Tales of my Adventures in Tamil Part I; Amrita Valan.

Updated: Mar 24

Guest writer for "mynzdream" blog

Tales of my Adventures in Tamil Part I

So I have Tamil friends now that I live in South India.

I made a conscious effort to learn the language.

But...While I know all the letters and can read it, (albeit with a horrific Anglo-Bong accent!), speaking it utterly defeats me.

First of all, there's a distinctive melodious rhythm to the accent.

If you go "besoora" (off key), genuine speakers of Tamil will gaze upon you as an object of utter perplexity.

Secondly, there's the small matter of grammar.

There may or may not be gender, (I don't think there is) but there are complex rules regarding placement or position of the letter in a word determining it's pronunciation.

So "K" at the initial position is pronounced "k" but in the middle of a word it takes on the sound of a "H."

"Ch" doubles up as "S", which makes some Tamils say Cheri, which means Okay, and other Tamils say Seri. Which is Okay too. A-OK, If you know the rules.

"P" is also "B" So Pankajam mama, (Uncle Pankajam) or Bank of Punjab can be pronounced as Bankajam mama or Bank of Bunjab.

All good so far. Learn the rules, get the ropes of a new language, and you are on your way to becoming a polyglot.

But then comes the intricacy of the mellifluous yet rapid fire joining together of words, the agglutination, (noun+verb+auxiliary verb), and now it gets really tough.

I just can't do it. But it comes easy to native born Tamils.

So when a guest visits my home, I have a few memorized stock phrases, which I pull out like the proverbial rabbit from a magician's hat!

In fact I do those with a decent accent too.

If say, you're offering coffee, it's best to draw out the offer with a bright gracious smile and lilt charmingly, "Kaapi Kudi-kiringla?"

Observe how the main verb kudi, (drink) has been joined to Kiringla, the auxiliary verb, (Will you?) and your heart will break, it will shatter with sympathy for me.

I can't do these verbal mergers. These linguistic acrobatics. Except the happy handful of sentences and phrases I have memorized, I'm quite hapless and hopeless.

So if someone asks me, "Chhapadachhi?", (Have you eaten?), I can reply, with ease and flair, "Aaama, rento idli chhapadachhi."

(Yes I ate a couple of Idlis.)

Now my initial fluency and confidence leads my delighted Tamil friend to launch into a veritable Niagra falls of Tamil, in which even while hopelessly drowning, I manage to flounder and say, "Tamil kunjam kunjam pesare, seeghram pesara teriyaad."

(I speak a little Tamil, rapid speech I don't understand.)

Teriyum is understand.

Teriyad is don't understand.

Likewise venum is I want.

But vandamma is Don't want.

Initially I used to do rather horrified double takes at these words.

Being an Indian of Bengali ethnicity, Chhapadachhi made me feel apprehensive about getting a tight slap, (Jhappar or Thappor),(Slap in Bengali), rather than bring mental visions of refreshing nourishment.

As for offering snacks to an elder, if he accepted then all was chill and mellow. He would smile sweetly and graciously accept, "Aama, chaya(tea), venum.(I want)."

But if he refused, it was a different kettle of fish altogether.

The harsh guttural phonics of "Vandamma", (I don’t want), delivered with resounding finality frankly sounded to me like, "Dammit woman, off with your silly snacks!"

I have many such funny foibles and tales of my adventures in Tamil...Why?

The story shall reveal that, round about the end of the road.

Poiittevare! ( I'll be back) As the Mighty Schwarzenegger once said. A small but important addendum or disclaimer would be apt here!

My intention is never to belittle or make fun of any language on earth.

My late mother was a brilliant student of philology and linguistics at Sanskrit College, who was learning Russian as a hobby at age 18. So I revere and appreciate every language.

Here I write for the sheer fun of my own status as court Jester, the Bengali unintentional comedian among True blue Tamils.

Engaging with an ancient classical language of such depth and beauty as Tamil on a more profound level is not possible for me.

It's got some beautiful poetry and music though, that much I can and do appreciate.

I'm kind of, well, a little bit of a show off?

If I know it, I like to flaunt it.

Comes from being the youngest kid in the family who tried hard to get taken seriously.

And partly stems from being a bit of a monkey, a shallow clown.

And now the Libra in me offers rebuttal mentally. 'Clowns aren't shallow, stupid, they are perhaps the saddest among the wise ones.'

So there, I said it. I'm sad and I'm wise and I'm shallow and a show off. A bundle of contradictions.

Now imagine this potential bombshell of explosive contradictions guided in the direction of poor unsuspecting Tamils who have been gracious enough to teach me some Tamil.

Unfortunately the piddling little bit that I know in a vast sea of Tamil, doesn't help me swim with the team, it only ensures that I pop up to the surface occasionally, (while drowning), and utter my gibberish before getting out of my depth again.

While waiting for my sons to finish playing football I had become friends with a group of Tamil parents. Great people who were all highly educated, yet simplicity and warmth itself.

