in this highly competitive family.

I was more interested in reading and observing things around me. While my reading was appreciated, I was criticized for spending too much time outside looking at and asking questions about trivial objects and people.

As the discussion progressed, I began to crush the already torn pages of the storybook. I felt uneasy and began to walk away. Nobody seemed to have cared about my opinion. In the midst of their discussion, I ran into the house, grabbed some local newspapers that I had saved in my late grandfather’s large wooden trunk and marched back outside. I showed my mother the newspaper firmly holding my index finger on an essay I had circled.

“I want to be a speech pathologist—no more discussion on engineering and medicine.” My voice broke several times but I kept my face straight and serious. I was prepared to fight back.

My uncle stared at me without moving his eyeballs. “Does that mean you are going to teach people sign language? Not good.” My aunty muttered, adjusting her magenta sari and touching her nose ring. My mother fumed. I had not only crossed into the territory of disobedience, but selected a wrong career path I knew nothing about.

I left the meeting masquerading as a confident person holding my storybook tight against my chest. I kept the newspapers inside the book and walked towards the tamarind trees. I was certainly fearful of my future, and needed validation for my choices — especially at a time I was struggling with my own sexuality. I questioned the existence of a God who controls everything, and refused to take refuge in him. But strangely, I also believed that all animate and inanimate objects have spirits. I felt that the tamarind tree possessed an ancient wild spirit that was emotionally comforting me. I put my arms around the giant trees and chanted ‘kimono,’ the Japanese word for garment. I knew this is a garment to be worn over one’s shoulders. I had to take my future in my hands and wear it over my shoulders. I asked the tree spirits to help me carry ‘kimono.’ I sobbed. I was just 17.

Every effort by my family to turn me away from the decision to join speech pathology was unsuccessful. My mother informed my father that I was being difficult. Later that year I filled out the application anyway. After receiving the admission offer, I moved to Mangalore, the coastal city of the Southern Indian state Karnataka.

I was excited to be independent and begin my bachelors in speech pathology. At this point and after much reluctance, my mother supported my decision but wept when I left home. My father didn’t speak to me for the next four years. I didn’t meet my uncle and aunty when I left. I ruined my relationship with the family because of my career choice.

While at the university my passion for speech pathology grew stronger. I was always interested science and liberal arts. Speech pathology let me specialize in an area with a combination of the two. I was fascinated by languages and how individuals store and produce words in different languages in their mind. As a speech pathologist, I was able to study individuals with no neurological impairments, and with neurological impairments who lost their language as a result of stroke.

One of my advisors encouraged me to study bilingualism. I observed during my clinical sessions that bilingual individuals with neurological impairments can show language recovery in different ways — simultaneously in both languages or successively one after another. I undertook a student research project on how bilingual and trilingual individuals differ in their ability to process words in different languages. I presented the results at a national conference, which won the best research paper for students that year. The news spread fast and my family made phone calls saying how proud they were.

I knew I wanted to continue my research and training, and I made sure to visit my family every year. Still, I didn’t see my father, uncle or aunty for many years. Much later, on his deathbed, my father said he regretted the unnatural silence in our relationship and envied my rebellious heart.

It took me ten years after the harsh family meeting on the verandah to visit my mother’s home again. The tamarind trees were gone, making way for a massive rubber plantation. The house was neglected but still looked like an ageless spirit floating freely with no sense of time. I walked barefoot to the end of the verandah and to the plantation. I touched the soil that graciously held the roots of those wild tamarind trees for many years. It looked lifeless and dry. Was it missing their companion spirits?

The monsoon had started. Rubber leaves, wet soil and the rain drops were beginning to cover my feet. I rushed back to the verandah. The water beneath my feet started trickling into the large cracks.


Vishnu K.K. Nair is a cognitive scientist with a background in speech language pathology. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at the New York University. Besides staring at the bottle of tamarind on his cooking shelf, he derives happiness from exploring the Chola architecture of Southern India and reading Attar of Nishapur, the great Persian poet.