On learning Tamil, polarized societies and the pursuit of truth and beauty.

Sometime last week, I happened to watch the Neeya Naana episode from 15.4.18. I often watch the show because I’m interested in observing and understanding its narrative — it’s also not a bad way to understand the pulse of the people. This episode did not disappoint. It was a discussion about mother tongue learning, with one group speaking for actively teaching their children the mother tongue (Tamil) and its literature, and the other group not so keen on it. Most of the people who were not too keen on their children learning Tamil in school were thinking from the perspective of what ‘value’ it would add to their child’s life. Learning Hindi, or a foreign language, their argument went, would help them if they needed it for their careers later in life; knowing to read and write Tamil guaranteed no such advantage. It was also not a ‘scoring subject’, and therefore unpopular among ambitious parents.

The show’s narrative, on the other hand, centred around positioning Tamil not just as a language, but a medium inducting its learners into a 2000-year-old way of life and ethos. தமிழர் வாழ்வியல் முறையை தெரிந்துகொள்ள தமிழ் படி was their refrain. Their narrative talked about having pride in the unbroken chainlink of a classical language, that has come to us down the ages. Cutting ourselves adrift from the language would distance us from our roots, they said. These are arguments not dissimilar to those I made in this essay recently. However, hearing this particular hour-long discussion, I realised something else, something important, something I realised about my own journey reading and writing in Tamil, that I will share in the interest of completeness, and because I feel it is precisely what needs to be said right now.

And that is this idea, the idea that both the parents who participated in the show, and the narrative Neeya Naana built, missed completely. Building in a young person pride centred around an external identity, whether it is religion, ideology, nation, or language, and more importantly, making the said pride, the focal point of their identity, almost never ends well. Learning Tamil, being Tamil, because it is your identity, because it is the identity of your ancestors, because you are Tamil, and because you need to take pride in your ethos — these are not invalid reasons to learn the language, but I shudder at each repetition of identity, identity, identity — at how fragile our sense of identity is, in the existential sense, and how we need to keep finding external anchors for it all the time. And then I think of the middle-class parents in cities and small towns, whose only ambition for their children is to score well, get a degree that gets a job that pays well, buy all the right things, and settle down, and I wonder where their sense of existential, let alone cosmic, identity will come from when the question inevitably starts gnawing at their soul.

And this is true not just of the Tamil identity, but any identity built around anyidentifier. There are similar arguments made over Sanskrit. A few years ago, when I was living in Pittsburgh, I met a family who spoke only Sanskrit at home. Their eight-year-old was a pro. What is the point of this NRI family speaking Sanskrit for their daily transactions, making up words for fridge and computer and wifi, I wondered — a language, which, in my understanding, was never a spoken language of the common people in the first place. Modern Sanskrit speakers, are too, in a sense, aspiring to a lost ethos, a particular way of life.

A three-day shibhiram organized by Samskrita Bharati includes an immersive experience speaking in and listening only to Sanskrit for three full days, and the company of talented, motivated and earnest youngsters, but also includes a morning yoga session, a sattvic lunch and bhajan satsangs in the afternoon. While this is not on the same level as claiming fantastically that the internet existed in the time of the Mahabharatha, or that the Kumari Kandam was the cradle of civilization, I feel they stem from the same impulse of insecurity, differing only in the type and degree of expression. Most talk of Tamil nationalism is fundamentally not different from Hindu nationalism in this essential sense — this narrative of pride in the ‘oldest’, ‘biggest’, ‘wisest’ and ‘best’ seems to be simply insecurity trying unsuccessfully to cover itself with the thin cloak of grandiosity.

We, the constructors and consumers of capitalism, its minions, its narcissistic handmaidens, are adrift. Our modern thoughts have made us question, and not without reason, the rigid, unyielding social models of our ancestors, but in the process, we have are also been cut off from their value systems. In its absence, our generation has found itself distanced from the natural support systems of extended family networks, clans and communities, as well as its values that served to provide meaning for their lives in the past. Instead, we seek fulfillment and meaning in the things we buy for ourselves (‘self-care!’ we say), we turn to entertainment to fill our time that gapes vacuously at us, and then buy more time with money because we can. Our arts are full of pessimism about humanity and human potential: humans are trash, we say brashly, indifferently, for who has the time or patience to engage with the said humans? And we huddle into corners, doubting, suspicious of the other, coming to rally in bubbles around some common thread of relief — the shared belief in the same God, the shared belief that the other group is made of sub-humans, the shared belief that speakers of the other language are out to make fools of us, and civil discourse is no longer possible with such morons. And what does that give us, but this deeply polarized world that we are in? One person says she fears potential rape in a cab because it carried a Rudra Hanuman poster, another person retaliates by namecalling all Muslims, jihadis, and all this hate is amplified a million times through our online and offline social networks.

