My ‘tamilness’ and hers
“I’ve grown certain that the
root of all fear is that we’ve
been forced to deny who we
are.” Frances Moore Lappe
At an Indian classical dance concert in Canberra, Australia I felt my first pang of fear regarding my identity. And it swept over me like a wave; here one minute, gone the next but leaving me drenched all the same. Being involved in such an exercise leaves you feeling disoriented and even if this feeling is short-lived it is completely exhausting.
The concert hall was yet to be opened and the café right outside was bustling as the audience stopped for a little snack before the show. It was good to see so many brown-skinned folk, I thought. Australians, generally are a friendly people and they make conversation with you irrespective of whether you know them or not. So one lady came up to me and asked me if I was a student of dance. I said I was and a lively conversation ensued, discovering on the way that we had a couple of common acquaintances as well. She was of Indian stock and she introduced me to her extended family and some friends. One friend was a middle aged woman of Srilankan stock. When we were introduced she specifically told me that she was a Srilankan Tamil. In a bid to be friendly, I said I was a Tamil too but an Indian Tamil. She smiled. Feeling an awkward pause in the conversation, I continued to tell her about the Srilankan tamil radio channel I had accidently tuned into in Canberra. It was entertaining and interesting including a discussion on some Srilankan immigrant issues. I also commented on how Srilankan tamil was difficult for me to understand since it was slightly different. The last comment seemed to trigger something in her. Her former disinterested stare transformed as she defiantly told me that Srilankan tamil is pure and Indian tamil is not.
I cannot describe accurately what went through my head when I heard that. I can tell you the plethora of things I thought and emotions I felt but I cannot give a correct chronology of what came first. Such information would have been critical in the study of identity. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the ‘social scientist’ mode when this was flung on me. And I dare say, if I had been, it wouldn’t have been of much use, since my reactions would have been more measured. But, I did feel a range of emotions that left me exhausted and introspective for quite sometime.
I felt indignant. The cheek of this woman to call my language ‘impure’! I mean since when did Srilankans become an authority on Tamil. After all, I was from the land of Tamil, a region rich with history and culture. The only history they seemed to have was a bloody war. I was angry! when somebody claims I speak impure tamil, at the very least, it hurts. No matter that my tamil is heavily sanskritised. No matter that I cant write tamil and can barely read it. No matter that I have lived a total of 8 years only in Tamil Nadu. No matter that I am way more conversant with Hindi and English. No matter that my own tamil comrades have, often times, laughed at my tamil. But almost immediately I began to feel pity, thinking of the kind of insecurities a Srilankan tamil was facing considering the war for a separate homeland. Her own tamil identity was perhaps more important to her than mine was to me. I wasn’t fighting for a homeland based on that part of my identity. I felt sorry for her. And then I felt ashamed for assuming that the war in Srilanka should be such great influence on her sense of being. I mean, in all probability, it is, but it is still presumptuous of me to think so, specifically, in trying to rationalize her comment. Perhaps there exists no rationale. Perhaps, it requires no rationale. She might be completely disconnected from that war and still believe that her tamil is ‘purer’ than mine.
This range of emotions left me exhausted and rather tongue tied for the rest of the evening and a major part of the next day. I firmly believed and still do, that language, if living, evolves differently in different places over time. So even as the same classical tamil existed in tamil Nadu and travelled all the way to Sri Lanka, it has taken different paths in its evolution. So if at all there is a ‘pure’ tamil, it would have to be the classical tamil. Evolution also means that some great literature has been produced in both places. And a culture has evolved around the language in each nation, differing in important ways.
Why did I feel this intense urge, then to defend this language that forms such a small part of my identity?