Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 7, July 16-31, 2019
Friends said, ‘Don’t go to Chennai. It is hot, humid and anti-Hindi. An engineering college is not the place for an English teacher.’
My village is hot & humid. We are all anti-Hindi, except when we watch a Hindi film, hum Bollywood songs, or talk to fellow passengers on transnational trains. An engineering college may not be a good place for an English teacher, but colleges that do not pay salaries on time are no better.
I joined IIT-M in April 1989, determined to survive its heat and humidity. We got down at Chennai Central station, paid the surcharge for excess baggage and checked into the Taramani Guest House at IIT-M. I had heard some Tamil in Hyderabad, but it wasn’t enough to make out why the lady near the guest house did not sell me her bananas, though I had offered her what I thought she had asked for. Only later did my friends tell me that I should not have offered the money with my left hand. People here valued substance, but form mattered too.
Elliott’s Beach gave us our first view of infinity. In our first week, we went there daily, sat down on the sand, counted waves and talked about the future. One day a bicycle ran over my daughter’s left leg as she was enjoying the waves washing her toes. ‘My leg is broken,’ she cried in pain. The cyclist froze in panic. I picked up my daughter, then 10 years old, and came back to the road. There was no vehicle in sight, but luckily for us, a young couple happened to be heading to Velankanni Church in a car. I waved and sought their help, and the young man drove us to the IIT-M Hospital. I gave him a fifty rupee note, ‘For petrol’, I said.
The IIT-M hospital put us into an ambulance and sent us to the Royapettah Hospital. A Telugu-speaking waiter at the IIT guest house put some money in my pocket, ‘You may need it,’ he said. I later found that it was Rs. 300/-. I already had a 100-rupee note.. With Rs. 400/- in my pocket, we had enough to re-join a broken leg. I spoke no Tamil, the hospital staff spoke little English and even less Hindi. But the girl’s leg was plastered and we were sent back with concern. We brought home words like Paawam, Tamil theriyaadhe, Vannakkam, Nandri, etc.
Shouldn’t we find a house our own now, somebody in the guest house suggested. A kind soul walked with us to the Dhandeeswaram Nagar and the same evening, we found a one-BHK Flat, without paying any rent in advance. Vegetarians only, we were told! My daughter said Nandri and Vannakkam. Next morning, we got some minimum furniture on monthly instalment from a nearby shop. We were not asked for a surety.
By the end of the month, we had learnt new words like kiile, mele, ulle, velle, pakatale, munnadi, pinnadi, aapron, aamam, illai, nalla, and namme, ninge, besides numbers and frequent nouns and verbs, like tanni, saapaadu, venum-venda, aamaa–illai, saapataache, poche, wandaache, waango, pongo, etc. Pesa/solla took a little longer. The most helpful were seri and aapadiyaa. You could start with vannakkam and end with nandri. And then with seri and aapadiyaa, we concluded, any conversation in Tamil could be sustained for hours. Excellent fillers! They did not betray your attitude, you remained an uncommitted, yet interested listener.
Suppose the speaker tells you he went with his wife to a movie last night, came back late, got up late, went to the office late and his boss shouted at him. He criticises his boss. Tamil wisdom lies in doing the needful, no more. Martyrdom is for others. Let’s have peace, dillishwaro waa jagadhishwaro waa, hail the master of Delhi, hail the master of the world. Your friend’s boss could be your boss too, or a by-stander or passer-by could overhear your remarks and report them to your boss and then you might be in unnecessary trouble… Why risk it!
A conversation in Tamil, I learnt, could also begin with ennaa samaachaaram, “What news”, and the standard response was, oname illai, nothing. It was a wonderful opening move, no bid, no bid all around. You open your cards first, then I will give you a bit of mine too.
Though occupied by foreigners for the better part of its known history, from Telugus to Marathas, from Muslims to Portuguese, French and English, Tamilians have preserved their language, literature, maths, genes, thaiyar saadham, veena, ghatam and naadhaswaram, thanks to their patience and self-discipline. Give away as much as you must, but no more. There was so much to learn!
The children picked up Tamil more quickly. From school, they brought more Tamil home, especially when they clashed or conspired with their classmates. But there was a difference. The boy had waa daa, po daa, somari, etc; the girl brought in waango, pongo, etc. Communication with the carpenter, electrician, plumber, postman, newspaper and milk suppliers was facilitated by the children. We were soon shopping in Tamil and using words like pooli, poond, vengaayam, vendakkai, evlo, kaal, arai, ondre, onegaal, etc.