They included me gladly with a smile every week, initially speaking English but soon lapsing into non-stop super swift Tamil.

Ok. I could have let that be. Engaged myself with my smartphone or like now, written a post for social media.

I could have done what I'm second best at, stare like a ruminating cow into the distance.

Or enthusiastically cheered my son.

Instead I stared at them like a wistful intelligent monkey, who is almost on the verge of cracking the mystery of human speech, and is determined to do it at a propitious moment.

Above my head that sunny morning, a sleek ebony crow raucously cawed from the emerald leaves.

Oh my! The propitious moment or shuv muhurrat had arrived.

I gravely pointed to the crow and said with beguiling conviction, "Kaka" (Crow).

The parents immediately turned their gaze on me with kindness and patience, interest even.

Oh Boy! I sure was appreciated for my efforts in speaking Tamil.

Of course the attention went to my head.

I had really nothing of value to say or contribute to the conversation. I could not even understand their rapid fire Tamil exchanges, let alone participate. The occasional English word thrown in merely titillated, that’s all. But my brain was on fire with a desire to shine!

So, I proceeded to make an observation that the crow was sitting on the tree. Which though neither pertinent, (to the topic they were discussing), nor age appropriate, (I'm sure, only kindergartners point and say, "Look, birdie!") , would still have passed muster, or even been acceptable, if I had known enough grammar to put it in the proper tense.

Instead I muttered ominously, a touch defiantly, "Kaka, Marram, Maal, Ukar. (Crow, Tree, Above, Sit.)

I watched the light of polite attention slowly get extinguished in the eyes of the sole gentleman in the group, (previously very friendly indeed). I watched my software engineer friend, Sumitra, a beautiful Tamil lady wipe the sweat off her elegant brow.

Nethravati of the beautiful eyes, stared at me with a deep liquefying melting gaze. It was quizzical. And there was a hint or glint of supressed amusement in their cognac depths.

Or was she going to cry on me?

I panicked. In the quiet silence under the deep blue sky, I swiftly pondered, strategic retreat or full on charge?

My son had returned after playing football. Hot and sweaty he was chugging down water from his bottle.

I sensed an opening, and babbled wildly, "Thanneer venma?", (Want water? ) which by the way, he was already drinking.

I mentally noted that my first born too was now added to the curious group gazing at me like a member of an endangered species.

Endangered, did I say? Make that extinct! Nothing venture, nothing have. Go for Guts and glory! All these aspirational sayings flashed in my mind as I gutted myself out, with fresh word vomit.

Like a shot, I er, shot off imperiously to my child,"Tambi ke koopre", (call brother).

Stunned at being commanded in Tamil, he obliged.

Everyone else relaxed and gave me encouraging smiles.

Their mistake.

Gathering both my boys I addressed them with chirpy brightness, "Veedu ke Po la?, (Shall we go home?), delivered with perfect pronunciation.

Sumitra opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind

As Nethravati said bye, and the gentleman nodded kindly, I added icing to the cake

Or perhaps lighted matchstick to kerosene?

"Poitte vaare," I sweetly trilled.

Sumitra's face underwent several shades of change. She graciously whispered, "Poitte vaare Amrita. No need to speak Tamil dear. We can speak in English."

The next meeting is another story .

But first, the big reveal.

I am actually a Bengali married to a Tamil. So my kids are Tam-bongs. Or Ba-mils?

Let me regale you with funny linguistic misunderstandings between my in laws and me, in the initial years of my marriage.

Act 1 Scene 1.

MIL and I are alone at home one long boring afternoon wondering what we can talk about .

We've just eaten lunch and there's a five or six hours period of time before hubby returns home to act as interpreter.

MIL speaks English well enough to get by, but by her own admission is not comfortable enough to make small talk in it.

Meanwhile we stare at each other cordially but for the life of me I cannot think of a topic of conversation.

MIL casts an absorbed glance outdoors through the window and remarks solemnly, "Naraiyel."

I am a little dismayed. Is she criticizing me for not adding coconut in today's menu?

Or asking me to buy Nariyel/narkol aka coconut?

Equally solemnly I assure her, "Aunty in the evening, we'll get nariyel from the market."

I regard her approvingly for her efforts to speak in Hindi to me.

Soon after I am standing in the balcony when she sidles up next to me with a charming smile.

I smile at her shyly and she sweetly enunciates, "Naraiyel."

Oh no not again.

Here we go I think.

"Aunty shops are closed now after an hour we'll go and look for nariyel", I say as politely as possible.

"Naraiyel", she nods at me in agreement.

To cut a long story short we scouted the entire market place at around 5 pm but couldn't find aunty's exact choice of coconut and returned crestfallen.

On hubby's arrival I related the tale with great concern for auntie’s disappointments with Bengal's coconuts.

A rapid-fire exchange in Tamil between mom and son followed, while I gravely wondered what the fuss was about.

