Tag Archives: tamil

Book Review: Selected Poems by Subramania Bharati (trans. Usha Rajagopalan)


There must be poets all over the world whose work thrives only in their native tongues, the quality of whose writing we must take on the word of those who are proficient in those languages. The politics and reasons as to why some make it into the English language, arguably the one with the most far-reaching sphere of influence in the modern world, while other don’t are worth lengthy discussion. But the truly exasperating travesty is when a poet whose work has undeniable eminence is insulted not by being ignored, but worse, through poor translations.

Subramania Bharati, the 20th century’s preeminent Tamil writer, is one such poet. Born in 1882 and living only till the age of 38, he pioneered a renaissance in Tamil poetry and fought through his life against colonialism, caste and the oppression of women. To date, no significant English translation of his poetry has done justice to either his persona – romantic, radical, a genius who in the manner of the true artist engaged completely in his own context while being far ahead of it – or the writing itself. Usha Rajagopalan’s new collection of translations makes only slight inroads of improvement: while the book fortunately lacks the cringe-worthiness of prior efforts, Selected Poems, right from its very titling lacks inspiration and imagination – keywords that the very mention of Bharati ordinarily summons among those familiar with the poet.

These translations suffer most of all from a sense of restraint. Bharati was the quintessential fiery artist, prone to being overcome by fits of grandeur, tormented by personal demons, and always redeemed by a profound oneness with the world as a theatre of triumph. This is not mythologizing: all of these attributes are evident in his original writings. Line by line conversion, without fluidity, cannot achieve this effect. Selected Poems, while rarely clumsy, often lacks inventiveness. Words like “Alas!” are used; there is no attempt to contemporarise the sentiment. But the worst offense would be the reduction in “A Baby Fire” of the culminating line, “thath tharikitta thath tharikitta thith thom” – a stunning onomatopoeic flourish that captures both a spitting fire and a visceral rhythm also found in classical dance and music – to “Whoosh, crackle, snap, sizzle.” Elsewhere, these flourishes are retained in translation – an inconsistence that isn’t justified.

This happens not infrequently. In “Aspirations” (which also takes Bharati’s “Om Om Om Om!” and turns it into a decidedly meeker “Om… Om… Om… Om…”), the word “viduthalai”, which can be interpreted straightforwardly as “liberation”, is instead rendered as “unfettered” – imagery that sabotages the original’s spirit. In “In Search of Answers”, a modernist hymn in which he addresses the deity Sivashakti, he uses the demand “solladi”. The nuanced Tamil conversational suffix “di” indicates an entitlement complicit in the relationship with the female other being spoken to. It is an entitlement that is by turns intimate and insolent; Rajagopalan’s explanation of “solladi” as “pray tell me” is stripped entirely of these subtleties.

A handsome bilingual edition, this book would serve beginner and comparative purposes well, but for any reader seeking sheer beauty, it falls short. For the next translator, who picks up the torch from Rajagopalan, one suggests greater license with syntax, less liberal usage of exclamation points (which have fallen out of favour in the language of translation), an academically sound set of footnotes and a more variegated vocabulary.

A volume of selected writings cannot possibly include everything unless the writer in question is one of limited prolificacy. Still, that Bharati’s most iconic poem, “Suttum Vizhichudadar”, is not represented in this collection is baffling. Once again, the idea of a translator as an executor comes into play: to what extent are they obligated to the author’s estate, which includes facets of character and legacy, at large? Absences, sometimes more than inclusions, raise questions.

In this regard, the introductory note is expected to shed light. Rajagopalan’s is mild, almost taking for granted that the reader is familiar with the poet, and taking no pains to introduce him and the ethos of his work to a new audience. The poet who comes through in this introduction as well as in these poems is anachronistic rather than maverick, religious rather than spiritual, perhaps even over-rated – the antithesis of the reasons for which he is beloved to this day. Rajagopalan’s translations are cleaner, less bombastic, and generally better than what has been available in English of Subramania Bharati so far. But, unlike the poet, they are deeply inhibited. An inhibited Bharati, as anyone who has ever been moved by his originals on the page or in song knows, is no Bharati at all.

An edited version appeared in DNA.




