Language in History and Modernity
"It was a quiet, cool January dawn in the South-Indian city of Tiruchirapalli in the year 1964. A can in his hand, a man named Chinnasami left his home—leaving behind his aging mother, young wife, and infant daughter—and walked to the city’s railway station. On reaching there, he doused himself with its contents and set himself on fire, shouting out aloud, “inti olika!tamiḻ vālka!” (Death to Hindi! May Tamil flourish!). Chinnasami’s example was not lost. A year later, to the date, history repeated itself but not necessarily as farce: five other men burned themselves alive “at the altar of Tamil.”
Three others died just as painfully—not in a raging blaze, but by swallowing insecticide—also for the sake of Tamil, they declared in their own last words.
These dramatic acts were reported by the mainstream news media in India, sometimes in a matter of fact fashion, sometimes with derision, but invariably as yet another example of the “frenzy” and “fanaticism” that speakers of Tamil habitually display when it comes to their language.
American newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek briefly noted the acts, translating them for the benefit of their readers by reporting that “in the style of Vietnamese monks,” these men had “turned [themselves] into human funeral pyre[s].” The Vietnam analogy came home to roost in South India: the monks immolated themselves for their religion, but no one had yet burned themselves for their language, it was suggested. That pride of place goes to speakers of Tamil. Uṭal maṇṇukku, uyir tamil ukku, “body to earth, life for Tamil”: in stories and poems about these men which have circulated since, so is their “sacrifice” for their language commemorated.
How do I, a late-twentieth-century-historian, make sense of these deaths? Disciplined by history, I would naturally demand, What is it that led so many men and women to proclaim that they would live and die for their language? Why did they so passionately confess that a life without Tamil is not worth living, that they would forsake material gains and worldly pleasures, even the ambrosia of the gods, for its sake?
Trained by my discipline to always historicize, these deaths—as indeed the lives of these women and men—have nonetheless taught me to appreciate the hubris of the historical will to elucidate, as they have laid bare the inadequacies of the very language of history itself to write about matters such as these. Yet historicize I must, if only to rescue these men and women from charges of “frenzy” and “fanaticism.” And so I will return to their stories, later, but only after resorting to history.
And yet it would seem that history as a discipline has no place for acts such as Chinnasami’s or, for that matter, for the language for which he sacrificed himself. While it is hardly news that languages have histories, “the odd thing about the questione della lingua [the language question] is how rarely historians ask it,” Gramsci’s attempt to theorize it notwithstanding (Steinberg 1987: 199).
This is especially true for colonial and post-colonial India where the language question—that complex of issues relating to language, politics, and power—has hardly been interrogated by disciplinary history despite its obvious importance for the political cultures of the emergent nation-state. The historian is a rare presence in scholarly debates on the national language crisis, the internal partitioning of the nation into linguistic states, or the pedagogical dilemmas of multilingualism.
This is partly because of a (Orientalist) preoccupation with caste and religion, those two gatekeeping concerns of South Asian studies on identity politics (Ramaswamy 1993: 684-85). But just as clearly, it seems that because our historical conceptions come to us in and through language, historians have tended to treat it, the linguistic turn notwithstanding, as a transparent medium of communication of information rather than as an ideological formation that itself has a politics which has to be historicized.
Yet, even as I try to make a case in this study for (Indian) historians to take the language question seriously, I do so with the troubled knowledge that disciplinary history has been complicit in the Europeanization of alternate life-worlds and imaginations. For the knowledge procedures and institutional practices of history have universalized the European historical experience as the desirable norm, against which all other histories, Indian included, appear inadequate and incomplete (Chakrabarty 1992).
Nevertheless, as Dipesh Chakrabarty insists, we cannot give up on history, for it is one of the fundamental modalities of our times, “in the establishment of meaning, in the creation of truth regimes, in deciding, as it were, whose and which ‘universal’ wins.” What we can—and must—do instead, as Meaghan Morris recommends, is to resist the writing of histories of places like India “as a known history, something which has already happened elsewhere, and which is to be reproduced, mechanically or otherwise, with a local content” (quoted by Chakrabarty 1992: 17-20).
