Tales of My Adventures in Tamil: The Conclusion.

Updated: Mar 17

Guest writer for"mynzdream" blog

Marriages in Tamil Nadu are less long-drawn-out affairs than in Bengal.

The reception hosted by the boy’s side is on the evening of the same day that the bride and groom are hitched. Thereafter a first formal visit back to her father’s home follows, husband in tow. This usually occurs a day or two later.

On this occasion, which is formally termed “viroondu” the newly married couple are pampered and treated to delicacies. As it happens, a year after I tied the knot, hubby’s younger sister did so too. We were there when she returned home with her husband for the formal first homecoming as a married bride.

Her wedding gifts were still piled high on shelves in a stock room and the family decided to unwrap and inspect the loot.

Each time a package was opened, my sister-in-law, or her mother uttered something in Tamil, to which the whole family responded with a seemingly magical melodious phrase, “Aap Diya…aa?” The reason I add the extra “aa” after an ellipse is to indicate the long-drawn nature of the sound, ending in a higher pitch like a question. It sounded so quaint and musical, and seemed to be such a failproof response to whatever the statement the speaker made, I itched to try it out.

Gift after gift got unwrapped, and every time my mother in law or sister in law commented on the gift, one or the other of the family members present, or each of them in turn, or all of them in unison, chanted, “Aap diya..aa?”

It was supremely tantalizing.

As the last gift got unwrapped to reveal a shiny jumbo pressure cooker, my pretty sister-in-law dimpled at her brother and said something which sounded simultaneously sweet and tart. My hubby broke into a grin, and said… you guessed it… “Aap Diya?”

The die was cast.

It was do or die. I had just been challenged to rise to the occasion and fit in with my tribe.

Unfortunately, all the gifts had been unwrapped. The running commentary had ceased as well.

In the pin drop silence that followed this people pleasing Bengali tigress anxiously

stalked her unwitting Tamil preys, for a chance to utter the magic phrase. Father-in-law

said something in a mumbling monotone. I leapt into the fray with a grim and fierce

attempt at a casual smile and trilled, "Aap Diya...?"

I did not forget either the rising intonation or the lengthy drawl. Perfectly accented delivery.

I waited for warm acknowledgements and acceptance from the tribe. My tribe.

Every member of the family turned to fix me with a curious stare.

Sister-in-law looked nonplussed. Mother-in-law fixed a sharp glance on me, and I could read her thoughts! Had I been faking it when I had claimed I didn’t know Tamil, (Tamil Teriyad)?

She looked at hubby and asked “Amrita ke Tamil Teriyum?” (Amrita knows Tamil?)

My husband was gaping at me. Behind his shoulder Father-in-law was inspecting me gravely.

Flustered, I explained, “Everyone was saying Aap Diya, so I thought I should say it too.”

“When were we saying Aap diya? hubby enquired curiously.

“After each gift was opened and your mom or your sis commented on it,” I pouted.

“Oh.”, Hubby was beginning to get it. Finally, I would discover the meaning of that mysterious “one-phrase-fit-all occasions”, I thought.

“Oh”, Hubby repeated, “So you decided to use the word because everyone else was?”,

Turning to his tribe, he offered a rapid-fire explanation to them, causing all of them to grin, my sister-in-law giggling fit to burst.

Well, it was shortly thereafter explained, that Aap diya wasn’t a miracle chant but simply “Is that so?” Each time a gift got opened, sis in law or MIL would exclaim upon the worth or utility of the gift, eliciting the polite rejoinder, “Is that so?” to their pontifications.

They were all polite and polished to say the least. And now I stood out like a gawky sixth finger in their family of five. (There was another unmarried college going sister-in-law as well.)

After the usual boisterous shoulder shaking laughter at my antics in Tamil had drawn to a close, we all went about our own ways. I made a silent resolution to control my love for the language henceforth, or at least keep it on a leash till I was certain of all the meanings and nuances. It seems my unexpected Aap Diya had been a very cheeky rejoinder, to my father in law’s casual observation, “It’s getting late, let’s call it a night.”

And thus, I went about my merry way, over the passage of years gaining greater confidence in unleashing my Tamil on unwary unsuspecting strangers. I had changed from the tearful bride who tore up her Tamil Beginner’s guide when it proved a greater struggle than she had anticipated, and her husband was extremely reluctant to teach her. The explanation he offered was simply pouring oil over troubled waters, “Tamil is all about inflection, accent and pronunciation. You must get the rhythm and intonation right as well otherwise no one will even recognize that you are speaking Tamil.”