Book Review: The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II (trans. Pritham Chakravarthy)


There’s a certain brand of Tamil kitsch that has been in style, both regionally and nationally (and beyond, in some cases), for a couple of years now that is fundamentally antithetical to America’s hipster subculture. Both phenomena can be read, at first glance, as based on revival or reappropriation of the “authentic” – making the obscure or the lowbrow populist trendy. But hipsterism is self-conscious, reliant on posturing said to be “ironic”. The beauty of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II – a perfect example of contemporary Tam-kitsch – is that it contains no irony at all. It isn’t possible to enjoy these stories if there is a hesitation to enter their particular moralities or engage with their brassy sensibilities. Delightfully, however, they are so thrilling that it is very easy to.

The first volume in Blaft’s Tamil Pulp Fiction series carried seventeen pieces; while this one features only six, its stories are lengthier and by and large rewarding. The anthology kicks off on a spectacular note: Indra Soundar Rajan’s gripping novella “The Palace of Kottaipuram”. Originally serialized over 31 issues of Anantha Vikatan in 1990, this perfectly-paced mystery has all the elements of grandiose narrative. A royal lineage is thwarted by a curse dating to colonial times that avenges a raped tribal woman: all its male heirs die on or before their thirtieth birthdays, and its female ones do not survive infancy. The educated and urbane young prince Visu begins to believe in the curse after the death of his elder brother leaves him next in line, but his rational girlfriend Archana is not at all convinced that supernatural forces are at work…

The character of the intrepid female investigator is carried forward into “Highway 117”, the collection’s only major non-prose offering and its weakest link. Written by Pushpa Thangadorai and illustrated by Jeyaraj, its promising storyline – of Karate Kavitha, who pursues a temple-plunderer along a train route with her handsome sidekick Umesh – doesn’t translate well into the form. The illustrations are uninspiring, and seem mainly to serve the sequence in which the heroine, tied up in a chair with her blouse torn open to reveal her breasts, delivers a series of karate kicks to her assailant. Even this, unfortunately, isn’t done with particular panache. To this end, in terms of visual mediums, the lurid magazine and book covers – full of fanged creatures, sexy women and other titillations – and vintage advertisements which intersperse the stories are far more interesting and striking. The covers from the 1960s and 1970s are colourful, expressive and arguably even objects of a certain beauty – by contrast, the four covers featured from the 1990s seem markedly depleted in taste or attractiveness; no comment is offered on why, but one assumes they are representative of the aesthetic of that era.

Indumathi’s “Hold On A Minute, I’m In The Middle Of A Murder” suffers a little bit for its melodrama, but has enough bloodshed and black magic (“gained in the forests of Iran and Iraq”, no less) to entertain. The occupants and staff of a mental hospital come under the influence of spirit possession, vendettas beyond the grave, and a hodgepodge of faith systems that incorporate everything from Christian-Satanic binaries to Tantric rituals.

Two brilliant stories follow in this predominantly horror-based anthology: M.K. Narayanan’s “The Bungalow By The River” and Rajesh Kumar’s “Hello, Good Dead Morning!”. The first is a ghost story set in Malaysia, and successfully evokes, without literary pretensions, a milieu and society that might be lesser-known among local readers of Tamil pulp fiction, and is more convincing both in its gore and supernatural themes than Indumathi’s piece. Kumar’s police mystery set in Coimbatore, meanwhile, contains a twist which – although translator Pritham Chakravathy and editor Rakesh Khanna say might be familiar – is quite ingenious to those who do not regularly consume crime or mystery fiction.

Both these stories are racy by the standards of the eras they describe: in the first, an “adamant” young woman consents to staying overnight on holiday with her fiancé, in the second, a jeans-clad, moped-riding woman and her friends watch pornography together in the mid-80s. The latter story in particular is traditionally problematic when it comes to that old bugbear: the desirous female (and her inevitable punishment), but pulp is hardly the place to expect otherwise. For those overly concerned, however, the anthology’s final piece, Resakee’s “Sacrilege To Love”, offers some minor consolation: it has two alternative endings, one for “diehard romantics”, and the other for those who, disgusted by the chauvinism displayed by all its male leads, might root for an offbeat happily-never-after.