Histories which seek to corrode the universalizing imperative of Europe’s knowledge practices ought to heed all those “scandalous” moments of “difference” which “shock” and “disrupt” the homogenizing flow of history-as-usual:
Subaltern histories, thus conceived in relationship to the question of difference, will have a split running through them. On the one hand, they are “histories” in that they are constructed within the master code of secular History and use the academic codes of history-writing (and thereby perforce subordinate to themselves all other forms of memory).
On the other hand, they cannot ever afford to grant this master-code its claim of being a mode of thought that comes to all human beings naturally, or even to be treated as something that exists out there in nature itself. Subaltern histories are therefore constructed within a particular kind of historicized memory, one that remembers History itself as a violation, an imperious code that accompanied the civilizing process that the European Enlightenment inaugurated in the eighteenth century as a world-historical task.
The “unassimilable,” the “untranslatable,” the “different”—these then are the stuff of histories written in a post-colonial moment. The goal is not the illusory quest for the authentic, but a narrative refusal to seek recognition through collapsing the “difference” of India’s histories into the “sameness” of Europe’s. And so, when I raise the questione della lingua, and demand that Indian historians heed it, I do so with the full realization of its European origins. And yet, the work of colonialism and modernity has ensured that this is no longer a question that just belongs to Europe but is also a dilemma for the worlds that it colonized. To ask the language question, but to answer it and write it differently for a colonial and post-colonial context—these then are the burdens of this book.
Language and Devotion
How then do I write differently the (hi)stories of Chinnasami and his fellow speakers who claimed a willingness to die for Tamil? Although Chinnasami’s immolation by itself is a spectacularly singular act, defying easy translation into universal categories, the attitudes that produced it could be conveniently assimilated into the metanarrative of nationalism, as yet another instance of “linguistic nationalism.” Indeed, this is typically how the few scholarly works that deal with the question of Tamil, if only tangentially, gloss it—as “Tamil nationalism,” or its variant, “Tamil revivalism,” and as such, an entity that is forged in the shadows of metropolitan Indian nationalism, itself declared a “derived” version of the normative European form (Chatterjee 1986). It would be hard to deny the importance of ideologies of nationalism, derived or not, for much that happens in late colonial and post-colonial India. We hear repeatedly in the words of many a speaker of Tamil, from at least the later decades of the nineteenth century, the logic of Herder, Fichte, and other prophets of (European) linguistic nationalism:
Language is breath; Language is consciousness; Language is life; ...... Language is the world; Without language, who are we? (Bharatidasan 1978: 132)
That the cunning of Europe ensures that Herder & Co. speak in such clear Tamil tones only reminds us of the regimes of repetition and mimicry that colonialism sparked among subject populations. Yet, as Homi Bhabha observes, colonial mimicry is marked by a profound ambivalence, for “in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.” Mimicry in the colony, “on the margins of metropolitan desire,” is always “a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (Bhabha 1994: 85-92).
But how do we narrate the lives of those who lived in the colony so as to keep alive this ambivalence of mimicry, this tension between the “almost the same” but the “not quite,” which dismembers European norms and forms, as Bhabha reminds us? Equally crucial, how may we write their stories so as to displace the universal narrative of nationalism, a narrative whose normative “silent referent” is always (western) Europe, that paradigmatic site of the modern nation-state (Chakrabarty 1992)? For inevitably in such a narrative, “Tamil” nationalism is a (distorted) variant of something that has already happened elsewhere, but reenacted with local content.
This is not the only problem with the analytic of nationalism for writing a different history. Even as the nation-state has become so ubiquitous in this century that, as Benedict Anderson (1983: 14) observes, “everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender,” there has been a tremendous surge in scholarly works on nationalism.
Indeed, that single term, “nationalism,” has become theoretically overburdened, rendering it incapable of capturing the many incommensurable differences that separate the story of one nation from another. And yet, nationalisms “do not work everywhere the same way: in a sense they must work everywhere in a different way, this is part of the national ‘identity’ ” (Balibar 1989: 19). This is especially true when it comes to the complex nexus between linguistic identity and nationalism. Herder, Fichte, and others may have declared that “those who speak the same language…belong together and are by nature one and inseparable whole” (Kedourie 1961: 69). But nationalism is not everywhere predicated on linguistic passions, nor does language loyalty necessarily or always induce a singular nation-state, if we recall the Swiss in the very heart of Europe, modern Latin America as it emerged from the former Spanish and Portuguese empires, or even Arabic in parts of its diaspora, to cite a few random examples (Seton Watson 1977). In other words, passions of the tongue do not readily map onto the passions of the nation.