To my astonishment both started shaking their shoulders and laughing at me.

Then hubby in between bursts of laughter explained that his mom was Not asking me to buy coconut or nariyel in Hindi, but admiring the tall and grand buildings around our home. In an effort to make conversation with the new daughter in law she had graciously commented on the size of the buildings in our city. "Naraiyel" meant large.

And no, most definitely not coconut.

Ok I went kind of red faced as my hubby next proceeded to drag out a cardboard box MIL had stuffed under her bed on arrival.

It was packed carefully with a dozen home grown coconuts all the way from the town she hailed from.

For the indispensable South Indian fresh coconut chutney with dosa.

Mom in law blinked at me through her kannadi, (spectacles), her lips struggling to control her smiles.

"Tenga!, We call coconut tenga," she informed me with a mischievous grin, in perfectly normal even unaccented English.

"Aapdiya?", (Is that so?), "Aama, seri Aunty," (yes, ok aunty), was all that I could manage.

There is an addendum to this tale.

For another time?

What say? (Enna pesare?)

This is the last of my series of unfortunate incidents while negotiating the intricacies of this perfect language.

Perhaps my fascination with the language renders me incapable of its mastery. I'm awed by the subtle layers of logic that dictates it and the slightest variations of pronunciation that can transmute a word beyond recognition.

Since this will be my last post on dear old Tamil. I will write it staccato style to cram in the multitudinous faux pas I have committed in it.

By now I should be serving a sentence, ( Or a paragraph a chapter, or even a novel!) In linguistic jail for my misdemeanours.

First of all, when you praise a little girl, and say, "Nee nalla punne", (you're a good girl) don't be surprised if she explodes into goofy giggles...

You have probably called her Nalla poonai, (Good cat!).

Meeaow! First strike.

While asking a Tamil aunty for some more of her delicious fries, (Kootu), pronounce at your peril, or you may just get a smart rap, (kuttu), on your Taal,(head).

Delivered with a naughty grin and loving hands.

Ouch! Second strike.

(But we'll worth it because of the yummy Kootu).

Now the third incident and swan song from my world of Tamil butchery is shameful

I'm literally afraid to narrate it.

It reveals my impulsive shot gun nature, outspoken and utterly out of control.

Newly married with hubby as imagined Habibi by my side, I felt entitled to extra gallantry and protection.

Especially on the streets of Chennai where I knew neither the spoken word nor the written sign.

We had taken an auto from Mylapore to San Thome after buying a few cooking vessels. Halfway through I wanted to stop at a shop though we had agreed on the initial destination.

The auto driver turned around and sternly growled at me, what seemed to me a preposterous thing to say to a lady.

"Nee Moondu" (You're Stupid.)

Affronted, I turned to hubby who politely paid the auto driver and got down without even a semblance of reaction, indignation or outrage on his visage.

Hurt and furious I took matters into my own clumsy hands.

Got down safely from the auto first and then told him off with great deliberation.

"Nee Moondu!", I cried.

Now hubby looked shocked. The auto driver's eyes popped out.

Belatedly I realised something was wrong.

The auto guy thankfully had other fish(meen), to fry, and didn't stop to give me a piece of his mind.

But, oh but, hubby did.

"Look Am! You just can't indiscriminately use the words I teach you in Tamil on everyone. You'll get us in trouble!”, he griped.

"Why on earth did you call him stupid? He was neither driving too slow or too fast, not breaking any traffic rules either", hubby continued lamenting.

Exasperated, I made a moue at him, "So it's ok for him to call me Nee Moondu, that I am stupid, but I can't give back as good as I get?, I stuttered.

"When did he call you Moondu?" questioned hubby with deadly calm.

"Just before you paid him..." "stupid" ( This particular stupid was mentally sotto voiced and not vocalized.

Visibly crestfallen my husband stared at me with incredulity at first in his beautiful South Indian eyes, which melted into comprehension, at last lighting up with amusement.

"Just before I paid him, Chella (dear) Moondu, he asked for moopatti onnu rupees.(Thirty one rupees.) And you misheard that as Nee Moondu! I can see that I have to stop teaching you Tamil abuse from now on, you, you... public menace." But his wicked eyes twinkled and how!

Strike Three....over and out.

Now let me psst....add some of the very berry naughty Tamil words he taught me, which I have passed on to my sons.

Heritage is important.

So is tradition.

Here goes: (Eirke Po?)


Pei : Ghost.

Vayya Moodu: Shut up! (Said often to my kids)

Chatthaamm Podum:

Enough! (Never works when said kids are rough housing.)

But the crowning glory of my vocabulary cheat sheet which my younger son imbibed?

And then called a venerable great uncle at the tender age of four?

My uncle had lovingly but imperiously asked him, "Who am I, little boy?"

Pat came my son's reply!, "Korangu kutti!" ( Monkey Baby).

The End for today. To be continued.

© Amrita Valan 2021

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