There are two ways to read pulp: you can read it incredulously, lamenting the cause of beautifully-turned prose and rolling your eyes at all the rolling heads. Or you can read it without any self-consciousness, giving in to all its gaudy, gory glory. There’s really only one good way to do it though, and that way, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II is an absolute treat.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: Fish In A Dwindling Lake by Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi, trans. Lakshmi Holmström)


On the cover of Fish in a Dwindling Lake is this image: two women, their backs turned, look out onto a body of water. They must, we intuit, be silent. We know this because we know that in the presence of that which moves us, words only come later. This is the same poignance that this collection of eleven stories imbues.

For nearly four decades, Ambai’s writings have stirred her original Tamil readership with their forthright engagement with gender, particularly womanhood. In this, her third collection in English, translated by Lakshmi Holmström, her protagonists are held together by the reiteration of a single notion – “journey”.

Most are aged or aging but remain travellers: pilgrims, commuters, chaperones, vacationers, passengers. As with all voyages, it is encounters with strangers that teach them both about themselves and the world. In “Journey 5” two women holiday in Pondicherry with the intent of drinking wine, and find themselves partaking of a feast in the home of elderly strangers in a de facto relationship. In “Journey 7”, an unsuspecting Nani-Mausi at a train station finds herself escorting a runaway for whom leaving her husband may or may not be a kind of theatrical ritual.

Although others are set in places including Mumbai and Imphal, the most memorable stories evoke a deeply Tamil milieu, both in descriptive ambience and identifiable morality codes. One returns again and again to the stunning opening piece, “Journey 4”, in which a pregnant woman tells a stranger a shocking family secret, standing by the Kanyakumari shore. In, “One Thousand Words, A Life”, pregnant women again are its central characters: the tribulations of giving birth in a village during WWII leads into the heartbreak that “history is made up of so many silences”. In “The Calf That Frolicked In The Hall”, the collection’s third outstanding piece, the literary culture of Tamil Nadu in the ‘70s, when the anger of young men was considered glamorous, is both nostalgized and taken to task.

But the compassion of the author’s voice extends to men, particularly in “Kailasam”, in which thwarted male desire is treated with a complexity that only a feminism that has been steeped in actual human engagement, not just political rhetoric, would allow. Similarly in “Journey 9”, in which a gigolo is subject to brutality by a group of female clients, and washes his wounds in the home of a kindly woman who once declined his services.

The motif of water – still and flowing – emerges often, and evinces a series of nuanced tellings of what it means to inhabit a body that ultimately will return to the elements. A man falls or drowns himself in a well, another in a lake, a woman imagines carrying the tides home in a pot to her beloved, another has a refrigerator that forms mysterious shivalingam ice stalagmites.

Ambai’s work carries such power because it is neither sterile nor sensationalist, both things that writing that takes the body as an axis has the danger of becoming. In Fish in a Dwindling Lake there is a profundity and subtlety that could easily be attributed to age, but more importantly and less facetiously, to empathy. Like the young woman in the indelible “Journey 4”, like the nondescript women on the book’s cover, we simply watch for a long time, too stirred to speak.

An edited version appeared in The Hindustan Times.

TOI iDiva: “Are women now becoming unafraid of controversy?”


The question posited to me was “are women now becoming unafraid of controversy?” My short response is straightforward: “when have we ever been?” Afraid, that is. To look to the likes of the poses and performances of Veena Malik and Vidya Balan as signifiers of a bolder, less diffident womanhood is woefully ignorant of historical facts. There have always been controversial women. From the revolutionary (Phoolan Devi, Irom Sharmila), to the attention-courting (Kamala Das, Protima Bedi) to the free-spirited (Amrita Sher-Gil, Akka Mahadevi), there is a very long legacy of evidence that upsetting the acceptable is hardly a cutting-edge phenomenon.

And isn’t it very curious: why does controversy, when it comes to women, so often come down to sex, or more banally, the wonderful but ultimately reductionist arena of clothing (or lack thereof)?

Which brings us to the question of what the function of controversy is. Is it enough just to titillate? There’s probably nobody out there who doesn’t, as a voyeur or a vendor, love a good scandal. But if all one has to do is undress – well, how very boring.