As Prasenjit Duara has recently suggested in his Rescuing History from the Nation, “although nationalism and its theory seek a privileged position within the representational network as the master identity that subsumes or organizes other identifications, it exists only as one among others and is changeable, interchangeable, conflicted, or harmonious with them” (1995: 8, emphasis mine).
In this book, I hope to “rescue history from the nation” by displacing the latter as the locus of this particular history I write, and by refusing to subordinate, all too quickly, the sentiments and notions of all those who lived and died for Tamil under the rubric of “nationalism.” Which is why I propose a new analytic to theorize the discourses of love, labor, and life that have coalesced around Tamil in this century, discourses which can only be partially contained within a metanarrative of nationalism, or even a singular conception of the nation, as we will see.
My access to this analytic—and hence to a different take on the language question—is through a Tamil word, parru, which speakers of Tamil routinely use in their talk about the language. Typically, the term appears with the word tamiḻ in the compound tamil pparru, the hinge on which hangs the structure of affect and sentiment that develops around Tamil. So, its speakers are told to cultivate tamil pparru, to demonstrate tamil pparru, and to not sacrifice tamil pparru for worldly gains. Those who practice tamil pparru are tamilar, “Tamilians” by the same token, anybody who does not show tamil pparru is not a Tamilian. The lexical meanings of parru include adherence, attachment, affection, support, love, and devotion. Out of these, I have chosen “devotion” to gloss parru, and the term “Tamil devotion” to denote tamil pparru as well as other similar sentiments that Tamil speakers express for the language: anpu, “affection” pācam, “attachment” kātal, “love” ārvam, “passion” and the like.
This then is a book about the poetics and politics of tamil pparru, “Tamil devotion”—those networks of praise, passion, and practice centered on Tamil. And it is about the lives of those women and men who declare themselves to be tamil pparrāḷar or tamil anpar, “devotees of Tamil.”
I analyze how the language has been transformed into an object of devotion in the course of the social mobilization and political empowerment of its speakers. I explore the consequences of this for the ontology of Tamil, as well as for the formulation of cultural policies around it.
And I consider how language devotion produces the modern Tamil subject—tamilaṉ, the “Tamilian”—an entity whose subjectivity merges into the imagined self of Tamil. enḳum tamiḻ, etilum tamiḻ, “Tamil everywhere, everything in Tamil”: this is the leitmotif of tamil pparru at its climactic moment. “If we live, we live for Tamil; if we die, we die for it,” declared one of its devotees (Puthumai Vanan 1968: 7). Another insisted, “[Our] mind is Tamil; [our] entire body is Tamil; [our] life is Tamil; [our] pulse is Tamil; [our] veins are Tamil; [our] flesh, muscle, everything is Tamil; everything in [our] body is Tamil, Tamil, Tamil” (S. Subramanian 1939: 15-16).
Body, life, self: all these dissolve into Tamil. Devotion to Tamil, service to Tamil, the sacrifice of wealth and spirit to Tamil: these are the demands of tamil pparru at its radical best.
As we will see, there are considerable differences among Tamil’s devotees over the meaning of their language, and over how best to practice tamil pparru. Nonetheless, I consider them as members of one singular community because they all agree upon one foundational certainty: the natural and inevitable attachment between Tamil and its speakers, an attachment that is repeatedly presented in devotional talk as inviolable, eternal, sacral.
The goal of this study lies not so much in exposing the illusory nature of this certitude as in illustrating how, and in what manner, tamil pparru is able to generate and sustain it in the first place. What ideological devices and strategies of persuasion are deployed by Tamil’s devotees to convince their fellow speakers of the natural and unshakable bond(s) between themselves and their language? What are the institutional practices through which such a certitude is disseminated among Tamil speakers so as to appear self-evident and commonsensical? What are the ways in which its logic is used to mount resistance against putative foes, and to garner power? And finally, how is this certitude deployed to produce the modern Tamilian, whose subjectivity is anchored by Tamil and has no existence independent of it?
