21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life – sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
(This post was sent to us by Anuradha Srinivasan. Anuradha works at Pratham Books. She is a full time mother, and hopeful writer of bestsellers.)
As the speaker of an ancient Dravidian language, I am confused when people ask me what my mother tongue is.
I am nominally Tamil. I speak the language, it is true. I even know the mandatory swear words in the language and can hold my own against auto drivers in Chennai. I have sat through hours of movies with heavily made-up heroes in green pants and yellow shirts, running around conveniently-placed trees with women half their age. In my defence, I was a child of the eighties, when there was one television set for every 3 homes, and the parent had absolute control of the remote, or in this case, the round knob on the Dyanora TV.
I have to admit that I enjoyed the movies, especially the mythologicals, with their garish costumes, good vs. evil narratives, and more importantly, Shivaji Ganesan spewing forth pages of chaste incomprehensible Tamil in take after take.
When the poet Nakeerar stood up to a portly Ganesan as the vengeful Lord Shiva and bravely proclaimed that even when the third eye is open, a mistake is a mistake, I was thrilled to bits, and waited avidly for the inevitable death by burning third eye.
As a raging Kannagi demanded justice from the ruling Pandya King, in a pithy 3000 word monologue, I cheered from the galleys.
I knew Tamil rhymes, and could recite without pause a lengthy song about a forgetful fly, an unhelpful village, and a horse that finally reminded him of his name.
Age and Google brought me closer to Tamil, and I discovered beautiful anthologies by the Sangam poets, my favourite one being the oft-quoted poem on Red Earth and Pouring Rain. The fascinating stories of the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas and their political games had me enthralled.
Apparently, this wasn’t enough to brand me as Tamil.
Linguistic pride dictates that one must be well-read and well-versed in all aspects of a language. Indeed, language chauvinism takes on a whole new meaning with Tamil. It is supposedly the oldest tongue in the world, the sole language to have a song deifying it as the Mother, and the only language with a unique alphabet ‘zh’, which flummoxes all non-Tamils, and a good number of Tamils. (I feel for you, Malayalam).
With so much going for and around it, the language has a reputation as a tough nut to crack, and all those who actually know to read and write Tamil acquire a faint halo.
When pressed to admit to Einsteinien intelligence in mastering those strange squiggly marks that pass off as Tamil alphabets, I have to confess complete ignorance, and I rapidly acquire feet of clay.
If I had to rank the reactions, “How can you not know to read and write your own mother tongue” is almost always the winner, followed by “Oh, Madrasi is such a tough language”. Neither of them makes me feel any better.
I do know to read, write and speak at least one language, is my usual feeble response. I am, I guiltily admit, far more fluent in that easy-going mongrel of languages, English. Never mind that it was left behind by depressingly well –meaning people with stiff upper lips, and not passed down to me through the ages.
Like Krishna caught between Devaki and Yashodha on Mother’s day, I cannot decide which language is my mother tongue. Is it English, a language in which I think, write and speak? Or is it Tamil, a language I feel, emote and relate to?
Why must I choose? I see both Tamil and English as my mothers, the one complementing the other in a playful jugalbandi, together colouring my world with richer hues. In a world of shrinking boundaries and vocabularies, I am happy to have a problem of plenty. More books to read, more words to speak, more wisdom to cherish!
Red Earth and Pouring Rain, I affirm, smell just as sweet in English.