What about subverting the system? I.e. does appearing topless on a magazine cover with an incendiary tattoo free other women to do the same, or does it merely elevate Veena Malik to certain celebrity, without a positive trickle-down effect on the freedoms of other people? Controversies come in two categories: the contrived and the accidental. The first stirs up the sensational on purpose. The second becomes notorious not by design but because it surprises on more complex levels than the obvious.

Some months ago, I began to wear a certain sartorial item that I had long admired. That I was turned away from two stores when I tried to purchase the said item should have given me a clue about what was to follow. Still, purchase it I did, for myself, for no reason other than that I found it beautiful.

The humble metti, nuptial toe-rings, were by far the most subversive thing that I – doyenne of firetruck-red lipstick, leopard-print thigh-highs and strapless sari blouses – had ever worn.

“What next? If thaalis were ‘pretty’ would you wear one too?” snapped someone.

“You’re not supposed to!” exclaimed another. Such a simple condemnation. Supposed.

“It suppresses sexual desire by way of the reflexology system,” rued one who found the whole idea disappointingly regressive. (“It’s not working,” I deadpanned.)

“Now there really is nothing left that will entice you to wed,” tsk tsk-ed one more.

These are some of the reactions that came from my own friends – free-thinkers, free-lovers, free-wheelers one and all. I noted the discomfort in the taciturn glances of strangers too: diverted interest (“this chick’s taken”), curiosity, and most of all, confusion. I do not, after all, look like I’m married – which is to say, I do not look like I am marriageable. The suggestion, then, is that I am one without being the other. Cue the collapse of logic in a certain moral universe. Which, if all sartorialism is semiotics, is precisely the effect I’m going for.

I’ve learned something very interesting as a result of wearing this most conformist and conservative of ornaments. It is that, contrary to what Audre Lorde wrote, perhaps the master’s tools can in fact dismantle the master’s house. True dissidence is rarely ostentatious. It occurs not at the level of wanting to be seen but on the level of deciding to – simply, guilelessly – be.

One last question: if the essence of controversy lies in shock value, are we perhaps just too easily shocked?

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

Review: A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s Love Stands Alone


Love Stands Alone, M.L. Thangappa’s marvellous collection of translations of 2000-year old Tamil poetry, is a striking addition to the volumes of academic and creative work that the ancient anthologies have inspired. It is supported by a long introduction by its editor A.R.Venkatachalapathy (who also translated a smaller number of its poems) which contextualizes the work both for an audience that might be new to Sangam poetry and to those who may approach this text as a palimpsest.

The notion of poetry as palimpsest is important here: firstly, all translations of canonical literature necessarily build on earlier scholarship. In this obvious regard, Venkatachalapathy’s introduction is illuminating, concisely explaining the prosody and traditions of the texts, providing historical perspective on the 20th century renaissance of Sangam poetry and locating this set of translations within this milieu.

Secondly, there is something about the particular cosmos of Sangam poetry that also has this palimpsest effect – taken in small doses, a piece may have its own glitter, but set among many gems, the effect is overwhelming. The ethos that is evoked, certain common motifs (such as the loosening bangles of pining women, or the likening of beautiful teeth to jasmine buds) and the nature-centrism of the work all contribute to a mindblowing majesty, as poem accrues upon poem, creating something far greater than the sum of its parts.

Sangam poetry falls into two categories: akam and puram – essentially, within and without. The first deals mostly with the interior landscape of romance in its many facets, while the second revolves around king and country. The book excels particularly when it comes to the puram poems – the latter segment carries the full force and beauty that has kept these poems as relevant today as they were at the time of their writing. Considering that the majority of these poems are description-based, praising and detailing the various attributes of royalty, the translator and editor have been especially masterful in avoiding the natural tendency for such grandiose verse to become overwrought. Take for example Purananuru 8, in which the poet addresses the sun and speaks of his king: “How can you compare with him,/ fast-moving orb of heaven?/ Your realm is limited./ You back away when the moon comes up./ Your hide behind the hills./ And for all your glory/ spread across the sky,/ you can only hold sway/ during the day”.