My use of tamil pparru to interrogate the language question thus is not a nativist gesture, for I make the concept do theoretical work for me in ways which exceed the many tasks that speakers of Tamil have themselves assigned to it in their prolific discourses.
Neither is it meant to alienate non-Tamil-speaking readers, despite its alterity (heightened no doubt by the diacritical marks that grace its English transliteration!). Nevertheless, its frequent presence in these pages marks the difference accompanying the ideologies of Tamil that cannot be readily assimilated into preexisting categories such as nationalism.
By leaving it untranslated in many instances, and by glossing it in English in others, I seek to remind the reader (and me) of the ironies of writing about Tamil devotion in English, as I wish to draw attention to the inevitable hybridity that accompanies academic exercises like this one, which are conducted between cultures, between languages. But above all, following the cue of many who have written on the politics of translation, tamil pparru allows me to “inscribe heterogeneity” in these pages, even as its assertions betray, as we will see, the colonial and post-colonial space which it inhabits (Niranjana 1992).
So, what kind of theoretical work does the analytic of devotion perform in this study? Most obviously, by hijacking it from the domain of religion to which it has been conventionally confined in South Asian studies, I wish of course to suggest that devotion is not solely directed towards deities and religious personages in India. Instead, piety, adoration, and reverence have routinely centered on sovereigns and parents; more recently, on politicians, movie stars, and other figures of popular culture; and most distinctively in our time, on the nation.
Remarkably, through the intervention of its supporters, Tamil, too, joins their ranks, and even subversively displaces them—so much so that, as tamil pparru gathers strength as the century wears on, it is increasingly asserted that Tamil alone ought to be the sole and legitimate focus of the unconditional devotion of its speakers. This indeed is the dream, and demand, of the most fervent of its adherents.
The analytic of devotion allows me to demonstrate how sentiments that accumulate about Tamil among its speakers resonate with attitudes expressed towards deities, sovereigns, and parents. In fact, central to the work of tamil pparru is the wholesale annexation of genres of praise, vocabularies of reverence, and habits of adulation which have been conventionally reserved for such notables.
Further, the analytic of devotion enables me to track the myriad micronetworks of statements and practices through which Tamil has been transformed, over time, in specific historical, political, and social circumstances, into an object of passionate attachment.
Despite what its devotees might claim, Tamil (or for that matter, any language) does not have an inherent, natural, even God-given capacity to generate loyalty, love, longing; it is made to do so, and to serve specific ends. Such structures of sentiment that tie a language to its adherents are crucial to the politics of its empowerment.
Yet they are too hastily passed over by a social science scholarship that has its sights set on demonstrating how languages have been used as agents of social and political mobilization, or as catalysts for nationalist activity. In such analyses, we learn little about how specific languages are transformed into sites of such loyalty, reverence, and love. How indeed do they acquire the capacity which enable them to act as symbols or catalysts, or, just as crucially, disable them from doing so? To remember Chinnasami, once again, how does Tamil acquire the power to move him to burn himself alive in its name?
The politics of language empowerment, however, are never independent of its poetics, those rhetorical norms and strategies of persuasion through which its adherents attempt to convince their fellow speakers about the glories of their language, the urgency of its cause, and the need to surrender their wealth, bodies, and souls for it.
Such networks of talk are especially crucial for tamil pparru, for the hold that Tamil appears to exercise over its devout follows not least from the deployment of the persuasive power(s) of the language itself. Its devotees repeatedly confess to the joys of hearing the very sound of Tamil, and comment on its men mai (softness), in imai (sweetness), nuṇmai (fineness), and so on.
The potency of Tamil devotional talk lies not just in the scholarly breadth it displays or in the logic of its arguments, but just as crucially in its strategic use of alliterative phrases, affective figures of speech, catchy idioms, rhetorical flourishes, and the like. My analysis of Tamil devotion therefore follows the suggestion that “linguistic practice, rather than simply reflecting social reality, [is] actively…an instrument of…power.…Words [do] not just reflect social and political reality; they [are] instruments for transforming reality” (Hunt 1989: 17).
Attention to linguistic practices is particularly necessary in colonial situations where new language hierarchies emerge to displace older ones, as European languages, linguistic forms, and literary genres capture prestige, profit, and power (Cohn 1985; Fabian 1986; Rafael 1988).