I fear this climate of polarization, where furrows deepen with every Whatsapp forward whistling its way through networks of people who believe, with their whole heart, that they are right, their way is just, that they are dispossessed, pitiable victims who must rally back, or else. But more than fear, it is a deep distress that wells up in me — how insecure we are, and how unhappy, and how unsure. How alone, and how abandoned. How adrift. I do not know how to set this right, how to talk about this and make everyone else see what I see, that we are like people trapped in a ghostly castle, except that the horror of the situation is that there may be no ghost in this castle after all, and that we fear each other and have fallen to killing and raping anyone in sight. We are suspicious of the country, its systems and our fellow beings, certain in our that no one will step forward to help us in a time of crisis, and the only alternative is to band together in tribes, not around a shared set of positive values, but by making a shared front against something. This is the reason that any manufactured tribalism centred on pride makes me tremendously uncomfortable.

To return, in my case, I realize now that the reason I started reading Tamil was the same reason I attended the Samskrita Bharati meetings. It had nothing to do with pride, or even the need to find my identity in my roots. It had everything to do with my own love for wisdom and my pursuit of the truth, and my own desire to joust with this sense of fear of the fellow being that has overtaken our public consciousness, that of course, I am also not immune to.

My mother language, Tamil, and her sister tongue, Sanskrit, with all their complicated histories and are vessels, carriers of truth, beauty and wisdom. The languages themselves, their hoary origins, or an identity I can derive from associating with it, none of this matters to me. Languages are idea-vessels, where the form is the substance — the language itself, its words, its poetic devices and symbols, carries its particular insight and wisdom in it. I don’t look up to Tamil in awe because it is a 2500-year-old old lady, full of finger-wagging wise saws. I don’t derive my identity from being born in the ancient house of that old lady. Quite the contrary, the collected wisdom and beauty of all those years is available for me here and now. I can be a woman of the free world, of my time and age, thinking and reading new ideas in different languages, and still find as my contemporaries Valluvar and Ilango and Kamban and Bharathi. It is the pursuit of truth that, quite naturally, brought me back to my grandmother tongue (and what a sweet, yet upright and decisive tongue she has!) and not pride that she is my grandmother. This might have been the case even if I was not born in a Tamil-speaking family — how else would the Russian Tolstoy adopt the Kural for himself? Besides, I have ridden down the shaky raft of worldly existence with Kaniyan Poongundran, and I know better than to tie my ephemeral identity to something as simple as the language I was born with.

So, if I have children, I know I would not want to make an agenda out of teaching them Tamil, or teaching them Sanskrit, or anything else for that matter. I would, however very much like to teach them, if it’s possible, to discover their inner sense of truth, beauty and goodness. To love wisdom, uncompromising, impartial truth, with all their heart, and to have their actions guided by that sense. If they discover that, that alone, I believe, will be sufficient to guide them to all the sources and bosoms of wisdom, to each eternal spring that still waits patiently for men and women to discover it. I believe that journey will naturally lead them to Tamil, for its language and literature brims with truth and beauty and wisdom, and by that very process, it would wean them naturally away from developing any false sense of superiority and victimhood.

My own personal ideal, the reason I read and write and think and be, is truth, beauty, wisdom, and the sense of good and bad, right and wrong it unequivocally inspires. My loyalty is only to my pursuit of truth and beauty and goodness. Tribal senses of identity and modern ideological identities are tools, sometimes very useful tools, but if I fashion myself a hammer-wielder, then I am tempted to see every problem as a nail. And these are limited tools — a tribal sense of identity or an ideology cannot answer the grand questions of life, nor lead one on to truth, beauty or goodness.