Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Day A Tamil That's Not Tamizh Took Centre Stage

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 by Anusuya Suresh. Anusuya is a learner, teacher, writer, blogger and youth counsellor. Bhaaratiya. She tweets at @Ranga_anu)


It was a meeting arranged by the Vaishnava Sabha, Bangalore to felicitate high performing students belonging to the Srivaishnava community of Karnataka . As we were members of the community, it had been decided to felicitate me too for having secured the first rank in the M. Pharm course of Goa University. That I had been born, brought up and educated in a place other than Karnataka made no difference.

H. H. Sri Rangapriya Maha Desikan Swami ji was the guest of honor. Elderly, respected members of the community were present as were close and extended family. I couldn’t recognize many people because our interactions were restricted to the few days when we came to Bangalore or our native village – Ramanathapura – for the summer vacations. But there were many people who knew me as “Goa Ramanna’s daughter” or “Mani’s daughter” or “Hulikal Engineer’s granddaughter”. My father – Rama Iyengar, a geologist – was identified by the state to which he had migrated years ago after gaining employment in the Salgaocar mines. Mani was the name by which my mother – officially Seethalakshmi – was known; her father, who hailed from the village of Hulikal was the engineer who had got his degree in engineering during the ancient age of the 1920s and a revered (even if slightly feared and known-to- be-eccentric) figure.

After Swamiji’s aashirvachanam, it was time for the prizes to be distributed to the academic achievers. I think they started with the 10th Std students, then the 12th Std students and finally, the college-level students. I can’t really remember many things because I had no idea then that I’d be blogging about it someday, 18 years later. As the prizes were given away, the students receiving it were asked to say a few words and share the secret of their success.

I watched with a steadily increasing sense of dread as each and every one of those kids spoke in pure, chaste Kannada. I, who was the oldest of the group at 24 years, didn’t know the language well enough to converse without faltering, forget about giving an extempore thank-you speech. At home, we spoke a dialect that’s typical to Hassan Iyengars – it’s a mixture of words derived from Tamizh and Kannada, yet so remarkably modified that people speaking those languages would never understand a word of what is being said, even sounding sometimes like garbled Tulu. This language does not have a script, the people who speak it do all their formal, written communication in Kannada. The little Kannada I knew had been picked up from conversation with my Bangalore-based niece and nephew whenever they came to Goa for their vacations.

When it was my turn to speak, something prompted me to wing it. I began by saying “Namaskara” in Kannada and apologizing for not knowing it well.

Then, before the audience could blink, I switched over into the familiar patois of my mother tongue, holding forth on how I owed my success to the values sown by my parents, God’s blessings and the outcome of chanting God’s name constantly.

Even as I spoke, I noticed the gamut of emotions running through the audience – first they were stunned, then they laughed, and by the end of the speech they were beaming with joy. For, in speaking on a public platform in that language, I had given it a legitimacy that they themselves didn’t.

People of Karnataka class those of us who speak this dialect as Mysore Iyengars or Mandyam Iyengars. The Tamilians, of course, call us “Bread Iyengars” because this community is famous for the bakeries they establish and run even in the state of Tamil Nadu. But what people don’t realize is that there are nuances – dialects within the dialect, so to say – that cause differences in language between Hassan Iyengars, Mandyam Iyengars, Keelnaat Iyengars, Hebbar Iyengars, Melkote Iyengars, Kalkunte Iyengars etc.

Many marriages happen between these different sub-communities. So, perhaps to avoid the confusion caused by the different dialects, the community has got around to using Kannada for all interactions. Indeed, many people, even in their homes, have switched over to Kannada and the younger generations are not as familiar with the native dialect.

That audience was thrilled with my speaking in my mother tongue. In fact, many people came up to me later and said that despite living in Goa, my language was purer than that used by their kids living in Karnataka. For a few years after that, I was recognized not by virtue of my parents or grandfather’s identity, but by a label of my own making – “the girl who spoke OUR language.”

Illustration by Bindia Thapar

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