As elsewhere in the British empire, Tamil devotion, too, paradoxically relies on English to stimulate tamil pparru, a reliance that noticeably diminishes by the 1920s and can rightfully be seen as one of its more visible successes.
The attitudes of Tamil’s devotees towards English, the language of their colonial masters, are quite equivocal and contradictory. While many of them—as is typical of bilinguals spawned by colonial systems—are clearly at ease in going back and forth between the two languages, there are many differences in the structure and logic of arguments, the representational devices, and the strategies of persuasion they deploy in doing so.
Rather than reflecting some essential qualities inherent to either language, such differences are themselves traces of the different ideological work performed by the two languages, Tamil and English, within tamil pparru. All this of course only reminds us that linguistic practices such as these are never just about languages. Instead, our choice of languages and the myriad ways in which we use them are intimately reflective of our sense of selves and the worlds in which we live, the economies of prestige and power within which we function, and the politics of our beings.
Finally, I turn the lens of devotion on tamil pparru itself, to reveal how despite the claims of Tamil’s devotees, there is no singular, homogeneous language that consolidates itself as the focus of their love and adulation; there is no singular, homogeneous community that emerges in their imaginings; and there is no singular path to practicing what they praise and preach. Its apparent singularity as a sentiment notwithstanding, tamilp parru itself is multiple, heterogeneous, and shot through with difference.
Language, Colonialism, and Modernity
Tamil’s devout have been quick to assimilate Chinnasami and his fellow self-immolators into a pantheon of devotees which stretches back into the hoary mists of time and includes mythical sages, legendary kings, even the gods themselves.
For like the nation, that other entity produced in modernity, tamil pparru, too, is driven by the imperative to clothe itself in timeless antiquity, so that devotion to Tamil appears to be as ancient as the language itself.
Yet Tamil devotion—in the sense in which I have identified it as networks of praise, passion, and practice through which the language is transformed into the primary site of attachment, love, and loyalty of its speakers—is a more recent phenomenon whose foundations were laid in the nineteenth century with the consolidation of colonial rule in what was then the multilingual Madras Presidency.
Writing the Tamil question differently also therefore means a resistance to assimilation into a nativist antiquity. For, continuities with the past notwithstanding, Chinnasami’s act, and the stories of his fellow devotees who proclaimed their willingness to place their life and limb at the service of the language, has to be located within new regimes of imagination, institutional practices, and technologies of meaning production that were ushered in, however skewed, with colonialism and modernity. And what were some of these?
First, although it has been transformed into a subject of sustained devotion fairly recently, Tamil attracted praise from at least the second half of the first millennium C.E. But much of this praise was episodic, scattered, even oblique. The language was rarely the primary subject of such eulogies, for the fundamental concern of even its most ardent admirer was with ensuring the literary worth of its poetry, or the salvational potential of its hymns, rather than with Tamil per se.
Indeed, it is only in the latter half of the nineteenth century that Tamil emerges as an autonomous subject of praise (Krishnan 1984). Further, in the pre-nineteenth-century verses of praise, the power of the language was complexly entangled with the power(s) of divinities and extraordinary beings, rather than with the power of “the people.” Tamil was eulogized, but not because it ensured communication between its speakers, enabled the schooling of the citizenry, or facilitated the governance of the populace. Instead, it was held in awe for its demonstrated ability to perform wondrous miracles and command the all-powerful gods (Ramaswamy 1996).
This is not to say, in a reworking of the old secularization argument, that an enchanted world in which Tamil was divine and salvational gave way, with modernity, to a disenchanted one in which it is bureaucratized and rationalized. On the contrary, the language continues to be assigned a salvational task within the regimes of Tamil devotion, as we will see. Yet the terms on which Tamil is rendered salvational vary, as does the logic.
In tamil pparru, the ideological work done on the language places the people who speak it at the very center of the project, as an imagined community. It is the task of ensuring that Tamil commands the adulation and veneration of its speakers, rather than the attention of the gods, which consumes its modern devotees. We get a glimpse of this new people-centered ideology in the Tamil-speaking region from around 1879:
Tamil gave birth to us; Tamil raised us; Tamil sang lullabies to us and put us to sleep; Tamil taught us our first words with which we brought joy to our mothers and fathers; Tamil is the first language we spoke when we were infants; Tamil is the language which our mothers and fathers fed us along with milk; Tamil is the language that our mother, father, and preceptor taught us.…[T]he language of our home is Tamil; the language of our land is Tamil.
