Parthi Kandavel is a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee serving Scarborough Southwest. While serving as a trustee, last October, Parthi played an instrumental role in recognizing January as Tamil Heritage Month at the school board. With approximately 12, 272 students enrolled in the TDSB who claim Tamil heritage, January has been distinctly marked to remember, celebrate and educate all students on Tamil culture, heritage, language, history and traditions.
Underscoring the importance of Tamil education and instilling pride in Tamil heritage, Parthi has shared a few words in preparation for the TDSB’s Inaugural Tamil Heritage Month Celebration this Saturday at Woburn Collegiate Institute.
Why Tamil Heritage?
This past August, just before I stepped onto a plane to Europe for a family wedding, I posted on Facebook the then breaking news that Google had chosen a Tamil guy, Sundararajan Pichai, to become its new CEO. Upon finding free wi-fi on our layover at Heathrow, I was surprised to see how viral the news had become in our community. However, in retrospect, it is easy to understand why it instilled such pride in us to see him take the mantle of leadership of one of the world’s biggest, most valuable and innovative companies in the world. Such feelings were not easy growing up as part of the 2nd generation in the diaspora. As children and youth coming of age in the 90s, depictions of our community in the media were not positive and we didn’t see ourselves in the mainstream, while we were taught European history as civilization in our schools.
Thus, it was in this light, that it was a pleasure and a personal privilege for me to pass the motion to recognize January as Tamil Heritage Month at the Toronto District School Board. It may be a surprise, but after English, Tamil is our 2nd biggest language group in the TDSB, with 12, 272 students of Tamil Heritage, roughly 5.5% of our total student body. As many of us are aware, Tamil is one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world with a rich literature, history and identity going back over 2000 years. With significant presence in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa, we have now planted roots in major cities in the West. The recognition of this month will not only acknowledge students of Tamil Heritage, but provide all students an opportunity to understand Tamil traditions, history and culture.
For example, our students can learn how brilliant scientists like CV Raman and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar have been recognized with Nobel prizes for their work in the sciences. Srinivas Ramanujan has been heralded by mathematicians as a phenomenal genius without peer. Vishwanathan Anand reigned as the World Chess Champion from 2007-2013. Near home, we have seen the rise of Kamala Harris, Kamala is the Attorney General of California, with a strong opportunity to become the first U.S. Senator of Tamil heritage in 2016. In Hollywood, comedians Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, as well as director M Night Shyamalan continue to entertain us. In the music scene, the artist MIA, is renowned for her edgy and ground breaking music. In the business world, Tamil-American Indra Nooyi in 2006 became the 5th CEO in Pepsi’s 44 year history – last year Fortune named her the 3rd most powerful woman in business.
Lastly, when we discuss these layered and multi-faceted ideas such as identity and culture, I am reminded of when former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressed the UN Assembly in 1980. She reached back 2000 years ago to quote a couplet from a Tamil poem: Yaadhum Oore, Yaavarum Kelir. This translates as “To us all towns are one, all people our kin.” This, I believe, captures the right spirit towards these notions of heritage, that each [identity] belongs to all, that we are all informed by each other’s culture and thus, stronger for it.
On behalf of the Toronto District School Board, I extend a warm invitation to all to join our students and families in celebrating Thai Pongal and Tamil Heritage at Woburn C.I. (2222 Ellesmere Road). A reception will be held from 1-2pm, followed by our program from 2-6pm. Our celebration is free and open to the public.