This is not to say there are not fits and starts. In the akam poems of private longing, from time to time there is a detectable hesitance, perhaps best explained as an absence of the erotic undertone. Compare for instance two renderings of Kuruntokai 131. Here is Venkatachalapathy’s:

A great distance separates me

from the village of my girl,

with large lovable eyes,

and shoulders

shaped like the swaying bamboo.

My heart is desperate

like a peasant

with a single plough

and a field

just wet enough.

O what can I do!

And here is A.K. Ramanujan’s:

Her arms have the beauty

of a gently moving bamboo.

Her eyes are full of peace.

She is faraway,

her place is not easy to reach.

My heart is frantic

with haste,

a plowman with a single ox

on land all wet

and ready for seed.

Ironically, the first stanza of Venkatachalapathy’s translation is the lovelier of the two – but the erotic urgency and imagery of Ramanujan’s second stanza instantly elevates it. This element is lacking throughout the akam section of Love Stands Alone. The voices in which the Sangam bards wrote these poems are passionate, pained (and mostly women’s) voices – and while dismay at a husband’s infidelity, pining for a distant lover, and jealousy toward concubines and co-lovers are all wonderfully evoked, desire is an aspect which seems to have been underplayed. Kuruntokai 185, for example, is titled insipidly by its first line, “Your sweetheart’s forehead”, instead of focusing on the poem’s closing image, “Why don’t you tell this/ to my lover from the mountains/ where the kanthal stalks/ with bright red blossoms/ beaten up by rain/ lie battered and wan on a rock/ like a cobra with his shrunken hood/ lying limp/ and bring home to him/ the run-down state of my body?”. The cobra’s head is a traditional motif for the female genitals, and this image beautifully evokes her sexual longing and frustration – but not to a reader who has no prior knowledge of the metaphor, or in this case, a reason to contemplate it.

All this said, however, there was a point while reading Love Stands Alone, somewhere near the closing of the akam section, when the profound internal logic – and magic – of the work intoxicated me so much that I read it through to its last page and found myself utterly wordless. Gone were the comparisons to other translators, the notes taken during the reading, the critic’s distance: in that light-bleached moment of afterglow, none of them had prepared me to begin commenting on this book.

The book ends on a particularly radiant note, which almost anticipates the impact of Sangam poetry on the whole. “If you weigh/ worldly life/ against the life of the spirit,/ it is not worth a single seed of mustard”, reads part of Purananuru 358. Life is impermanent, most art sinks without a trace, even the true names of these bards are lost, but something elemental endures in this literature. Only that which is timeless remains. What Thangappa, one of many torchbearers, passes down in Love Stands Alone is a triumph.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Is There A Holy Text As Hardcore As The Kavasam?


After a lapse of a few years, I began to listen to the Kantha Shashti Kavasam again. The hymn has sentimental value to me – in the past, it gave me a sense of connection to my childhood and ancestral ties and generally operated in the role of a mnemonic. In the unholy ennui of the present, however, my rediscovery of it brought out a whole different kind of awe: the schmaltz of my memories and the high-pitched vocals are the only delicate things about it. The Kavasam isn’t just beautiful; it’s badass.

If you’re not familiar with the text (there are some terrific English translations online), the Kavasam (meaning “armour”) is a long invocation to Muruga, beloved deity of the Tamils and crown prince of the Saivite cosmos. Composed in the 19th century by Devaraya Swamigal, it’s a lyrically magnificent work. It begins, naturally, with praise and welcoming, and then, once the little lord is nicely flattered, begins to get quite specific in its demands.

Up until about midway through the hymn, the devotee puts forth requests for protection, mostly in the form of a list of the various body parts long enough to sound like a recitation from an anatomy textbook. Having ensured that the pretty prince with the pretty vel has been appointed to look over everything from each of the thirty-two teeth to the colon, things start to get very lively.

Now, up until this point, things are still pretty standard, as far as devotionals go. Then out pop the monsters. Great tail-shaking devils are named and dismissed, as are fire-eating ghouls, baby-devourers, night-roaming spirits, folk entities special enough to have names of their own – all of whom henceforth must run away as if struck by thunder upon hearing no, not our little lord’s name – but the singing supplicant’s! After this comes the litany of voodoo tricks – of which the supplicant has a suspiciously impressive knowledge of. The hymn ends with more medical grievances and praise to the deity, but not before its most spectacular segment: in which Muruga is asked to tie up the devotee’s enemies, roll them up, stomp stomp stomp on them, break break break their bones, pierce pierce pierce their bodies and set them on fire.

