How well do you know your Mother Tongue?
At some point in my childhood, I was asked to write about “My Mother”. I don’t remember the precise words, but vaguely recollect it being something like this:
My mother’s name is Lakshmi Ramanan.
She is _ years old.
She makes me nice things to eat and plays with me.
She also helps me with homework.
I love my mother.
What I did not know at that age was that my mother was also a writer.
Amma, my Mother
Amma is a Tamil writer. She has been writing for over fifty years now. She has written short stories, novels, travelogues, etc. for several popular Tamil magazines (Kalki, Vikatan, Amudha Surabi being just a few). Several novels and compilations of her short stories have also been published.
Amma often narrates her stories to me. I especially love her short stories that end with the perfect twist or punchline. She has always been my inspiration.
But I have been slacking on my part... I am yet to learn the Tamil language! That’s right, I can’t read or write Tamil!
I am thankful that my parents have spoken to me in Tamil since childhood. At least I can carry on a casual conversation in Tamil. Yet I do feel embarrassed that I can’t read the delightful stories written by Amma.
I blame my Tamil inadequacies on my North Indian upbringing that I am incidentally very proud of. Unlike my sisters who went to a Tamil school in New Delhi, and my brother who miraculously picked up the language on his own, I was the only Tamil-illiterate member of the family, and still am!
Sometime last year, I met a Tamil language faculty member from one of the universities in Singapore. He spoke about low Tamil readership levels among today’s youth and how the Singaporean government has been doing its part in promoting mother tongue languages, including Tamil (Mandarin Chinese and Malay being the others). Singaporean schools require a mother tongue language to be learned along with English which is the primary language. Special events are organized throughout the year to promote reading and writing in all the mother tongue languages – storytelling sessions, writing workshops, reading clubs, meetings with authors, lectures, and so on. Even the libraries are abundantly stocked with books in all the three mother tongue languages.
My conversation with the Tamil professor brought back a certain discomfort that I feel each time I think of my mother’s Tamil stories being enjoyed by people around the world, except me! And then one of my friends (in Singapore) spoke about her eagerness to conduct storytelling sessions for children in Tamil.
I felt a piercing pain in my stomach. Here I was in a foreign land, where Tamil was duly being given so much importance. Yet I was not making use of the resources and opportunities coming my way. I am proud to be able to speak, read and write in Hindi, India's national language. But that still doesn't justify not learning Tamil, my mother tongue!
Recently when I found myself face-to-face with language-learning books at the Higginbothams Bookstore in Chennai, I finally took the first step – I picked up a copy of a book to learn the basics of Tamil.
It’s been a while since I learned a new language and it may take a few years for me to start reading Amma’s books. But I look forward to making a beginning.