As we will see later, the imagining of Tamil as the favorite of the gods lingers on well into this century, but it has to contend with a new sentiment ushered in with modernity in which languages are seen as the personal property of their speakers (Anderson 1983: 66-69).
Hence the insistent use of collective pronouns, such as “our” and “their,” in modern discourses on language. This people centered ideology of modernity inaugurates a patrimonial imagination in which language is constituted as a tangible, material possession that is transmitted from one generation of its speakers to another who relate to it as a property owning “collective individual” (Handler 1988: 140-58).
Since it is their patrimony, its speakers are enjoined to ensure the well-being of their language, for in this lay the future of the community whose very existence is now predicated on its possession. Propelled by such a logic of possession—of language as personal property—tamilp parru, too, declares that speakers of Tamil “have” a language; it renders them the new masters of Tamil, masters who are called upon, ironically, to “serve” the language with their body and life.
Chinnasami and his fellow devout also lived and operated in a world in which print culture had become normalized (Venkatachalapathy 1994). This was a hybrid culture; put in place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by sundry European missions and colonial establishments, it then bloomed prodigiously after 1835 with the legalization of Indian ownership of presses.
From around 1812, the College of Fort St. George in Madras, with its coterie of British administrator scholars and their Tamil-speaking subordinates, began to publish Tamil grammars, editions of ancient literary works, prose translations and commentaries, and so on (Zvelebil 1992: 159-64).
By the 1890s, when tamil pparru began to manifest itself, it was quite clear that print and prose were fundamental technologies through which it would be practiced. Well into the next century, the devout struggled to find funds for their printing presses, subscribers for their journals, and readers for their books. But they did not give up their confidence in this new miraculous technology that allowed them to circulate their ideas about their language among the populace, however limited its literacy.
Speeches made in Tamil revival organizations and literary academies, at public rallies, even street poetry and processional songs, were invariably translated into print. Print helped in the standardization and homogenization of Tamil, and granted it a visible continuity with an ancient remote past that it resurrected. It ushered in new discursive styles, modes of punctuation and syntax, genres of literature, transformations in script, and new ways of relating to the language—as something seen and read, rather than merely heard. Like the modern nation, the devotional community was at its core a print community, a network of Tamil speakers who were also now readers and consumers of the language, “connected through print” (Anderson 1983: 47-49).
Finally, as Tamil emerges as a subject of devotion in the late nineteenth century, it also becomes a subject of history. In 1903, V. G. Suryanarayana Sastri (1870-1903) posed a novel question—“What is the history of a language?”—and then replied: “The emergence of sounds to express thought, and the formation of words; speech and its development into language; alphabets and their use in writing; grammatical conventions and language formation; word conventions and textual traditions—these are the contents of the history of a language” (Suryanarayana Sastri 1903: i-ii).
Recognizing the existence of such histories in Europe, Suryanarayana Sastri appropriated the new European sciences of comparative philology and historical linguistics to publish his Tamil moliyiṉ Varalāru (History of the Tamil language), arguably the first secular history of the language in Tamil. A little prior to this, M. Seshagiri Sastri had published a philological analysis of the language (1884). Indeed, comparative philology elicited much admiration among the devout. As one of them, D. Savariroyan (1859-1923), declared:
The science of Comparative Philology—the invention of German writers enables one to understand the secrets of languages, their points of resemblance or divergence. It discloses as in a mirror, the origin and growth of a language, its primary and secondary stages, its manifold transformations, its word-formation and its grammatical structure. The cultivation of such a study confers innumerable benefits on the languages and without doubt we also shall be partakers of these advantages according to the degree to which we cultivate it.
