Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Key

It's been more than a year since the last time I was in Chennai. I knew that I would miss home, friends and the city itself. It somehow never struck me that I would miss Tamil.

I had taken Tamil as a second language till my twelfth standard, mostly because everyone else took Sanskrit and French and I had to be the non-conformist. It definitely did not help boost my grades in the board exam and I hated memorizing stupid answers to stupid questions. My mom had to undergo a lot of my incessant ranting about how a lot of what Thiruvalluvar said didn't make any sense.

"How can a man be a tree?"
"No, he is saying that an inconsiderate man might as well be a tree."
"I feel bad for the tree."

Thiruvalluvar used to write sets comprising of 10 couplets each and each set would extol a particular virtue. And more often than not, the last couplet of each set would claim that there was nothing greater than that particular virtue. "Amma, idhulla logic-ae illa!" (“Amma, there is no logic in this!”) I would shout out. And my mom would nod her head and ask me to repeat all ten couplets to make sure that I remembered them all. There were other poems where the female protagonist would constantly complain to her 'thozhi' (girl friend) about how her lover had abandoned her and I always hated the thozhi for not having a life of her own. I also absolutely despised abstract poems and I would deliver a standard dialogue to my mom:

"Idhu English'la translate panna kooda oru mannum puriyadhu, thamizh'la... exam'la pass-aana maadhiri thaan." ("This wouldn't make sense if it was translated in English, I'm definitely failing my exam").

And she would nod understandingly and try to make me understand the incomprehensible poem.

Today, while wasting time on YouTube, I came across this song from the movie Bharathi. It suddenly brought back a flood of memories (I succumb to nostalgia way too easily). Very rarely did I enjoy opening my Tamil textbook, but I do remember those rare moments of joy vividly. I think it was in the 6th standard when we read about 'Veerapandiya Kattaboman' and I remember how I used to say his speech out loud and ask my mom if it was better than Sivaji Ganesan's version. I would read aloud Bharathiar's poems and marvel at his skill of saying so much, and with so much force and vigor, with such few words. I used to see the pictures of the students who had topped the state in Tamil, at the back of the 'Konar Tamil Study Guide' and I would convince myself that my face too would one day adorn that poorly designed back cover. I missed out narrowly on that accomplishment though (was only 40 marks short of the State Topper).

It's not usual for me to start reminiscing about a language while sitting bored out of my mind with my Networks homework. I complained and grumbled throughout my school years about how much I hated studying Tamil and about how it was not going to be useful to me in any way. Today, I read some of Bharathiar's poems for the first time in about 2 years and I got goose bumps.

Alphonse Daudet wrote in his short story, 'The Last Lesson', "When people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language, it is as if they had the key to their prison." While Daudet said that in the context of his story, the line resonates. Being able to read and enjoy Tamil literature, sitting thousands of miles away from where it was born, is a wonderful comfort.

Thanks mom.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

5 Things I Learnt From My Seattle Trip

1. Do not say "you too" when the ticket checker at the airport says "Have a safe flight."

2. Wear pants that don't fall down during the security check. But more importantly, why do they want to scan my belt?

3. If a cab driver asks "Where in India are you from?", say Chennai, not Madras. Otherwise, the cab driver will butcher Tamil just to show that he knows that Madras and Chennai refer to the same place.

4. Mention 'mild spice' when ordering pizza from an Indian pizza store to avoid eyes welling up while watching Seinfeld.

5. Remember to change the time-zone on the phone before setting an alarm to wake up for an important interview.

P.S: Shameless un-related plug - A Man Of His Own Terms (A Tribute to Sourav Ganguly)