The bus crew taught us a little Tamil. Hardly anything happened there. But a significant contribution came from auto-rickshaw drivers, that matchless tribe of social workers in Chennai – there were angels among them, who brought back my jacket, glasses, and book; there were also murderers among them. But they were all members of a Katchhi (political party), either D.M.K or A.I.A.D.M.K; they were all ‘Tamil loyalists’ and they all had a thambi (younger brother) or anna (elder brother) in the police force. Depending upon their mood and the agreed-upon fare (the meter was always in need of ‘repair’ or ‘re-setting’), they would either compliment our Tamil or advise us to learn it better. We learnt how to negotiate with them. The demand may be an outrageous fare, say nuur rupaa (a hundred rupees) for a trip from IIT to Adyar, or to Saidapet. But you must not lose your temper, ‘or you will lose the game’, Saraswati, my senior from Hyderabad, said. You can say something on the lines of, Chennai lo nyayam iliyaa!, (Is there no fair-play in Chennai?) in a caustic tone, she added. This mantra was successful in nine out of ten cases. In the remaining, we learnt phrases like saavu graaki, dongaa and the like. Sometimes we veered dangerously close to physical assault, but it never happened. Over-speeding auto drivers could be requested to go medhue (slow), but the more effective way to control speed was used by the girl, appa ke bayam irukku (father is afraid). Later, when we shifted to Taramani, the abode of auto-rickshaw drivers, we had many friends from this group – Ramesh, Siva, Kumar, Senthil, Murugesan, Subbu and many others, who gave us all the joy of having our own private vehicle without any of its hassles! And they added to our vocabulary and confidence.
We proudly displayed our Tamil to visitors from home. They came bound for towns like Kanya Kumari, Rameshwaram, Madurai or institutions like C.M.C Vellore, Sankara Nethralaya, Apollo Hospital, V.I.T Vellore etc. They said salaai for saalai, or Chenaai for Chennai and we corrected them.
Visitors also made fun of Tamil – ‘It sounds like pebbles rolling in an empty can’, they said. Esteem, or its absence, was mutual. Many friends said Hindi sounded like someone was wailing non-stop. Visitors also expected people here to answer them in Hindi. ‘Why should they’, we asked. ‘It is the national language!’ ‘Who says? And why don’t we learn and use Tamil in Bihar?’ Some other visitors from home wondered why Chennai wrote ‘Sitha’ rather than ‘Sita’. ‘Why do we not distinguish between ‘saath’ (with) and ‘saath’ (sixty)’?, we asked. We found ourselves defending Tamil and Tamil culture.
We also found ourselves educating our Tamil friends. Maithili is not just the name of a girl, it is also the name of a language spoken by over 40 million people in Mithila, now divided between Bihar and Nepal; it has a written and living literary tradition spanning over 1,000 years. We grow and eat more rice than chapaatiis. Durgapujaa is also celebrated in Bihar, more traditionally and with greater pomp, etc. We received an appreciative apadiyaa (is that so).
It was Amma, who, to us, represented the best in Tamil culture. Milk-white complexion, sharp, proportionate features, draped in cotton and colours, sometimes in nine yards, but mostly in less. She lived in the house opposite and came over to greet us in Hindi the same evening as we moved in. Like God had planted a guide for us in the sub-Saharan deserts, we felt, and began our days with a darshan of Venakatachalapathi, filter coffee, rasam, sambhar, dosa, idlis, uthappam and bisi bela bath on an immaculately clean floor untrodden by footwear of any kind. The aroma of her filter coffee filled the street, her dosai was paper thin, her idlis melted in mouth and her sambhar and rasam tasted like like they were made of gangajal.
Then there was Arumugam. He started as a helper at IIT-M with duties in the kitchen of Mrs. Sengupto, the wife of the founding director of IIT-M. In time, he became an accomplished chef, proficient in a variety of fish and other non-vegetarian Bengali dishes. Until he lived, he was the one who prepared mutton biriyani at the South Madras Bengali Cultural Association’s Durga Puja and Kali Puja every year. Before Mrs Sengupto moved out of IIT-M, she had Arumugam placed on the salary roll of IIT-M. He was appointed as Technician Grade II in the Dept of Humanities. After over three decades of service, he retired as Technician Grade I. Then he got elected as the chief of his village panchayat.
(To be continued next fortnight)