Whenever she springs her alter-ego on me, I feign dutiful surprise and return her greeting obsequiously with folded palms. Her nose-ring and her Kanchivaram zari smile down at me in unison, she has guessed that I’ve broken through her disguise to recognize her and she has accepted defeat. But this won’t be her last unsuccessful masquerade, for she feeds her mystery fretfully like the nervous mother her undernourished offspring, living in dread of its demise.
My toes perform faint approximations of what her fingers, unfailing compass to the pliant sails of her voice, accomplish so that I can follow her through her voyage. But I always drown midway.
But why do I listen to this voice that employs a grammar I have no conception of?
She tells me that this was why Tamil happened to me, so that I’d hear this song and say, yes, my language is the most beautiful in the world, that my language was made just to be sung into this song.
Twelve years of protestant schooling obliterated every congenital trace of respect or my roots I'd grudgingly accommodated through daily routines of carols and scripture tests and The Lord's Prayer the aftertaste of five-times-a-day prayer. Tamil wasn't just gauche and blushingly inappropriate for conversations, it was an illegitimate child born out of a pariah dalliance, to be kept within doors lest it stumble out bawlingly through the inevitable slips of the Tamilian accent or sneak into discussions of with a braying drawl or a turncoat syllable.
Though I shook this careless disguise off my Tamilian pronunciation, choosing hetch over haitch, par-ent over pay-rent, prepone over advance( of course, I didn't go as far as to make jeros out of zeros. I drew the line within touching distance from respectable coherence, but out of reach from stifling demands of accuracy and propriety) I still retained a faint contempt for my mother tongue. Tamil got ticked every time I was asked for my mother tongue in spite of that vague apprehension that my possession over it was incomplete. What I own isn't a hereditary right to speak, write and read in Tamil with native pride, but merely a lease to speak in Tamil with my blood, a lease that will expire at the same time my parents will.
English was what I thought, spoke, read and wrote in. Rather English was what made me speak read and write. And most importantly think. A belief that I cultivated early on in my anglo-infatuation, a belief that I still hold dear is that of all the languages I'm fluent in (English, Tamil and I add Hindi hesitatingly here) none provides asylums to the osmotic surprises of my itinerant unfiltered thought the way the membranous layers of English do.
Having disinherited Tamil suitably, my religious identity came next. All that the Bible classes of my fashionably Christian first school taught me was to develop a scathing scorn for Hinduism while two Vishnu Sahasranamam-chanting and Sanskrit-verse-reciting years in a staunchly Tam Bram setting served only to strengthen this scorn into something more general. It evolved into distaste for the dictates of organised religion, a distaste that loosened the nostalgic claims of Christianity over me and my reverence for it crumbled into contempt. If I'm agnostic, it's purely by accident. It is merely accidental that I deride idol worship and Hindu rites in the same breath as evangelism and the myth of immaculate conception
Like everybody else, three and a half years of university life in a far-flung location removed from the reeking tambramness of my environment returned me successfully to my roots and has sent me back to my hometown with a firmer conviction of what I constitute, with respect to religious and regional identity. What I was suffering from at that time, July-2005 wasn't an identity crisis as much as an identity famine. I had been poring over entire shopping racks housing innumerable variants of Tamil-ness. The concert-hopping Sudha Raghunathan fan who listened to Illayraja on the sly wasn't right. Nor was the quiz-champion, force-fed Mridangam lessons who was now in the initial throes of a disgustingly clichéd obsession with porn.
The salwar-clad temple regular who hummed Bollwood numbers as she circumnavigated the deities in turn wasn't me, nor were my intensely literary peers who discussed Ponniyin Selvan and Byron and in turn.
Over 20 years I've exhausted several shopping racks, every Tamilian I’ve met has been held against my ideal, tried on for size and rejected. Some were rejected in the long contemplative privacy of the trial room after several battles with unwieldy tags, hooks and holders, and some in the discomforting tightness foretold by the very first glance.
I remember my first ever Cactus Flower meeting in detail for a reason that is completely disconnected with what I feel for the magazine. Two senior girls (you should have figured out by now that they were both Tamilian), one each from the batches of 2003 and the 2004, left the meeting cycling one-handed. It was the coldest of my three Januarys at BITS and to expose your fingers to that frost even if you were just keeping beat to the kriti you were practicing would have been a terribly dangerous thing to do. Through the gaps betrayed by two ungloved frozen fingers battling to darn a hole-ridden veil together, I managed a glimpse of the face hidden out of sight.
The tune has been into my memory since then, and though I lost their last notes along with the sight of them I know with the audacious surety of groping in pitch darkness, exactly how the song will end.
Raagamalika is the not the most obvious way to renew a reluctant acquaintance with Carnatic music, especially when I’d barred my ears to music of all kinds and was musical barren-ness under the successful pretence of being tone deaf. I’d never imagined that I would feel more of a TamBram simply for having attended a few performances through Raagamalika/SPIC MACAY or for having seen two women fall in love with the same mysterious stranger at first sight, strike up different conversations with him only to meld their first encounters together into something prettier than the slurring beauty of first-time speech with your beloved.
.I’d seen people live out a million versions of TamBramness, either consciously or unconsciously by associating it with meanings unique to their own selves and yet I hadn’t realized that expression of ethnic identity wasn’t a collection of templates to choose from, but something I had to create on my own. There is more than one way to be Tamilian, to be Brahmin or to be that oxymoronically composite being, a Tam Bram, I could choose to create my own or not at all, and I’d still stay true to what I am.
Carnatic music joins a list of tastes I’ve acquired not for their own sake, but for the symbolism that I’ve saddled them with. Falling in love with representations rather than their underlying reality is a folly I’ve grown to relish.
The December breeze lulls me into sitting there before the pandal long after it has stopped carrying her song. Nothing teaches me the meanings of an unknown word better than people do, people who live out the meaning for me, people who don’t know that their existence is encompassed by a single word, who make me scrape out that word from the bottom of my consciousness, offer it to them and utter gratefully in the intoxicating bliss of comprehension “This is you. This describes you as well as you describe this.”
Does her song teach me the meanings of swara, tala, alapana- the petty change of secrets that she keeps hidden from me, stashed hopefully in hidden piggy banks ?Of course not. Her treasures don’t lie buried in that small change of syntax and jargon, but at infinitely deeper fathoms that neither of us can guess at. While I can always single her out of her insecure attempts at disguise, I can never truly comprehend her and yet she refuses to derive comfort from the fact of her invincible mystery. But she is no less an enigma for her routinely awry attempts at impersonation.
Do I trust my genes to work out that mystifying calculation that sets her notes so celestially into their places? Of course not. I’m no less an insider for my eternal ignorance.
March 5, 2o17. Houston. Tx.
7 months ago