Mother of all tongues

I hate to use the term ‘Tamil’ because it is so very English. The Queen’s tongue is not lacking in alphabetical abundance or phoenetical options to render ‘Thamizh’, which is a noun and therefore can be spelt the way it is pronounced. ‘Thamizh’ has a pristine touch and a wholesome feel that is woefully absent in ‘Tamil’. Still, in written and spoken English, Tamil has prevailed over Thamizh, may be owing to a colonial hangover and also probably because ‘zh’ (o) is a vocal challenge to many speakers themselves of this ancient language (Tamil vaalga, for instance). Officially too, it is only World Classical ‘Tamil’ Conference, and not, well, you know. So I too will stick to Tamil, for the sake of, er, Tamil solidarity!

In a nation organised on linguistic lines, language is not just a means of communication but a matter of cultural identity. Whatever the wisdom of the Constitution’s founding fathers, language, besides caste, has also turned out to be an agent of conflict and a spoil sport for social harmony. And next to rivers, lingo chauvnism is the major issue that puts one State almost at war with a neighbour, within ‘one united’ country. This is the reason why, like the proverbial monkey and the squabbling cats, the very foreign English has managed to retain the cake, meaning, its status as the link language, as against the legitimate claims of those cats’ own lingos.

So, in a milieu wherein tongues are always wagging at one another, taking pride in one’s mother-tongue may itself be deemed provocative. But so be it, for Tamil is the flavour of this week in TN, whatever the politics and polemics of the conference. It, therefore, does offer an occasion to celebrate one’s natural-born mode of communication. Of course, this should not preclude converts and other connoisseurs of Tamil from partaking of its beauty. Like with all good things, in language too joy multiplies only when the riches are shared, though this is often deliberately overlooked by linguistic chauvnists and champions of identity politics. Really, these tendencies have actually ended up belittling Tamil and denying it its legitimate space in the cultural history of this country. Such self-imposed isolation is akin to cutting off the nose to spite the face!

The myth of Aryan-Dravidian divide, a colonial concoction, has been the biggest villain for Tamil. While European scholars had made immense contributions in Indology, they were intrinsically driven by imperial and missionary agendas that clouded most of their opinions and inferences. Their invention of an Aryan invasion to justify their own alien presence in India sadly also became a tool in the hands of the likes of the Justice Party and its progeny here to promote a north-south divisive agenda with Tamil as the alibi. Of course, the protagonists of the Aryan theory have since relented in the face of mounting anthropological evidence and the term ‘invasion’ has now given way to ‘immigration’, a face saving climbdown. And soon even that will become ‘infiltration’ before finally ceasing.

But the real point is historic evidence seems to prove the opposite: A Dravidian invasion, if you like. Many scholars are now veering around to the view that as the seas enveloped more and more of South India, its people started moving northwards and upwards. Tamil inscriptions have been found on the Caspian sea shores and even in Mongolia. Vedas and puranas abound with references to Dakshinapada and words with roots in Tamil. The Harappan and Mohenjadaro civilisations are distinctly Dravidian. A Finnish scholar, Dr Asko Parpola, who is being feted at the conference says that Tamil holds the key to deciphering the elusive Indus script. Doubtless because Tamil being the oldest of languages — whose origins run deep into the womb of time, predating even ‘stone and sand’ — could be the reservoir from which various lingos and dialects would have issued forth. Clearly, Dravidanadu and its pre-eminent language encompassed the whole of Barath whose people came from the same human stock, but thanks to its champions Tamil has been confined to the cocoon of TN!

Any standard book on Tamil would reaveal the copious wealth of literature and wisdom left behind by numerous savants and saints from time immemorial. But if Tamil’s aesthetic antiquity is a wonder, its continuity, that too in its consummate form, is even more so. If works like Tholkappiam, Purananooru, Thirumandiram and that date back to the centuries of BCE are decipherable even today, it is owing to the great tradition of grammar, diction, prose and poetry that have been passed down the ages, largely unadulterated. Tamil would easily rank as one of the most structured and amorphous languages on earth that has withstood the onslaught of time and several other distortions. Scores of dialects of varying quality, from the musical Eelam tamil to the sonorous Nellai type or from the robust Madurai brand to the respectful Kongu tongue to the basest and most irreverent Madras baashai, have failed to diminish the chastity of the language.

That brings us from the past to the present, to the lives and times of you, me and sundry other ‘modern’ Tamils. Not being a student of Tamil after school, the exposure to my mother tongue, like with many of my generation, comes from contemporary writing and films, all of which often provided a window to the hoary past. On the modern literary front, Bharathi always tops the chart, but the hierarchy of distinguished writers is almost endless. My father TRR too was a prolific writer who kept a steady daily pace for almost two decades. But in TN there is no escaping the say that films have in everyday life and this was so with my Tamil too. Initially, the rousing reel rhetoric of Dravidian politicos did hold me in thrall, but their flowery prose soon withered away to give way to the finer and fuller writings of Kannadasan, AP Nagarajan etc. Sivaji Ganesan’s booming baritone and TM Soundararjan’s metallic tone played no mean role in etching Tamil in my heart! But whoever wields the pen or the megaphone, it is the sway, sweep and sweetness of the language that eventually lingers in the soul.

A phenomenon has always struck me as strange though. TN is probably the only State, nay, only place in the world, where people are named after their language, namely, Thamizhselvan, Thamizharasu, etc. I am yet to meet a, say, Telugurao, or an Oriyakumar or Bengalibabu or for that matter, an Englishedward! But in TN where the motto is ‘yengum Tamizh, yedhilum Tamizh’ (Tamil anywhere and everywhere), such display of ‘Tamilness’ is not deemed an aberration. For that matter, Lord Muruga is called Tamizh Kadavul, which too is unique. But the rationalist tendency to ignore the copious religious literary legacy of the alwars, Nayanmars, Arunagirinaathar, Pattinaththar, Meikkandar etc also shows up in stark contradiction to the overt overflow of Tamil love!

Yes, Tamil — no, make it Thamizh — is at once, exhilarating, exalting, elevating and enriching. From pre-Sangam to Penn Singam, Thamizh has remained the staple diet and the sustaining force of this land and its inhabitants, through good and bad. Vazhga Thamizh! Now, that sounds better!

e-mail the writer at trjawah[email protected]

Jawahar T R