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Saturday, December 07, 2019

Because I speak two languages

We are superficial when viewing culture as a term and its meaning. Any culture is deep. It is complicated, with several layers.

New Delhi | Updated: December 16, 2018 8:33:22 am
The cultural background of a people speaking a particular language is determined by factors such as media and politics. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Written by Sukumaran

I have always heard people say: “Today Tamil and Malayalam could practically be different languages, but there was once a golden period when they were one. The cultures evolving from both the languages were the same. We are children of the same mother.”

I have seen Malayalis admitting it with a sense of dissatisfaction and Tamils embracing it with a sense of pride. I have been living in this cultural space involving both languages for over six decades now. The opinion of Tamils on Malayalis and vice-versa has always been superficial. The mainstream media — especially cinema and politicians — is responsible for this. In Malayalam cinema, Tamils are almost always portrayed as idiots, cultureless or subjects of ridicule. Tamil cinema does no better. Malayali women are shown as exhibiting lascivious gestures. A Tamil cinema song says how women with “large hearts” can safely be assumed as those from Kerala.

The cultural background of a people speaking a particular language is determined by factors such as media and politics. The solution to a crisis like Mullaiperiyar (the dam dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu) is achievable, considering the technological advancements and the space for dialogue. Yet, politicians want to prolong it for the sake of politics. For that, the other culture is conceived as an enemy culture.

We are superficial when viewing culture as a term and its meaning. Any culture is deep. It is complicated, with several layers. A central trend is formed from various habits, just as several streams come together to form a river. Several small cultures attempt to combine themselves to form this central trend.

When they are denied the opportunity to merge with the central culture, cultural clashes break out. It has been established through literary and historical evidence that the other Dravidian language cultures are breakaways from the central culture that was based on Tamil.

But the rest of the Dravidian cultures hesitate to accept this theory. In recent years, this is evident in the Malayalam space. More so after Tamil was accorded the classical language status.

Professor Kunjan Pillai’s research work Pandaiya Keralam elucidates on the fact that Malayalam’s ethnic, language and literary history was born out of ancient Tamil. EMS, who spoke of a ‘United Keralam’ and worked towards it, affirms it in Keralam Malayalikaluda Mathrubhumi.

Kerala’s cultural space somewhat embarrassingly accepted this truth. Today, it wants to rectify it. One could juxtapose it with the fact that today all ethnic groups claim that they have once ruled this land. “Malayalam is not a branch language of Tamil. There existed a language that formed the basis of Tamil, Malayalam and other Dravidian languages” — this is the argument put forth today.

The literary contributions made by Niranam poets in the 14th century helped Malayalam evolve into a unique language. That version of Malayalam was heavily influenced by Sanskrit. Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan, who lived in the 16th century, gave form to present-day Malayalam. This version of Malayalam bears more resemblance to Tamil. Before these two trends emerged, Tamil’s Sangam literature and Silappadhikaram were considered the ancient literature of Malayalam.

One can establish the veracity of this from Sangam literature. The mythological character of Kannagi is worshipped by Malayalis today. The annual Pongal festival in Aatrukaal Bhagavathi temple, hailed as ‘Women’s Sabarimala’, is not a symbol of Sanskritisied Kerala. It is a testimony to the bond it had with Tamil. In Indian languages, with the exception of Hindi, Malayalam is the only independent national language. In the northern parts of Kerala, Kannada exerts an influence. Further down, it has a mix of French. In Palakkad and Thrissur along Central Kerala, Tamil has an influence. In Central Kerala itself, languages like Hebrew and Latin have an influence. From Kasargod to Parassala, Urdu has its influence. Kerala’s culture embraces the cultural aspects and language of any kind.

The best of Malayalam’s cultural and linguistic aspects is perhaps this ability to accept and embrace other cultures. The acceptance of Kannagi is an aspect of cultural harmony while the use of an ancient Tamil word like “angadi (shop)” could be seen as acceptance of language. The language could establish a connection with the modern world due to this flexibility. The weakness could be that it loses the opportunity to create own technical terms.

I have been living in the Malayali space for 15 years now. I have never felt an alien anywhere.

A few years ago, a television channel in Thiruvananthapuram had organised a poetry session where poets from both Kerala and Tamil Nadu were invited. I recited a poem titled, ‘Silaigalin Kaalam (The era of statues)’, on statues in Chennai. Soon as I finished it, O N V Kurup, who was the chief guest, said: “A Tamil poet reads out a nuanced poem on various statues in Thiruvananthapuram. How do we even explain this? Have we become like Tamils or have they become like us?” I could not give him an answer then. I think I now can. In Malayalam, with the pride of Tamil: “Seppu mozhi irandudaiyaar enil (Because I have two spoken languages.)”

Sukumaran is a poet (Translated from Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan)

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