Indignant I accused him of pronouncing the same word differently at different times. Much later, I had a Tamil boss at an institute I was working in, as a creative content developer. She explained, the pronunciation of the same Tamil word varies widely from the northern to the Southern parts of the state. So, there is Chennai Tamil and there is Tirunelveli Tamil which is the deep south coastal Tamil Nadu. Now she demanded proof that I was indeed hitched to a Tamil and asked me to say something in Tamil. Confident I flashed her a beatific smile and said, “Cheri” (ok), and she corrected me calmly, “It’s Seri.” And so, it went word for word.

The Chennai accent is predominantly closer to Sanskrit so my hubby’s deep south “Chikram”, (Quickly), became sigram, (Sanskrit Shighhram) when my boss uttered it. “Hey girl, I refuse to believe your hubby’s Tamil, “she quipped. Sternly I threatened to bring him to work as a show and tell. She guffawed loudly and confessed she herself was married to a Bengali. And spoke clear unaccented perfect Bengali much to my chagrin. I let that roll. But became even more hell bent on conquering Tamil and inflicted it on all unsuspecting Tamils in my vicinity.

A move to Bangalore in 2014 proved highly propitious to this purpose. At last, I had a hapless victim for my linguistic zeal, an innocent Tamil maid. She humored me and taught me many phrases which, like a tigress, I roared at passers-by on roads and public places. At a local grocery I often requested a cup of tea, from the shopkeeper, while purchasing groceries which she dispensed from a flask for seven rupees, “Kunjam Chaya venum”, (I would like some tea), I melodiously trilled, she hid her amusement and poured me a cuppa. Regarding the toddler playing at her feet, I solemnly stated “Nalla Paiyen, enne pere? (Good boy what is your name?) He grinned and refused to answer till he received a prod from his mother. “Nalla Chaya”, (good tea) I ventured.

She had other customers, so I took mercy. Walking back home, I regarded the cloudy skies and started hurrying. A lady fell into step beside me and smiled, “It will rain soon.”

I gazed at her with shiny eyes, observing the mangalsutra, or Tamil Thali around her neck, (symbol of married women in Tamil Nadu), “Maalai Verdu” (Rain is coming), I replied.

The problem is I pronounced it Melai, (Mountain). She was smiling and trying hard not to, the result spooked me, and I whispered, “Maalai verdu, cherepu olla podu”, The entire statement had been taught by my maid to train my boys for rainy days. (Rain is coming, put shoes inside.) Now clearly the lady was spooked, she increased her pace almost running down the street with a muttered goodbye. “Poite vaare”, (See you soon, or come again, if a visitor to your home is departing), I chirped. Even I had to admit that said scenario was not likely.

My Tamil adventures were finally brought to a stop by a thatha, (an elderly grandpa), owner of the rival grocery store of the neighborhood.

One day, finding my usual shop closed, I ventured forth to him. He ran his establishment in an entirely different regal style. There was no gigantic steel thermos of tea dispensed to customers for starters. Thatha never got up but continued watching Tamil or Kannada movies on a tiny portable TV royally ignoring us shoppers, till we humbly placed our demands before him. Demands did I say? I meant requests. I was determined to impress.

Erendu packet Paal, and pattu mutthai”, (Two packets of milk and ten eggs), was my polite request in perfectly accented Tamil. I had mastered the basic stuff, and English interjections in between vernacular statements are commonplace all over India.

I didn’t sweat it; confident I could pass muster for Tamil on such a basic shopping trip. While counting the change I happened to notice he had handed me a fifty rupee note instead of ten. Now I was sweating it. “Ompattu vandamma. Pattu kodu.” It was an utterly mangled fiasco of the language that I performed, and I was shamefully aware no true-blue Tamil, even a toddler would put together such an utterly clumsy phrase. (Don’t want fifty, give ten).

Thatha must have worked under the British as military personnel. He drew himself up to an impressive ramrod stiff height and pinned me down with a basilisk glare. I was petrified.

“Don’t speak to me in Tamil. English and Hindi only, I speak both.” He growled. As an afterthought he added a warning, “No Kannada also.”

It was an effective stand-in for “Vaaya Moodu” (keep quiet/Close your mouth.) As he handed me the correct change in loose coins after snatching away the fifty rupees note, I nearly said “Nandri”, (Thank you), but remembered just in time.

In my abject turmoil, I proceeded to drop the coins all over the shop floor and bent down and picked them up blushing like a beetroot.

I literally ran home, and once my front door was safely closed on my shameful ignominy; I took my vows of abstinence.

No more Tamil, at least in the foreseeable future?

Enne pesare? (What do you say?)

© Amrita Valan 2021

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