My Tryst With Tamil

Let me begin by saying that I am a bit apprehensive about writing this post. Almost everyone I know is fluent in their mother tongues, and the reaction I get is almost always the same – “Gasp! You cannot read and write in your mother tongue? Didn’t you read Tamil at home? And in school?  But how did you manage?” The answer is quite simple. English.

It’s not that strange. Maybe because I grew up in a family that read more English than Tamil, or maybe because I just found English easier, I never read any Tamil. Tamil wasn’t my second language in school. It wasn’t even my third language. And you don’t need to be a Tamil kavi to figure out bus routes and place names. The way I saw it, I didn’t need Tamil in my life.

Yes, I could (and still do) speak fluently, but I found it difficult to read and write. Unlike English, Tamil is one of those languages where the spoken form is very different from the written form – I think someone has already mentioned this here when writing about her reading aloud to her daughter in her daughter in Tamil. Also, I was always under the impression that English had all the fun stuff, and Tamil, the boring moralistic tales that told you to be good. Besides, my grandfather almost always supplied me with more or less the same books in both Tamil and English, so I’d get to know the story anyway. So, though I was a bookworm who read everything she happened to come across including the backs of corn-flakes boxes, the ‘everything’ conveniently excluded an entire language. To be honest, as far as I was concerned, Tamil literature was non-existant. (Blasphemous, but true!!!)

When I came to know about all those glorious texts in Tamil, Sangam literature and poetry and the writings of Kalki, I wanted to read them. I learned early on that translations did not do justice to the original texts. My friends (who had done Tamil in school and college) kept telling me how much I was missing. People from other states kept telling me how much I was missing. But I just about knew the alphabets and starting off with classical poetry is suicidal. My grandfather, bless him, got hold of a second grade Tamil text book from somewhere, in an attempt to teach me to read! Needless to say, it didn’t work. I was bored right after the first paragraph. Who wanted to know about trees and creepers anyway? “Read story books!” my friends encouraged. “You can pick up comics! Or magazines! That’s the best way to start!” I’m sure it would have been a good way to start, if I had had the courage to go into the Tamil section of the Higginbotthams store in Chennai. That place certainly had a lot of books for me to choose from, but there so many words I didn’t know, couldn’t begin to read, all piled one on top of each other like a crowd of leering strangers in a labyrinth… for the first time in my life, I kind of understood how my friends who don’t like to read must have felt when I dragged them along from bookstore to bookstore across the country.

I had almost given up in my tryst with my non Tamil speaking destiny till I came here. At Pratham Books, I started leafing through a collection of picture books in Tamil. Since the books are small, I find them confrontable. I even come early to work, so that I can leaf through different books and see how much of it I can read comfortably. I read new words aloud, wondering what they could mean. And then, the colloquial version of the words strike me and there is a moment when I sit and go “Oh, so that’s what that word means!” It is all very exciting. I am making discoveries I should have made 18 years ago. I am still in the 5-9 age group when it comes to reading in Tamil. And despite the BIG BIG font, I stumble over words quite often. Then again, I’m learning, and quite proud of the fact that I seem to be learning fast. All I need to do is pick up around four or five books a day and read them, and I find that by the fourth book on my third day (yesterday) I am reasonably fast. In a way, it’s an adventure. One I should have had with my mother many years ago, but then again, better late than never.

Another thing I find extremely exciting are the books that are in two languages – the picture remains the same, but there’s one language on top and there’s one at the bottom. Personally, I think that this is an ingenious way to make kids read in more than one language, and I’m sure parents will have a good linguistic challenge, trying to explain why things are not always the same in two languages. The cool thing is, the alliteration of the words hasn’t been lost. In Kanchan Bannerjee’s “Tommy aur Makkhi” (I was reading the Hindi version for I couldn’t find the Tamil anywhere) when Tommy’s ear “goes flapity flap” in English, it goes “phad phad phadphadaya” in Hindi. This way, the child (or I, as the case maybe) can compare the regional language and the English and figure out how the grammar and sentence structures change, why one can’t get away with literal translations, and about a hundred other questions that follow. Come to think of it, this kind of bi-lingual reading opens up a whole new linguistic world for us as children, something we are take for granted and are not consciously aware of, until we grow older.

Maybe not being fluent enough to read Kalki or Sangam literature is not such a bad thing after all. It gives me an opportunity to associate words with the pictures and discover the hidden agenda of language as well as any of your kids. In more ways than one, I get to be five again. Now who wouldn’t want that?

Thank you, Mala Ma’am and Gautam!

(Tharini Viswanath has joined us as an intern for the next two months. Tharini is currently doing her MA in English. She enjoys writing and illustrating stories for children and is into theatre as well. This is her second post.)


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