Opinion Piece: To My Tamil Friends

Written By: Keerthana Raveendran

Hey – you. You right there. You think you’re Tamil… don’t you? It’s okay, you can admit it. You speak the language you’ve learned through conversations with your amma, your mother, while she pokes good-hearted jibes at the English words you throw into the mix – because you don’t always know the Tamil equivalent to every word.

You speak the language you’ve learned through those addictive Tamil movies, because everybody knows there’s no better way to learn a language than to watch Vijay or Jyothika speak it, or better yet, sing it.

You say om and illai just fine, but you can’t help but toss in English mannerisms in regular, everyday speech.

Don’t worry. You and I, we’re in the same boat. We grew up in an English society, and even though we may or may not have once attended afterschool Tamil classes, we still haven’t perfected the language. Because nobody speaks Tamil in Tamil class. The teacher merely stands at the front of the room in her old sari, looking out tiredly at the sea of students as they gossip about more important matters in English. I won’t lie to you – I was one of these students.

Times are a-changing, my friend, because nowadays, everybody is willing to play up their Tamil side. While a decade ago, nobody would have been able to point out where Sri-Lanka is on a map, everybody now knows what Tamil is. After all, we’ve survived a tsunami, and there’s nothing that gives an ethnic group more publicity than a natural disaster. We’ve protested, and blocked up roads to get a peaceful message through, to save our brothers and sisters back home, and while some may hate us for this, we wear this identity with pride. Because isn’t it considered cool now, to be a Tamil?

Girls that would have once been considered FOBs for wearing a black poddu, a bindi, on their foreheads, now wear sparkly ornamental dots on their foreheads, in red, blue, green, whatever the occasion may be – because now it’s considered glamorous. Now, even our non-Tamil friends will come to class with pierced noses, gleaming jewellery, and tans that took them ages to get right. Boys will arrive from Sri-Lanka and within a week, they’ll start wearing new clothes, new bling, new ear piercings, new haircuts. You know the haircut I’m talking about – much like the one Will wears on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This haircut, much like the shimmering bindis of girls, has come to define Tamil culture as we know it. To be Tamil today is to follow a trend. It is so in right now.

The Tamil identity is shifting. It’s no longer about the language, not at all, except when we curse in Tamil for fun, because it’s hilarious to come up with swear words in any language, really. And there’s nothing wrong with this identity change, except that we’ve started to let go of the things that once mattered – say, language for example. I wonder now where the simplicity has gone, before the Tamil language was used as a tool for comedy or as a means to embellish one’s speech, rather than as an actual means of conversation. We can’t go back to that now. We don’t know the language well enough, even if we think we do. We’ll always jump to Toronto Star or 24 Hrs newspapers before we pick up the Uthayan or Senthamarai, if we pick up the latter two at all. If we talk seriously in Tamil, it’ll always be with those older than us: our parents or grandparents, or those relatives from Sri-Lanka, sometimes cousins even younger than ourselves, who speak it better than we do. We’ll hardly write in Tamil, because if we weren’t forced to nerd away and learn the 247 letters in Tamil already, we probably never will. Because when are we going to use it?

When we meet elders, appappa’s thambi’s makal’s purusan, or some other relative so distant that we can’t believe our parents have kept track of them, they’ll speak in such flawless Tamil that we’ll hesitate. They’ll have come to visit from Sri-Lanka but they won’t ever plan to stay. No, never, because they’ll say: “Shik! Stay here? Illai¸ there’s no better place than back home.” When they ask questions, you know you’ll have to answer in Tamil, because they’re Sri-Lankan– how would they know English?

But don’t fool yourself. Rejecting the English language was a choice on their part, and if you ask nicely enough, appappa’s thambi’s makal’s purusan’ll tell you that he learned the Queen’s English back home, but that he didn’t like it much. Back home, English was the class at school that everybody skipped, much like Career studies, or Civics today, or any course with a soft enough professor. English wasn’t cool – can you believe it?

So yes, we’re right in speaking to these elders in Tamil, but we’re right for the wrong reasons. Still, when we speak in broken tongue, they’ll flatten their lips low on their faces, exchange glances of hilarity, and comment about how our accents – our Tamil accents acquired from the movies we watch – sound entirely foreign.

Our generation faces the growing dilemma of communication, not amongst ourselves, because we’re all well-spoken in English, but amongst our elders, who are not. It’s safe to say that Tamil, literally one of the oldest languages to exist, is slowly fading away.  High school students, who prance around declaring Tamil heritage, will fail to read, write or speak their own language.

Still think you’re Tamil?

Don’t take this as criticism to our society. It’s not a reprimand to today’s youth, because how could I possibly reprimand? I too am a part of this changing Tamil community. I too pierce my nose and attend Tamil events in sparkly attire. I too spend far too long sounding out letters in Tamil, having painstakingly read only one line in three minutes’ effort. No, instead, I merely make observations. I’ll let you come to a conclusion on your own – you’re a smart one, figure it out.

There is no solution for we who have already passed that crucial language-learning juncture in our lives – no solution but the obvious one: try harder. For now, Tamil is a trend. We’ll enjoy it while it lasts. But let’s just hope that when the trend fades away, we’ve still got a language left.


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