It was a very disturbing picture. A famine-stricken child from the Horn of Africa begging for food. “This is sad,” I told myself. Then I promptly dipped my idiyappam into my sothi. Awesome breakfast. Damn! I have a really short attention span.
I am here to write about the importance of learning to read, write and speak the Tamil language. “I don’t have to speak Tamil to be Tamil”. “My parents come from a Tamil-speaking region so that makes me Tamil.” “I’m Canadian bro.” These are some of the things I hear from our young people when questioned why they won't speak Tamil to a fellow Tamil person.
A lot of times I feel like saying “Sure Canadian bro, there’s some maple syrup stuck on your lips. You know the one that came from the mutton roll you had earlier this morning?”
I won’t deny that it's tough to preserve a language as a member of the second generation overseas. I grew up in Singapore. It wasn’t easy speaking Tamil openly in public without being mocked by my Chinese friends calling me “Annai”.
In Singapore I led a double life. On Friday nights I would be out with my Chinese and Malay friends in a suit. On Saturday afternoons I would don aviator shades with my Tamil friends, call them “machan” , speak in Tamil and whistle in Tamil theatres shouting “thala takkar doi” to some Ajith movie. As a young Tamil who grew up outside the ancestral homelands of Tamil Nadu and Eelam, that is how I’d defined myself. I called it adapting to the times while retaining my Tamil identity as well.
Yet what is happening to most us in the second generation of the Tamil diaspora? Some of us claim that we don’t need to speak Tamil to be Tamil. We say that we are Canadian. Or German. Or Norwegian. Or Australian. Now imagine the irony of speaking English, French or German at the expense of Tamil, yet asking a poor farmer’s child to take up arms to defend the Tamil language in the land we fled.
Remember that the child died for the Tamil cause. Remember that he died so that your family could claim refugee status and enjoy peace and prosperity in the West. We should all realize that the poor farmer’s child would loved to have experienced the good life just like you. He would loved to have gone to the movies just like you. He would loved to have pursued higher education and a high-paying career just like you. He would loved to have had a girlfriend just like you. He would love to have been married and had children just like you. Yet he gave up his life for a greater cause. Now imagine if here were to hear you say “Hey I’m Canadian bro. I don’t need to speak Tamil.” How would he feel? How much would this undermine our struggle?
Those of us in the diaspora are the lucky ones. We got out. And yes, we Tamils form a thriving community wherever we go. We boast numerous Tamil businesses, radio stations, TV channels, websites, newspapers and magazines. And while there is so much energy in the diaspora to avenge the wrongdoings of the past, why don’t we see the same drive or zeal when it comes to preserving the Tamil language among our youth? Why are our young people so reluctant to learn or speak Tamil?
For any civilization to lose its identity, the first thing that must be lost is its language. When Africans were brought as slaves to America, their slave masters forbid them from speaking their tribal languages. Likewise, Aboriginals experienced the same treatment in residential schools in Canada. Generations later, African-Americans and Aboriginal Canadians continue to experience disenfranchisement, with few ties to their ancestral identity, culture or traditions. Should we wait until we meet a similar fate?
Now back to the famine-stricken African kid I brought up earlier. What if he was to be replaced by a starving Tamil child? When I don’t speak Tamil or emphasize my language to my children – and when that African child is replaced by a Tamil child – my children and grandchildren will respond in the same manner as I had earlier to the African kid. “This is sad.” Except instead of idiyappam and sothi, he will return to spreading mayonnaise on his sandwich.
Tamil is our language. It is our identity. It is our connection to who we are and where we come from. When we lose it, we lose everything.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TamilCulture's editorial policy.
For an alternative perspective, check out: “How Tamil are You?”