Friday, December 24, 2010

Of language and cultural roots

This is going to be a different blog...not on Vipassana meditation which I have been writing all along (though it has some links to it) but something which bothers me from time to time.

Today, when I spoke to my mother in the morning she mentioned that she was listening to a discourse on the "Thiruppavai" played on a TV Channel. After my conversation with her, I looked up the internet for video/audio recordings of the verses and listened and recited the verses.

It took me back to those days when the month of Margazhi ( a month in the Tamil calendar between December 16th to January 16th) was celebrated in my parents home in Hyderabad. Everyday, I would wake up listening to my mother's chanting of the Thiruppavai verses; sometimes she would listen to them played on the local radio channel (those were the days before the TV). There were days when she would make me recite some of them too. I did that with difficulty as I could never get the pronunciations correct.

In the evenings there was a discourse in the nearby school where a learned brahmin would expound on the verses. My parents attended these discourses regularly, and sometimes I accompanied them. And then there was a competition among children of various age groups on the recitation of these verses. My mother was called to judge these competitions and I would accompany her to these as well. I never took part in the competition--I did not know the verses well enough to compete with others, and probably my mother was too busy at work ( she was a teacher in a school & also did a lot of the housework) to teach me. So I grew up picking up bits and pieces of the verses but am not very perfect in them.

Those days it was never very clear to me whether this was a religious exercise, a cultural one or a part of tamil literature. But there was richness in the whole thing. Waking up to the chantings of the verses, my mother's morning prayers, the fragrance of incense and flowers, the ringing of a small puja bell, and finally the aarti.

In school we learned different things--we learned English and my mother was proud that her children went to a convent school. I did not learn my native language, Tamil, in school. The medium of instruction was English and one of the languages that we were also required to learn was Hindi, because it was and is the national language.
Learning Hindi was difficult because nobody spoke that language at home and I struggled with it during tests and examinations. Another strange thing about learning a language in school in India was that the focus was on reading and writing and not much on speaking. It was only years later that I could learn to speak Hindi well---only when I went to live in Mumbai as an adult.

I was never good in my native language, Tamil. I could barely speak fluently. The heavy emphasis given to English in school resulted in using that language to communicate at home as well. My family made fun of the little Tamil I spoke--either the pronunciation was not correct or my vocabulary wasn't large enough to maintain a decent conversation. And there was that fear of being made fun of, which reduced my attempts to speak.

Moving to Madras much later in life helped me pick up the language (Tamil)well. Because I was forced to use the language for my day-to day survival (that is the local language)I slowly became quite fluent in speaking and communicating in it. However, although my mother taught me the Tamil alphabet I could not read and write Tamil as well as English or Hindi. As I read and wrote exams in English and Hindi, I could read and write in them--but not in Tamil as I did not learn it in school.

Strangely, it was my involvement in Vipassana meditation for children that finally forced me to engage more in Tamil. I was asked to conduct meditation courses in Tamil for children and teenagers in Malaysia and so I taught myself the language. I am still not very good at it...but learning and improving slowly.

Listening to the Thiruppavai verses this morning and recalling and reciting them awakened me to the richness of Tamil language and literature.
The following website: helped me understand the meaning of the verses very well and a deep appreciation of my cultural roots.


  1. Well written, Radhi! That is exactly what happend with me. English has been more of a mothertongue than Urdu because of school.(no complaints but I do wish we could have been able to give equal time to our native languages)

  2. Thanks Sarah!
    I love Urdu--especially since I love Ghazals--the poetry is amazing and so is the richness of culture--politeness and respect embedded in the language itself.
    Infact would like to learn Urdu if I got a chance!