My Malaysian Tamizh Stories : Part One
One of the biggest arguments I remember having with my father was when I decided not to take up my mother tongue, Tamil as an extra subject when I was in high school. The night he found out that I had not filled up the form required to register myself into the class, he stormed into my room and spat insults of how I wasn’t a good Indian and I wasn’t fulfilling my responsibilities as a Tamil girl and as his daughter. All because I refused to take a subject that would increase my school workload and potentially affect my school grades since it was my weakest subject. I stood firm with my decision, and unable to do anything, he ended up not speaking to me for a couple of days.
I hail from a conservative and traditional Indian family and was expected to inherit the same traditional values and fluency in Tamil, but unfortunately did not. My mother spoke English to me as a child since she wanted me to be able to be fluent in it. Since my father was mostly busy working, I never got the opportunity to learn Tamil the way everyone wanted me to. This disappointed my father a lot, as he was and still is, like how my mother says it, “a Tamil fanatic”.
To make up for this, my father insisted that I learned my mother tongue, thus sending me to a Tamil vernacular primary school. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my primary school, I met so many amazing people and had great experiences, but I was also constantly criticised for my rather lacking Tamil skills. Entering primary, I had zero idea how to converse with my friends and I constantly felt left out among my Tamil speaking friends. Thankfully, my friends looked past all of that, and even became the people who taught me how to speak. I also found it hard to understand what was going on in class. Since majority of our classes were conducted in Tamil, it was hard for me to grasp lessons unlike the others. I also constantly received backhanded comments from my teachers saying that I shouldn’t be in a Tamil school if I couldn’t speak the language.
This certainly made me feel out of place every time I went to school, I constantly felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. Things weren’t better at home either. At family gatherings, people asked me questions like, “You’re from a Tamil school and you can’t speak Tamil?” or “How can you not speak Tamil, you’re Indian?” Unable to face these questions, I hid behind my mother’s back, hoping for them to just end.
Things became better as I grew up, as I eventually picked up the language and managed to speak it, but the teasing never seemed to stop. Whenever I tried speaking Tamil to the people I was most comfortable with, my friends, they merely laughed and asked me to just continue speaking English. Hearing this, I refrained from speaking Tamil in public, as I was so self-conscious about the way I spoke and was afraid people would make fun of me. To make things worse, I scored six A’s and one B for my UPSR examinations, and my B was in the Tamil writing paper. People around me were shocked and amused by the fact that I had somehow gotten a B for Tamil when I was from a Tamil school.
It broke my heart seeing everyone look at me and talk about me that way, further increasing my dislike towards the language. That was when I decided not to continue studying Tamil in high school. It was ironic, as I thought that I would finally be over the criticism of not being good enough to speak Tamil and starting afresh, when in reality I was beginning to see how beautiful it was to actually know my mother tongue.
My high school was filled with people who were like me, most of my Indian friends couldn’t speak and some couldn’t even understand the language. I felt special that I could not only speak, but also read and write Tamil. I finally overcame all my dread and became brave enough to speak the language I was once so fearful of in public without any ounce of shame.
Tamil is a beautiful language and I am proud that I call it my mother tongue. But if I could turn back in time and change the way I learnt it, I definitely would. It makes sense how speaking the language is part of my identity as a Tamilian and it is my responsibility to keep it alive, but how can I hold that very part of my identity close to my heart when I was shunned for not knowing it almost half my life?