Back To Tamil Class

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Like many South African Tamils from my generation, I cannot speak, write or read Tamil.

Of late it has become a stain in my mind, and a flame inside of me has started to build, yearning to be able to learn my native tongue. There are times in life when the universe just presents opportunities that we must embrace. Recently, I saw a Facebook post on a social site for lessons in my area, starting in a few days time. I eagerly shot out an email to my sister, who was just as enthusiastic as me to learn Tamil, so I contacted the tutor and confirmed my attendance.


My sister and I are an interesting pair. We always have each other’s backs, but we are poles apart in terms of personality and behaviour. We get to this school and have no idea where to go. Now here was are in our 30s, feeling just like it’s our very first day at school all over again. Of course, we can not just hang around and wait! We eventually follow the Tamil-looking individuals that pass us by and ask if they’re attending the class. It turns out that the person we were addressing with our posh South African English, is actually the Tamil teacher. She kindly leads the way. We enter this class feeling very nervous and really unsure of what to do with ourselves. It is that ‘hanging around like we really don’t belong’ kind of feeling. THEN, in stream the kids! And when I say kids, I mean children between the ages of 5 and 12. They’re all extremely fluent in Tamil because although they live in South Africa, they speak Tamil at home. My sister and I stand out like sore thumbs, not simply because of our age, but mostly because we are in the ‘idiot’ zone where the language is concerned.

The younger sister


We find a spot at the back of the class to remain inconspicuous as the children roll out conversations interchanging Tamil and English. A girl of about eight sits across from us.  When the teacher said, ‘Kaalai Vannakum’ I ask her what the first word was because I only understood vannakum. After a few attempts, I finally get it!

Then comes the moment where we have to introduce ourselves to the rest of the class. Of course, my sister and I are looked at as the ‘aunties’ in the class and the teacher asks the children to help us out. Our introductions go something  like this:

Teacher: Un peyar yenna (What’s your name?)

Child: Yen peyar … (My name is …)

Teacher to me: Un peyar yenna?

Me: I’m sorry, I don’t understand what this means. Please explain and also help me answer.

Class: (giggles)

Teacher explains.

I blush!

Another teacher comes along to help my sister and I with the Tamil alphabet. We start with the basic vowels and have to repeat each vowel five times. My juvenile scribble is embarrassing. However, I quickly discover that my sister very conveniently eliminated some information about her childhood to me. This is revealed only at the time when she starts to scribe perfectly formed letters; SHE ATTENDED TAMIL CLASS FROM AGES 7 TO 10!!! How did I not know this? It was at this point that her memory was triggered and she becomes the alpha between us. As alphas go, she has to frequently point out all of my errors. In fact, she even points them out to the teacher who goes on to elaborate that younger sisters are often show-offs, and she knows this because she is the younger sister. At least that was cleared up!



We wrap up the class feeling so much more confident and truly very inspired. On the way home we even start to practice to the different terms for morning, afternoon and evening. Our teacher tells us to try and speak Tamil in class so that it will help us gain confidence. Just like every school experience, we are given homework. I have my set of vowels down to a neat order now and I plan on tackling the consonants THIS week. I cannot wait for class next Saturday and I, for one, am extremely chuffed that I am over my nerves of walking into a classroom full of children. For the next class I will most certainly be a more confident aunty!





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Nirvani Pillay

Nirvani Pillay

Nirvani was born in South Africa; a fourth generation of Tamil origin. She moved from Durban to Johannesburg as a young adult and joined an eco-tourism company where she now works as the PR manager. She has a BBA degree in marketing from the Institute of Marketing Management, and is currently completing her Honours in Marketing Management. She has travelled extensively throughout southern Africa, including some parts of Europe and Asia. Nirvani’s interests include wildlife conservation, Anglo-Indian literature and art. She feels that nothing compares to watching a great African sunset with a glass of fine wine in hand.

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