Basically, if you want proof of the inherent badassness of the Tamil people, look no further than the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam.

Is there a holy text as hardcore as the Kavasam? Maybe some old Hebrew stuff – but then, the god of the Old Testament is generally seen as curmudgeonly and cantankerous. Unlike the adorable little Muruga, sweet-smiling with bells around his ankles and flowers behind his ears… who will eviscerate your enemies.

There are lots of things from my Tamil heritage that I’m grateful for. Most importantly among them: Sangam poetry, curvy hips and a high tolerance for libations. The drama, intrigue, sabotage and high stakes apparently also come with the genes, if the texts and arts of this culture are anything to go by, but then so does the little avenging god, resplendent, ecstatic – completely aware of the devious nature of his chosen people, and just as prepared to bestow the grace of his bling in your moment of need. Bring it on mofo, my lord has a vel and I’ll have you know that it is bejeweled, baby.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Burning Breast: Kannagi To Kovalan


I had a lovely Sunday morning. For one thing, I woke up early — I’m a heavy sleeper and am always inordinately proud of myself when I catch the sunrise. Also, it was the last day of Madras Week — phew! And although I was late, I managed to make it to Eric Miller/The World Storytelling Institute’s Living Statues event at 7.30am. Spoken word in the form of soliloquys in persona in front of six statues that punctuate the main road along Marina Beach. And then the beach itself, with two friends, and breakfast at Rathna Cafe in Triplicane… I fucking love Madras, from the bottom of my silly little heart. :)

Eric asked me to read his soliloquy for Auvvaiyar, as well what I had written the night before for Kannagi. Or as Kannagi, rather. I’ll write more about the Living Statues event when I recap Madras Week on the whole.

And how could I forget the lovely little synchronicity that met us as we got into an auto to leave the beach? The driver’s address, painted where Narain’s knees met the back of the driver’s seat, was Nedunchezhiyan Colony.

If you are not familiar with the story of Kannagi and Kovalan, please see this.

The Burning Breast: Kannagi to Kovalan

What is it to me if there are good women
or good men or gods in this city, now
that you are gone.

When you kissed me I remembered
all the lives that poured out of us,
and I remembered how to honour water.

When you kissed me I remembered
what death felt like, and
I remembered how to honour air.

When you kissed me I remembered
the clay of the body, and
I remembered how to honour earth.

When you kissed me I remembered
that my sins would turn to cinders, and
I remembered how to honour fire.

Listen, husband. Only the sky will
take no side. Let them call me
bitch, witch, menace, terrorist.
Let them call me mad, bad, vindictive,
frigid. Let them name me, claim me,
blame me and defame me. Guard their
coast with stone dolls in my likeness.
Beat their women so their bruises
sting and rhyme with my acclaim.
Let them. Let them think they have me tamed.

But with this burning breast, these bloodshot eyes, I raise
my voice, and I say to you now, all I want, all I am is this:


– – –

I had shared this poem with friends as soon as it was written, and I thought it might be good to share this exchange, in case you have the same question in mind:

Q: excellent, but
All I am is this; wife
surely not all, but – I am this; wife

SM: Thanks! I’m curious — are you familiar with the Silapathikaram? In context, the idea of Kannagi as simply human, a woman mad with grief, is something very much overlooked. Here in Tamil Nadu, she has been co-opted into various other roles — worshipped as a goddess, held up as a bastion of conservative chastity, as a bastion of radical feminism, a role model for citizen rights, criticized for weakness, glorified for strength… any number of grand meanings have been read into this character. But the commonplace anguish of a widow, extraordinary as the events told are, is what interested me when I set out to write this.

The Venus Flytrap: Between Bread and Betelnut


I was raised by my Sri Lankan Tamil maternal grandparents, and among my various cultural heirlooms comes that famously recognizable accent. That conversation-stopping, glint-in-the-eye, connotations-stirring, “Yaarlpanam-ah?” accent. The one my mother, in her less matriotic moments, tries to pass for Malayali. That political, poetic, deeply personal dialect that I call my mother tongue.

