I was raised by my Sri Lankan Tamil maternal grandparents, and among my various cultural heirlooms comes that famously recognizable accent. That conversation-stopping, glint-in-the-eye, connotations-stirring, “Yaarlpanam-ah?” accent. The one my mother, in her less matriotic moments, tries to pass for Malayali. That political, poetic, deeply personal dialect that I call my mother tongue.
As fiercely in love as I am with this tongue, I have had to rein it in. Living in Chennai and having to haggle with auto drivers on a daily basis does that to you – do you have any idea how much they charge otherwise? I learnt to imitate the coarser rhythms of Madras Tamil out of the need for defense – like a stereotypical Ceylonese, I keep my allegiances close but my wallet closer still.
Still, it’s an accent that never fails to surprise me. The affirmative om that perks up in place of the ama I’ve conditioned myself to use in India. The fact that I cannot bring myself to use the personal nee when the neenga I am used to is just that much more pleasingly polite, and somehow, to my ears, more intimate. My accent gives me away when I least expect it to, like a blush-inducing pinch that makes sure I don’t forget. Just like how my v’s and w’s mix when I argue in English, any Tamil conversation in which I wholly participate is jazzed up (or if you’ll excuse the blatant exoticism, baila-d up) with my real accent. The one I had before I knew it was an accent.
My accent is too pretty to make fun of, I think. But some of my island-inflected vocabulary isn’t.
When I was 18, I spent half a year living with my local grandmother. Bless her, for she tried her best to take care of this half-and-half foreign-returnee. I think her patience was sorely tested by a few incidents in the kitchen (which is not called quisine here – sigh!), in particular.
I wanted some paan, I told her once, incurring her disdain. Paan, as far as I knew, was bread. Paan, as far as she knew, was betelnut. Not getting the hint, I tried to describe a sandwich. Finally, a wave of clarity broke upon her face and she exclaimed, “You mean roti!”. But roti, as far as I knew, was what’s known here as the Malabar paratha.
Equally flummoxing was when I asked for kochikai (chilli, to the Ceylonese). “What you mean”, someone corrected me, is “mizhagai“. “No”, I insisted. “That’s pepper!”
But the linguistic faux pas that I didn’t stop using until literally months ago is the one that takes the cake.
Grand old Ceylonese ammammas, at least in my experience, greet children by grabbing their chins, sniffing both cheeks, and muttering in rapturous tones, “Enda kunju!” Or (once again, to show you how little I knew), “my little one”. Fancying myself a grand young Ceylonese lady, it’s a term of endearment I also use to embellish my speech.
Imagine my glee and horror when my very irate sister informed me recently that kunju, as far as Indian Tamil is concerned, means penis.
So don’t blame me for my dirty mind. It’s genetic.
I love that my Ceylonese accent gives me away, because years and years from the first home of my childhood in Colombo, not so far away at all from losing my grandparents, it’s one of my dearest possessions. An accent like the surprise of sweet in mango pickle, I wrote in a poem once. So leave me to my broken Tamil and my quaintly scandalous expressions in it. It’s one of the few ways that I know how to love and remember love.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.