My own little homecoming — how I rediscovered my long-lost Tamil Identity

Growing up in Pune, I would often go to painstakingly great lengths to dissociate myself from my Tamil heritage.

“I’m not one of them” I would proudly declaim. “I may speak Tamil, but that does not make me a Tamil (note the article). I speak English too. Does that make me an Englishman?”

I considered myself fortunate to have been raised thousands of kilometers away from the self-centered insularity that, in my belief, characterized Tamil Nadu. I prided myself on my unaccented fluency in Hindi, into which I often threw Delhi and Mumbai slang to put even greater distance between myself and Chennai. I’d join in the derision that would invariably ensue when a South Indian spoke stilted Hindi on TV, or when somebody mocked the lilt of a Madrasi accent.

I positively loathed it every time I saw the superfluous ‘h’ in such a name as ‘Prashanth’ or ‘Jayanth’, or when a Tamil pronounced that letter as though he were sneezing (hechh!). It would make me cringe in mortification to see a South Indian movie with over-the-top action sequences air on Sony Max.

On my occasional visits to Chennai, I would, in the presence of my oh-so-uncool relatives, stage loud telephonic conversations in Hindi with my friends back home. While I struggled with my awkward Tamil on these visits, I lost no opportunity to extol the virtues of learning Hindi, and exhorted every Tamilselvan, Dhanapalan, and Hariharan I knew to learn the language.

Around 2008, I took on the identity of a Maharashtrian whose Tamil ancestry was an unfortunate accident of birth. With the zeal of a newly-evangelized believer eschewing heathenry, I began criticizing Chennai and Tamil Nadu with all the self-righteousness I could muster. My online arguments with Tamils on social media and online forums carried a tone that would do Bobby Jindal proud.

This period of chest-thumping denial continued through my undergraduate years, and the one year I worked in Mumbai. During these four years, I tried to justify my disdain for Tamil Nadu with my genuine love for Maharashtra.

Bust out the lungi. I am in Chennai”

This was the line with which I updated my Facebook status upon arriving in Tamil Nadu. It was 2014, and I had gained admission to a prestigious graduate school. In Chennai.

Despite knowing full-well that the white sarong-like garment that Tamil men wear is called the veshti, I deliberately chose to pander to a stereotype made popular by a song in a Shahrukh Khan movie. For I wanted to be Bollywood-cool.

As the first term got underway, I went around looking for kindred spirits who could ease my pain of being in an alien land. During this time, I deluded myself into believing I belonged to a rare species of Mankind — The Hindi-speaking Tamil (Veshticus Bollywoodae). I began styling myself ‘Bhau’ in a nod to my formative years in Maharashtra, and chose to talk to my Tamil classmates in English.

At first, this worked quite well. To all intents and purposes, I was a Hindi-phone who knew enough Tamil to help his North Indian classmates interact with the housekeeping staff and tempo drivers. My misplaced sense of linguistic superiority kept me from so much as attempting to speak my mother-tongue, and my ego plied with a constant supply of helium.

As the months rolled by, comeuppance came knocking.

As I struggled to make conversation with my supposed co-linguists, I realised I had shortchanged myself. I envied the sense of cohesion that characterized the Tamils in my cohort. Theirs were easily the strongest bonds on campus, and seemingly nothing could break their (sic)“kamaal ki unity”. I longed to find a toehold in their circles, make friends with them, and, perhaps, nip the identity crisis that had begun to emerge in my head.

Even as I hung out with my friends from the north of the Vindhyas, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I had lost an opportunity to reconnect with my roots. It gradually began to appal me that I had become an alien in the very land off which my forefathers had lived.

It was a Facebook update that finally brought my simmering sentiment to boil. A junior, who had returned to campus from a local North Indian restaurant, posted “Finally, good food in Chennai!”, utterly unmindful of the feelings of her Chennaiite colleagues.

I swore, by the heavenly softness of the Murugan Idli, that I would not only reclaim my ancestral identity, but also wear it with pride on my sleeve.

The metamorphosis set in motion, I gingerly began making attempts to speak Tamil. Stilted though it was, the effort it entailed was not lost on my audience, who chose not to be derisive. I taught myself the Tamil alphabet in my spare time, and began reacting quite explosively to anything I perceived as being remotely anti-Tamil.

Graduating in 2016, I found employment in Chennai. Several of my well-meaning friends offered their sympathies, which I accepted with grace. They, after all, did not know how I stoked was to set down roots in the city that had nurtured as many as four generations of my family.

Cut to 2017. My spoken Tamil is still terrible, and it takes me ages to read the shortest word in that language. Much to the amusement of my Tamil friends, I am still wont to transcribing my name as ‘Aaiyai’ in Tamil.

However, I feel a sense of contentment I had never experienced in the past. No longer am I given to fashioning contrived identities for myself. I take immense pride in the history and culture of Tamil Nadu. No matter how terribly I might speak my mothertongue, it always sets my heart aflutter to know that it is one of the oldest languages in existence. A recent temple tour to Kumbakonam had me in awe of the architectural excellence of the magnificent structures, most of which had been built nearly ten centuries ago.

I have found the sweet spot between jingoism and a healthy sense of pride. It’s a good place to be.