lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mama mama mama

Here is an utterly strange statement:

As a Telugu speaking Madrasi in Calcutta, I miss talking Tamil.

I never missed speaking Telugu as much as I did speaking Tamil, honestly. Perhaps it is because though I grew up with it being spoken all around me, it wasn't my mother tongue or even my second language. English is that.

I've written about this earlier, how English has become the only tongue I speak nowadays.

As I was growing up though, even as I spoke Telugu at home, Tamil was there, all pervasive. And it seeped into my conscience, shaped my thinking and arranged my world-view: all via film-songs. And the poetry that spoke to me through them and inspired me. I grew up with Kannadasan and Vaali, and the magic of their lyrics. I grew up with Tamil poetry, wit and humour.

But understanding a language and appreciating the nuances of it are easier than mastering script. I learnt to read Tamil alphabet through lurid cinema posters and billboards. I used to read the aphorisms that used to grace the city buses, and learnt a few couplets of Tirukkural that way. I learnt Jeyamkondan's poetry more or less the same way, pestering friends to read for me, rooting out translations so I could grasp the nuances. It got refined a bit when I learnt to do musical notation to the extent I could do write 'sa ri ga ma pa da ni' in Tamil and puzzle out compositions and notations laboriously.

All this I lost touch with, when I moved north and a part of me did more than just pine. I mourned.

These days the only chance I get to talk Tamil is when I do South-Indian kind of shopping, for tamarind pulp or pure sesame oil; or horror of horrors, ready-made pickles, if I am too lax or lazy make my own.

In Calcutta, the Lake Market area can easily be called Little Madras. There are South Indian eateries, shops catering to the southern brethren by way of magazines, murukkus and rice flour if you want to make your own murukkus.

The Madrasi shop where I used to buy Telugu magazines, tamarind and talk Tamil used to be run by Mama. It was a lifeline for me.

Mama is a Malayali and Tamil isn't native tongue to him. Well, it isn't for me, either. So when he sold me magazines or murukkus I had a chance to talk Tamil, neither his nor my mother tongue, but a medium of communication, all the same.

In the early years of my life in Calcutta, there used to several Telugu magazines that were popular, and the industry hadn't yet gone into a nosedive. I enjoyed buying them and keeping in some distant touch with contemporary literary events. Later, I stopped buying Telugu magazines, worried that my maids might think I read pornography based on the illustrations that pervaded the magazines. (They also used to carry columns of advice for the sexually ignorant, 'everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask' brand of heart to heart, close and confidential stuff.)

But my acquaintance and relationship with Mama was beyond that of merchant and patron by then. I went through a bad patch and he advised me to make a trip to Kanipakkam and pray there; I consoled him when he announced after one Diwali a few years ago that his other half had preceded him in death. I saw his health deteriorating; he knew of my aging when I stopped buying snacks.

His son and the daughter-in-law run the shop now, and he just sits there; with his Coke-bottle glasses that have done nothing for his vision which is being eroded by diabetes, despite cataract surgeries. He can't recognise people by sight anymore, but he remembers voices. He sits there and hears the world pass by; and he talks to old-timers like me, exchanging greetings.

Five months ago, I had a huge shock. I'd just discovered blogs and Praveen, and an easy way to satisfy my need for Tamil, and I was dying to share some jokes with him. And he wasn't there!

Fearing the worst, I plucked up courage and asked where he was. I was told that he went to Kerala, for a few months. I was relieved and disappointed that my jokes had to wait.

He was back, though, and we talk every time I go to buy tamarind or sesame oil and I tell him the latest jokes I read on various Tamil blogs.

Then I discovered Raj . Yesterday I was at Lake Market, and I was going to tell Mama all about the football jokes and he wasn't there.

Aging is a bad thing, folks. Again, I am scared to ask.



Blogger db said...

I'm a Tam who grew up in Mumbai, and then moved to the US at 22 ... I feel the pangs of separation from my mother tongue ... I truly do understand how it feels ..

6:21 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ram- Hi.Some days I ache to speak Telugu or Tamil, and I have to talk to myself or go to Lake Market. :-)

Keep visiting.

9:27 am  
Anonymous priya said...

well, i suppose im lucky that way.. im a tam in blore which means i speak a mongrel tongue which is neither kannada, or tamil or english, and the consolation is there are a lot of people i know who speak like me.
i've learnt to read kannada and tamil, but i dont use that knowledge anywhere except while reading the boards of buses in bangalore, or the odd movie review in kumudham, which i anyway take an hour a page.
heck, you dont need to know anything other than toda bahut english to survive in india.

10:55 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

priya- You are absolutely right. Thoda bahut this lingo and that... We seem to cope and get our meaning across in several languages without much trouble or need for scholarship. :D

11:48 am  
Blogger Siva Sivaaa said...

Aren't we born polyglots? As a telugu-speaking tamilian who has lived in Hyderabad where telugu nor hindi is spoken [Urdu is the language in Hyderabad and I know (or don't know) hindi thoda thoda], Inglish came to my rescue :D

12:10 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

We Indians seem to cope well enough, because we've had this lingusitic diversity always; unlike other countries where the population speaks a single language. So multilingualism comes easily to us. Thus theorised Lali. :-)

Let's not get into discussing Inglish, though. That is an inexhaustible topic.

2:18 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

Very moving, yes. But how many of your readers will make the connection to an old popular song that you used for the title, Lali?

Regards to Mama when you see him next.

9:49 pm  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

Lemme get this right. You speak two South Indian languages and three others.

That you pine for poetry is a given, but in so many languages?

To use your own phrase, the mind boggles. Dammit now I am trying to write like you minding my Ps and Qs dotting an i and dashing a t.

10:34 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ash- Thanks once again, and it doesn't matter if nobody gets it. But, hey. You got it, right?

I will convey your regards. :D

Rajesh- What to do, I am like this only.

And, you missed a common comma, or perhaps a judicious semicolon. Tee hee.

12:07 am  
Blogger anantha said...

Lali: I caught the song too. In a jiffy that too :)

But i am reading this post just today. Hence the late comment. As thalaivar would say, Late a vandhalum, latest a varuven :D

2:57 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Anantha- I suppose all Madrasis will get it. :-)

10:04 am  

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