ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Story of My Tamil

Caste–class privilege breeds a comfortable ignorance of an integral part of any city’s culture—its language.


Often when I meet new people and older relatives, I’m asked about the number of languages I can speak, read and write. The question carries significant expectations; home is a mixed space in terms of language. My mother grew up knowing her mother tongue (Malayalam), the local language (Tamil) of the city she lived in (Madras) and English, a subject she would later get a master’s degree in. My father grew up being multilingual as well, with Marathi as his mother tongue and Hindi as a natural by-product of growing up north of the (then) four southern states. He also had English, and German—a language he would go on to make his profession in. So, the endless questions about how many languages I knew were loaded, and the sought-after answer was “all.” It was an answer that everyone wanted to marvel at—and did during the early years of my childhood. Soon, that answer would change to a sheepish attempt to save face by listing all the languages I “understood.” When asked about Tamil, the local language of the city I grew up in, I would say “just enough to get by.”

What was it that enabled my undisturbed ignorance to one of the most integral aspects of a city’s culture—its language? It was Kumud Pawde’s essay, “The Story of My Sanskrit” (from her autobiography Antasphot, 1981), that triggered this introspection about my own relationship with the languages I grew up around. Satish Deshpande’s “The Story of My English” (2019) pushed this further, forcing me to contend with the questions of language and caste–class privilege. Unlike Pawde’s and Deshpande’s essays, however, this is a reflection on conditions of privilege and how they breed a comfortable ignorance. And while what inspires the two essays is the feeling of annoyance (of varying degrees) on their part as a common response to praise for how good they were at a language, my own reflection examines how an ignorance so stark was allowed to flourish with minimal scorn.

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Updated On : 17th Aug, 2021
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