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.


Anonymous said...

A lot of our culture and heritage is entwined with our mother tongue. Iam glad you listened to your mom and learned the language. Reading some of Sujatha's writings and seeing some tamil movies will help you tide over you present longing for the mozhi.

Madhuri Shekar said...

Lovely post... You're lucky. I loved Sanskrit when I studied it, but now I can barely construct a sentence.

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.

hehehehehhe so true.

maxdavinci said...

I know a lot of ppl who took skt just coz someone told them it was easy to get a full score in it. Very few ppl took it for other reasons...

chutneycase said...

Aham api samskrutham apatam.

Sanskrit was sooper language, in fact you can pick up any language twice as fast when you know sanskrit. Now of course I don't remember anything .

And nee tamil pathi pesariya? Enna koduma thiruvalluvar idhu.

Anonymous said...

though chutney's last line makes me want to say something else, I'll resist.

It's amazing you made that choice and studied Tamil. I took Sanskrit in PSBB and once in Bombay, no choice but continue Sanskrit.
It's impressive that you know about Thirukural et al and can talk about it. That way probably, I'll always be regarded as pseudo Tam.

neon said...


I know, if only Vaaranam Aayiram would release in Austin.


How do you know about thozhi?

neon said...


haha, all of my friends took sanskrit SOLELY for that reason.


You are questioning my tamizh patru?


I don't think you need to know Thirukkural and stuff to be considered proper Tam, cos in that case 90% of my friends would be pseudo tam!

Anonymous said...

Hi Niyantha
That was a nice humorous and thought provoking piece.The mother-tongue is as precious as our dear mother.
Murali Periappa - fm vellore.

Shazz said...

Nice post. And i agree. It gives you a pleasant sense of being home, to be able to revert to tamil now and again. Glad i listened to my grandfather and finally learned the tamil script this summer. Now all i need is the practice. :)