As fiercely in love as I am with this tongue, I have had to rein it in. Living in Chennai and having to haggle with auto drivers on a daily basis does that to you – do you have any idea how much they charge otherwise? I learnt to imitate the coarser rhythms of Madras Tamil out of the need for defense – like a stereotypical Ceylonese, I keep my allegiances close but my wallet closer still.

Still, it’s an accent that never fails to surprise me. The affirmative om that perks up in place of the ama I’ve conditioned myself to use in India. The fact that I cannot bring myself to use the personal nee when the neenga I am used to is just that much more pleasingly polite, and somehow, to my ears, more intimate. My accent gives me away when I least expect it to, like a blush-inducing pinch that makes sure I don’t forget. Just like how my v’s and w’s mix when I argue in English, any Tamil conversation in which I wholly participate is jazzed up (or if you’ll excuse the blatant exoticism, baila-d up) with my real accent. The one I had before I knew it was an accent.

My accent is too pretty to make fun of, I think. But some of my island-inflected vocabulary isn’t.

When I was 18, I spent half a year living with my local grandmother. Bless her, for she tried her best to take care of this half-and-half foreign-returnee. I think her patience was sorely tested by a few incidents in the kitchen (which is not called quisine here – sigh!), in particular.

I wanted some paan, I told her once, incurring her disdain. Paan, as far as I knew, was bread. Paan, as far as she knew, was betelnut. Not getting the hint, I tried to describe a sandwich. Finally, a wave of clarity broke upon her face and she exclaimed, “You mean roti!”. But roti, as far as I knew, was what’s known here as the Malabar paratha.

Equally flummoxing was when I asked for kochikai (chilli, to the Ceylonese). “What you mean”, someone corrected me, is “mizhagai“. “No”, I insisted. “That’s pepper!”

But the linguistic faux pas that I didn’t stop using until literally months ago is the one that takes the cake.

Grand old Ceylonese ammammas, at least in my experience, greet children by grabbing their chins, sniffing both cheeks, and muttering in rapturous tones, “Enda kunju!” Or (once again, to show you how little I knew), “my little one”. Fancying myself a grand young Ceylonese lady, it’s a term of endearment I also use to embellish my speech.

Imagine my glee and horror when my very irate sister informed me recently that kunju, as far as Indian Tamil is concerned, means penis.

So don’t blame me for my dirty mind. It’s genetic.

I love that my Ceylonese accent gives me away, because years and years from the first home of my childhood in Colombo, not so far away at all from losing my grandparents, it’s one of my dearest possessions. An accent like the surprise of sweet in mango pickle, I wrote in a poem once. So leave me to my broken Tamil and my quaintly scandalous expressions in it. It’s one of the few ways that I know how to love and remember love.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Chennai Sangamam


What I liked best about the Chennai Sangamam, performances aside, was how it had the air of a real festival. Performances weren’t preceded by speeches in English about culture and tradition and excavation. There were no tickets. No formal rustle of sarees and elite arts-patronage gossip. The night I attended, at Nateson Park, there was no stage. The crowds followed the sound of drums; circles formed of their own accord, within which performers stampeded and sang and shone.

I loved it. I loved how in my flat slippers, I could barely see above people’s heads. I loved how I could only hear the action most of the time, could barely photograph a thing, could only catch glimpses of bright costumes between the throng of bodies that was the standing audience. This was street performance at its truest. This was real, unfettered culture.

The festival was initiated last year, and mainly features folk dances, music and food from around Tamil country. Held over a week at various locations around the city, mostly public spaces like parks and beaches, I think it’s a wonderful way to encourage interest in heritage. Free of the co-opting and monopolizing that overpowers what we urbanites know of heritage, there’s a certain liberty to things. A certain authenticity.

Now that I’m on one of my sporadic trips to the land of the employed and days that end at 4am are no longer an option, I only managed to go one night of Chennai Sangamam. It’s an amazing addition to the city’s calendar of events, and I’m hoping that it turns into something as entrenched into our ethos as the Margazhi season — sans the cloying institutionalization.