We, the Tamils

The obsession of Tamilians with their mother tongue is something that has no parallels. We take pride in being the speakers of one of the oldest languages in the world. Fair enough. Tamil is indeed the only surviving classical language in the world. The earliest literature in Tamil dates back to 300 BC. It has some of the greatest literatures in the world. Speaking of Thirukkural, our ancient text on ethics, George L Hart, Professor of Tamil in University of California, Berkeley argues that ‘There is not a facet of human existence that is not explored and illuminated by this great literature.’

So it is understandable if all of us, the ‘Tamils’, feel immensely proud of our tongue. Not that having been just ‘born’ in a certain culture is any great achievement, but be that as it may.

The trouble is, as it usually happens, the pride of something or the love of something usually translates into the hatred of something else. It is not very clear who started it, but the object of this hatred turned out to be English. It used to be Hindi once, when the guardian angels of Dravidian pride, our leaders, chased it out of Tamil Nadu successfully, consequently depriving the rest of Tamilians an opportunity to work outside Tamil Nadu.

Now that we have all come to terms with Hindi, the new villain seems to be English.

There are some English medium schools, known colloquially as ‘convent’ schools, have a stipulated a rule that no student shall speak in Tamil or use Tamil words within their school campus. Violating students are slapped a fine of a rupee per every Tamil word spoken.

Apparently, this has caused considerable agony among the public. Many Tamil scholars have started crying foul about the impending death of the Tamil language. Some are claiming that people speaking in English in Tamil Nadu should be fined for every word! After all, if we need to save Tamil, and what other option is left?

This ‘English-only’ rule is not new. It has been in vogue for decades. I have heard about such rules in my own school days. Though mine, a humble government school, didn’t have that rule, we used to talk enviously about those private schools. As we, the lesser children of government schools struggle to even understand English, there are those kids from the private school, speaking confidently in English and marching forward. Tomorrow they are going to steal all those plum jobs away from us.

I’m sure many of today’s children studying in the government schools too are feeling the same way. Among the parents too, English is considered to be the passport to prosperity. Rightly so too, for those who have the ability to speak, write and communicate confidently in English stand an advantage in this knowledge economy, getting into better companies with better pay. An ability to communicate in English alone is not sufficient. But if two engineers with the same grade from the same university were to compete for a job, the one with the better, more confident communication skills (meaning spoken English) will end up getting the offer letter.

In his book, ‘Imagining India’ Nandan Nilekeni, the co-founder of Infosys states that his ‘own position on the way forward is unequivocal.’ About his expectations for growth he argues ‘people everywhere, regardless of their income levels, should have access to…’ and starts with his own shopping list that ends with ‘good schools where their children can be educated in the English language.’

Embracing English language based education is not hating or discarding your mother tongue. It is, ironically, somehow approached that way. However, as much as we hate this fact, it remains that there is no way a Tamil medium educated child is going to stand a chance in the knowledge economy. The guardians of Dravidian pride, the self-proclaimed guardian angels of Tamil language have all enrolled their grandsons and granddaughters in private schools where the medium of language is purely English. All the middle class people with some affordability too want to enrol their children in English medium schools.

It is those chest-beaters of Tamil pride are those who have lost the bus. They realise they don’t stand a chance in today’s economy. However hard they try, they can’t learn to speak English and compete with those who have. Therefore, perhaps in order to alleviate their inability they promote the virtues of speaking and writing in Tamil. Not only that have they started a propaganda that ridicules those who speak in English. They even have come up with nicknames for those who attempt to speak in English. ‘Peter’ for the guy and ‘Stella’ for the girl, indicating their allegiance for the anglicised life style. Now whilst the Peters and Stellas have steadily progressed on the economic ladder, these people have happily stagnated, all the while, not having done anything substantial to even enhance the Tamil language. Indeed, none of these so called protectors of Tamil have done anything substantial for the cultural and literary advancement of the language. The protagonist (hero) of Katrathu Tamil, a film eulogising Tamil-medium education, does not compile a great literature or pen an epic in Tamil. He ends up killing people, having frustrated at the economic opportunity accorded to his friends who are educated in English.

Tamil is a language, just like English is. There is no emotional benefit in clinging onto Tamil. Unless you are as talented as Vairamuthu or Bharati, some of the greatest poets in Tamil, or as passionate as U Ve Su, the scholar who saved some of the ancient Tamil literatures from extinction. True, you need to learn to speak and write in your own mother tongue and if you can’t it is despicable. But hating another language and discarding it, especially the one that has the potential to offer economic progress is sheer madness. You want to save Tamil, then first save Tamilians. Give them the economic progress and you would have taken care of the language. You cannot save Tamil by destroying Tamilians!*



* The last sentence is transliteration from Cho Ramaswamy’s phrase ”தமிழனின் வாழ்வை அழித்து தமிழைக்காப்போம்’