I was born to parents who communicated through sign language. Both could speak and hear clearly, but different languages. Dad would rub his belly and mom would take a cue and cook for him. Mom would point at the neighbor lady and dad would buy my mom that saree. It went on for a while till they could take it no more. Dad couldn’t stop my mom from cooking every time he had amoebic dysentery or my mom didn’t know how to tell dad that the neighbor lady was stealing their mangos without having to receive the 20th saree of the same kind. Ok, they had poor enacting skills, so? Slowly, they started learning each other’s language and much to our mortification, came up with a hybrid language with some Hindi, Telugu and Bhojpuri thrown in for a good measure. This legacy, they would part to their children. Hence, the Pure Linguistic Gods didn’t shower their blessings on me when I came out wailing in adulterated Hebrew.
I was made to believe that the funny language spoken at home was Tamil. Moving like nomads around the world, and not getting anywhere close to Tamil Nadu helped my parent’s case.
What is your mother tongue? Tamil- I would say, innocently. ‘No wonder your Hindi sucks’, my north Indian friends would be quick to point out. ‘Well, at least I know Tamil,’ I would brag. Ppppfffft!
Leaving Mathura, we skipped over to Algeria. Still I thought I knew Tamil…every word of it. And an added language to boot; I knew how to count in Arabic after spending two years there. Algeria being a French colony, I learnt some French too. ‘Parle-G?’ Went around Europe and America and learnt a few more languages- American English and British English.
After this international stint, we were dumped in a forest in Andhra Pradesh… Manuguru (if you have heard of this place, you are probably a bear). My brother and I were a novelty in our little school. ‘Ohh look at those two belting out sentences in English with their cute accent.’ Laxmi’s mom told her to become my best friend so she could learn some English. In a year, I was speaking Gult and Laxmi learnt, ’Ware is the Paappar?’, which was more English knowledge than I had at that time.
But I still knew my Tamil was impeccable.
Fast forward some more places/ languages and we landed in Madras. Now to put my Tamil to some use.. finally! Having studied in Central schools throughout (except in phoren), I was a little apprehensive when I was admitted to a private school where 99.9% of kids recited Thirukurals and knew all about Rajani Kant’s contribution to Tamil culture. The 0.1% consisted of Jiggar Gupta and his Marwadi brother and sister who were the only non-brahmin, non-Tamilians in the whole freaking school. I suspect Jiggar knew the Thirukurals too.
From a dozen Tamilians that I met all my life till now- to a sudden truck-load of them. My Tamilness was put to test on my first day in Eighth Grade when they asked me, “Iyera, Iyengara?”
'Yemandi, adhi?' I asked in my Gult English. Had to figure out from nanagaru that we are Iyers. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’ I realized, Madras is the only place you will need to know that kind of info.
Classmates fell off the chair and rolled with laughter when I tried to talk in Tamil. 'Say- That old man is walking!'they would cajole whenever they needed their ribs tickled. What they spoke seemed to come out of that foreign movie I had watched long time ago where Kamal Hassan was the hero. Must be Iyengars all these people, I wisely concluded.
Next came the dreaded second-language selection. Big Deal..I’ll do the same thing I was doing all along. Hindi second, Sanskrit third language. With that safety net, I had changed 9 schools so far and managed somehow to stay above the water. But no, Avvaiyaar had probably put some curse on this school. There were only two options for me- Tamil second, Hindi third/ Sanskrit second, Hindi third. Hindi was clearly not the favorite subject around. It’s not like they were going to teach me Tamil from scratch. People, at that time I didn’t know ‘ka’ from ‘ga’ in Tamil. Actually to this day, I don’t.
Further investigation (my mom) informed me that I have no clue what Tamil is and it will be difficult learning it now. Current Mood: Cheated.
At least I had some head start with ‘Rama Ramau Ramaa’… So there I sat, with my Tamilian classmates in my first Sanskrit class. A priest walks in with dhoti and kudumi (tuft of hair tied in a knot). In fact, I was told he moonlights as our Sanskrit sir. Slightly shocked, I rose as everyone rose. As if they drank some elixir of life, all my dead looking classmates began to chant loudly ‘Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu…’ with the same dead pan expression, but in a sing-song fashion bobbing their heads up and down. Next he sat down, started pointing at people and making them recite ‘Guru Shabda’. You- Hari Shabda. And you- Mrignayani Shabda.
Shabdas came to these cretins like sarcasm comes to me. Un-fucking-believable!! What Sanskrit was I learning for so long? ‘And you new girl with boy’s name- say Rhishi shabda.’ I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. ‘Sir,’ I said meekly, ‘I know only Rama shabda… and I can’t sing like that.’ The worse was yet to come. Sanskrit sir knew not a word in English or Hindi. I had to communicate in Tamil. Somehow, I should have chosen to sit in the Tamil class itself.
I almost packed my bags and left to Never-never land when the Hindi miss walked in. ‘Main aapka Hindi adhyapika hooon,’ she stressed in Tamil accent. Thankfully she carried the rest of the conversation in Tamil. I opened my book to ‘Meri Abhilasha Hai’, the first poem in the 5th grade CBSE book with the picture of kala hiran (black deer) on the cover. I remembered every picture in that book. Insult! It was like flunking, going back three grades with a teacher who could very well learn Hindi from me. Me, who had to learn Social Studies in Hindi in one our previous habitats. My Hindi speaking skills impressed no one. Knowing Hindi in Madras was like knowing how to swim in the Himalayas. FYI, English miss spoke in English. Phew!
The only way to escape ridicule in Tamland was to call myself a Kannadiga. As long as Jayalalitha didn’t know. It was easy to pose as one as my dad hails from Bangalore. Illiba bitbidi enmadhuthaidiya nimajji….and they were all sufficiently convinced and impressed. My Hindi, along with my Telugu and Arabic atrophied while signs of improvement in Tamil surfaced. I stopped referring to people as inanimate objects. Appreciated subtle nuances of difference between pallikoodam (school) and palligoodam (lizard hole). Arasi (rice) and arasai (group). Magesh and Mahesh- actually they are the same thing. “Vazhai pazham vazhukki kizhavi oruthi vazhiyil nazhuvi vizhundhal” got me admitted to the hospital for sustainable tongue injuries while twisting it beyond its capacity. Never again! Who the hell decided that 'zh' makes complete sense to be pronounced 'iLL'?
As long as you can speak to auto drivers and shop-keepers, Tamil is easy. The minute you have to talk to thorough bred Tamilian Inlaws, it becomes one heck of an ordeal. I’m still learning. Mastered yennai and ennai recently. One is ‘oil’ and the other is ‘what’..Don’t know which is what.
Next, we moved to Mangalore and there I promptly became a Tamilian again. Gotto do it! Live the life of a language refugee!