By mentioning Tamil as the world’s most ancient (living) language in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi switched the global spotlight on to my mother tongue, and its peculiar contradictions, identity conflicts and socio-political controversies continuing into the 21st century.
Whichever is the oldest language in the world, Tamil is the most ancient literature-enriched language, spoken among more than 80 million people worldwide – unlike classical languages such as Pali, Greek, Sanskrit or Latin.
Tamil is one of the official languages of India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. Malaysia, Myanmar and the US have significant Tamil-speaking minorities. Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai is a Tamil.
“When many languages struggled even to communicate, Tamil authors developed a book called Tholkappiam, which is the oldest possible book in the world dating 2500 BC,” scholar Chris Johann said in an online discussion. “More fascinatingly, it was a grammar book (Ilakkiya Nool). Who can publish a book [on] grammar when other languages were just in trouble to shape out their alphabets?”
Given such bragging rights, a peculiar contradiction wavers between linguistic pride and disinterest among Tamils, particularly in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. My Tamil teacher Maria Joseph at Don Bosco School in Egmore, Chennai, boomed to us how “Tamil is the language of the gods.” And yet my father ordered me to speak in English to his business associates who visited our home, ostensibly to display the fact his son was proficient in English.
For me, I could not care less whether I spoke Tamil, Greek, English or Mandarin – though English became my livelihood as a professional journalist.
As with many urban Indians placed in English-medium schools at a very early age, my language of thinking is English.
It’s strange having parents and siblings speaking Tamil, growing up in Tamil Nadu, and having as a mind-processing language something other my mother tongue, Tamil. I can speak and read Tamil, but cannot spell correctly to save my life. So I write letters to my mother in English and read her replies in Tamil.
Unlike in Hindi-dominant northern India, English receives extra respect in the Tamil Nadu state capital Chennai (formerly Madras). Speak in Tamil to a shopkeeper or a waiter and invariably you get a reply partly in English – as if to make known to you he knows English.
The value given to English matches political antipathy to Hindi – the common language across India – and lingering suspicion, accusations of the central government “imposing” Hindi on non-Hindi-speaking Indians.
This led to decades of political unrest, particularly in the 1950s, including separatist demands for an independent Tamil nation from chauvinistic firebrands such as “Periyar” E V Ramasami.
In fact, “Tamil Nadu” means “Tamil Country” – which is why I feel the state should change its name immediately to Tamil Maanilam or Tamil Pradesam (like other states such as Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and others) to squash poisonous anti-nationals. Subramanya Bharathi (1882-1921), one of the most revered Tamil poets, said, “I am an Indian first and Tamil second.”
Statue of renowned Tamil poet Subramaniya Bharathi in Nallur, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
Tamil-speaking people worldwide can draw satisfaction from not only speaking a language with rich ancient literature, but one that is interesting in other ways. I know some Hindi and basic German, but Tamil stands in a class of its own, with pithy proverbs and powerful sarcasm.
A favorite Tamil saying refers to deep-rooted conditioning of the human mind: “Vidiya vidiya Ramayanam kettu Seethaikku Raman chithappa nu sonnanam” – loosely translated as “the fellow listens to the Ramayana all night, and in the morning declares Rama to be Sita’s uncle” (equivalent would be “the fellow listens to the story of Christ all night, and at dawn says Jesus is Mary’s uncle”).
Sometimes I wonder how much more effective I may have been as a writer in my mother tongue, instead of the language native to a distant island in Europe that I have never visited.
But regret vanishes when remembering how much India has benefited from English across three centuries. I don’t consider English a “foreign language” to India. The Constitution of India was written in English. English became a language bridge for multilingual India.
My life changed with immeasurable benefits after accessing Vipassana teachings in English, directly in the voice of the Principal Teacher Sayagyi U Goenka (who taught in Hindi and English), instead of translations in other languages. The Vipassana translations in Tamil are not inspiring, and need to be redone.
Then as a child who loved to read and later as a professional journalist, English, instead of my mother tongue Tamil, became my friend and professional guide. I learned the craft of writing from reading (even now) brilliant early-20th-century authors from England who wrote fiction for children, including Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton and her William, Frank Richards (Charles Hamilton) and his Billy Bunter.
Multinational languages such as English or Spanish increase oneness with fellow beings across the planet we call home – with more than 7,111 languages spoken across the Earth. And most often, universal feelings such as compassion do not even need a language to communicate.