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 Sandhiya. An avid reader whose hobbies include defying social norms, Sandiya is using her writing as her armament. For now. Follow her journey on instagram @sand1ya)
For most of my childhood, I wasn't proud of my mother tongue. Tamil was a language that was spoken by most ethnic Indians in Malaysia, and yet, I didn't think it was cool enough, not as cool as speaking English. You see, when you are brought up in a multi ethnic society, every sentence you spurt out would inevitably contain words of two or three different languages. We Malaysians take pride in this, especially when it comes to ordering or describing food (that's another blog post all together). What we say on a daily basis is an amalgamation of English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. Having said that, Tamil had the least appeal to me growing up. I didn't have anyone to speak to, as my family conversed in English. My exposure was limited to the Sunday afternoon screening of Tamil movies on the television, which I enjoyed. It wasn't too surprising that I couldn't string a sentence in my mother tongue, I never even attempted.
As I ventured on into high school, I somehow took a keen interest in the language. I secretly attribute this to the Tamil movies I was getting addicted to. Dad and I would go on our dates to catch the latest Rajinikanth flick in the cinema. I had also made more Tamil speaking friends at this juncture. I decided to learn to read Tamil. Our study at home archived books which we had inherited from my late grandfather. There, I found a book entitled 'Learn Tamil through English in 30 days'. Surely, this title brings back memories to many reading this. Within a matter of weeks, I could read in my mother tongue, albeit slowly. I had to sound out each letter, and then figure out what the word meant, but still. I had done it, and my parents proudly announced this self-acquired achievement to our relatives. Why they didn't speak to me in Tamil, they never revealed, of course.
So there I was, in my late teens, trying to speak colloquial Tamil to my friends, only to be laughed at and ridiculed. I was told not to mutilate the language that is my mother tongue by speaking it. This didn't bother me, of course. As long as I understood what was being said, I was fine. Plus, I was a self-taught Tamil literate, how many of my friends could say that about themselves? None.
And then it was time to further my education. Lo and behold, where did that take me? To Chennai, the Tamil capital of the world, the city that is bursting at its seams with people, culture and tradition. To say that I was overwhelmed by the madness of the city would be an understatement. The organized chaos took some time to get used to. I was expecting Chennai to be like in the movies, miles of beach, students dressed in crop tops going to university, and roads so clear you could walk on the pavement and have your own Tamil song playing in the background. Boy, was I mistaken. The beach was, well miles of silly (and risky) fun fair activities, dotted with couples under umbrellas, patrolled by adolescents who couldn’t care less if they went to school or not. The only crop tops worn were saree blouses, and those were covered in 6 yards of cloth. As for the pavements, you had to choose between being assaulted by the stench of urine or cleverly avoiding puddles and potholes which somehow appear when you least expect it. And yet, I stayed on, completed my degree, and acquired a whole new lease on life.
Fast forward five years, I have returned home, and needless to say, my spoken and written Tamil is at its best now. My friends still gawk at me when I speak Tamil in front of them, and I covertly rejoice at this, kind of like an ‘in your face’ moment for them. My Tamil movie dates with dad have now included my entire family, and are not just limited to Rajinikanth. Both of which I am so thankful for.
I have recently began interpreting Tamil song lyrics. Once the drivel has been sifted out, Tamil poetry is charming, with words so beautifully threaded together, it engulfs the reader. Currently, I am working my way through the Thirukkural. I picked up the English transliteration a couple of years ago in Chennai, but the Tamil version is simply brilliant.
They say life is an ongoing lesson, and my journey just proves it. My life has been an ongoing Tamil lesson, a slow one, but a lesson nonetheless. There is plenty left to learn, my Tamil vocabulary has so much room for improvement. And yet, I am enjoying the motions of this lesson. Tamil is a delight to read. It is poetry in its own right, without even trying. Reading fills my heart with bliss, and as I flip the pages of my life, I am grateful to be bestowed this beautiful language as my mother tongue. Steeped in a culture so rich, Tamil will always hold a special place in my heart, no matter how uncool it seems.