Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Finding My Identity


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 Bhagirathy. She is interested in many different things and so, she does it all. She has 5 years of experience as a theatre artist; working as an actor, director, light and set designer, and a production manager. She is also a formally trained puppeteer and conducts workshops in public spaces and schools. For the past three years, she has worked as a storyteller and captured the attention of listeners, young and old. She currently works as the Head of Operations for the Book Lovers’ Program for Schools (BLPS)).

My mom’s official name is Vadivammal. But if you ask her, she will smirk and say “Kalarthai. Kalarthai is my name.” If she is being her playful self and you are being a good child that day, she will indulge you and disclose her full name.

அசல்பெசல் தாய் ஆரஞ்சு கலர்தாய் தண்ணீரில் பிறந்த தமிழ் தாய்.


While the awesomeness of the name is lost in translation, it roughly translates to original mother, orange colored mother, mother of thamizh who was born in water. Of course, she will correct you by saying, “I am a Goddess, not just a Mother.”

Thamizh thai. Mother/Goddess of Thamizh. Now this was a foreign concept to me. I was born a Thamizhian but lived as a child of India. My dad had a high flying bank job which meant being transferred to a totally new place every two years. I was born while my parents lived in Mandapam, near Rameshwaram. Shortly afterwards I travelled to Senjerimalai (TN), Kadathur (TN), Kanpur (UP); all by the time I was five. At the end of Class 1, I could speak and write beautifully in English and Hindi, and I could speak fluently in French. Thamizh? Well, that was a disaster…

Appa realized he couldn’t let this continue and promptly asked for a transfer back to Thamizhnadu. I was enrolled in a primary state government school, dressed up in dark blue and white school uniform, given a bag, lunchbox, a water bottle, and dropped off at the school. I returned home in tears.

My very first period was the Thamizh teacher rattling, “தமிழில் மொத்தம் 247 எழுத்துக்கள் உள்ளன.” There are 247 letters in Thamizh. Oh hell no!! I wasn’t learning a completely new language that has a set of 247 alphabets. My parents tried to coax me. My teachers promised it was just a permutation-combination of a few basic letters. But I wasn’t convinced.

So I was back attending a Hindi language class. And for some reason, my parents let me be.

Many years later, while in Class 8, I accidentally sat in a Thamizh class. My Hindi teacher was on leave and the library was locked. Teacher was reading out a poem from ஐந்திணைஐம்பது. It is a piece of poetry that belongs to the பதினெண்கீழ்கணக்கு anthology of Thamizh literature. It is about the rain and the மரமல்லி பூ (Indian cork tree flower). It is also a poem about love and love-making during the rainy season.

The teacher was explaining the subtext of the poem and telling stories but not dwelling too much on lust. I was in love. I ran to the library later, sought out many books, found English translations and started reading other poems. I found Sangam literature. I would later read poems from குறுந்தொகை and அகநானுறு (Anthologies of love and separation), புறநானூறு (Anthology of Kingship), and many more.

Illustration : Sanjay Sarkar

I loved the subtle examples, the playful nature of the language and the underlying meaning. I loved the lovers' quarrels, friendships they forged, separation, the longing, and the reconciliation post that. I was the friend through whom the smitten lady sent her lover a love poem. I was the parrot on the branch when the lady and her lover met under the canopy of the Parijaat tree. I was the crane who mistook the tears, which gathered at the feet of the lady as she wept copious tears when her lover went away, for a pond. I wept with her. I jumped joyfully with her. I danced with her. I lived and loved and laughed with her.


I was in love hook, line and sinker.

Just as I moved to Class 9, I changed my language of study to Thamizh. Now, my parents and those same teachers who had wanted me to learn Thamizh, worked hard to persuade me to stick to Hindi. The teachers feared that my rank would drop because I was almost certain to fail in Thamizh. My dad, who wanted me to be a state rank holder in class 10, thought I was setting myself up for failure. Even the Tamil teacher joined his hands together and begged me to return to the study of Hindi.

I persisted.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. But I also knew that I didn’t want to give up on a language that was showing me how to look at the world in a new light and that made me want to write poetry. I wasn’t going to lose my inspiration.

I didn't do very well in the exam that year but I passed.

The following year, in the class 10 board exams, I scored a whopping 97% in Thamizh.

I went on to participate in elocution competitions, poem recitals, poetry writing, etc. And, I won every single one of those competitions. My love for my mother tongue grew leaps and bounds and is still growing. I refuse to speak colloquially and stick to what most people call Senthamizh or Pure Thamizh.

I am not sure if it' pure. But beautiful, it most certainly is. I would not give it up for the world’s best கொழுக்கட்டை (And if you know me, you know I love my கொழுக்கட்டை).



*கொழுக்கட்டை = Kozhukattai (a sweet dish made out of rice flour, jaggery, coconut and cardamom)

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