This fascination with comparative philology and historical linguistics was clearly compensatory, a response to colonial comments on the absence of “historical,” “comparative,” and “scientific” work in India prior to the arrival of European technologies of knowledge. So, the missionary Robert Caldwell (1814-1891), author of A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages (1856), acknowledged the “earnestness” and “assiduity” with which “native” grammarians had hitherto studied their languages, but observed with regret that they did not have the “zeal for historic truth” that is the “special characteristic of the European mind”:
They have never attempted to compare their own languages with others—not even with other languages of the same family. They have never grasped the idea that such a thing as a family of languages existed. Consequently the interest they took in the study of their languages was not an intelligent, discriminating interest.…Their philology, if it can be called by that name, has remained up to our own time as rudimentary and fragmentary as it was ages ago. Not having become comparative, it has not become scientific and progressive.…If the natives of southern India began to take an interest in the comparative study of their own languages and in comparative philology in general…[t]hey would begin to discern the real aims and objects of language, and realise the fact that language has a history of its own, throwing light upon all other history.
The “comparative” study of languages, the genealogical links between languages of the same “family,” the “history” of language, and the “progress” of language: these provided the agenda for the numerous linguistic studies carried out in colonial India, “the happy hunting ground of the philologist,” from the late eighteenth century.
Colonial ideologies were driven by the assumption that “mastery” of India’s languages would secure the “mastery” of India; it would enable British “command” and “native” obedience; and it would ensure “the vast and noble project of the Europeanization of the Indian mind.” The “grand work” of British rule was thus inevitably accompanied by the colonization of Indian languages, a project involving “descriptive appropriation” and “prescriptive imposition and control” (Cohn 1985; Fabian 1986: 76).
India’s numerous languages were collected, classified, standardized, enumerated, and thus dramatically transformed from “fuzzy” and “uncounted” entities into neatly bounded, counted, and mapped configurations (Kaviraj 1992).
The result was an arsenal of grammars, manuals, dictionaries, and glossaries culminating in the grand, multivolume authoritative Linguistic Survey of India (1903-28). Caldwell’s Grammar—the most cited English-language narrative in Tamil devotional discourse—belonged to this arsenal and authorized many of the founding assumptions of Tamil devotion.
It popularized the key term “Dravidian” (based on the Sanskrit word drāviḍa, itself a transmutation of tamiḻ) as the umbrella category for Tamil and the other languages of South India whose origins and structure, as demonstrated using the “scientific” principles of comparative philology, were quite different from Sanskrit and its “Indo-European family of tongues” of the North.
Partha Chatterjee (1993: 7) has recently suggested that the modernization and standardization of Bengali from the mid-nineteenth century was carried out by an emergent bilingual intelligentsia “outside the purview of the [colonial] state and European missionaries.”
Yet India’s languages, Bengali included, were (re)appropriated by their speakers only after they had been incorporated into a colonial economy of distinctions, hierarchies, and meanings. Thus Tamil’s devotees waged their battles on a colonial (and colonized) terrain where Sanskrit loomed loftily as a “classical” tongue, and Tamil was reduced to a mere “vernacular” where Sanskrit was the language of the “fair” and “noble” Aryans, Tamil the tongue of the “menial” and “dark skinned” Dravidians; and so on.
Colonial knowledges of India were certainly “dialogically” produced through interactions with “native” categories, traditions, and informants. In the process, however, many a “native” notion was fundamentally altered in meaning as well as in use, the modern concept of “Dravidian” being an excellent case in point (Irschick 1994).
Above all, the colonization of language meant its historicization: language has a history of “its own,” a history that, like many others in the nineteenth century, was imagined organically. So languages are born, grow, produce literatures, spawn civilizations, and even die, if not tended to appropriately. The histories of various languages were laid out in linear narratives which sequentially charted their evolution through time.
Produced as they were in a colonial context, many such narratives about India’s languages were steeped in the rhetoric of decline and degeneration. A glorious past was inevitably followed by the dismal present; under the aegis of the British and enlightened “natives,” India’s languages could be rescued, “revived,” and “improved,” paving the way to a bright future.
This logic of decline and of improvement drives Tamil devotionalism as well, which attempts to historicize Tamil by locating its “origins,” “development,” and “spread.” Such a historicization is invariably accompanied by a comparison of its “progress” with that of other languages; not surprisingly, it culminates in the lament that Tamil was utterly doomed, and that something had to be done to save it.
When this historicizing imperative converges with the patrimonial imagination about Tamil, an entirely novel horizon of sensibilities crystallizes that I characterize as modern.
The life of the language is now perceived as inextricably intertwined with the lives of its speakers as an imagined community: their pasts, present, and futures are inseparable. So declared one of Tamil’s devotees in 1915: “O Tamil pandits! O Tamil people! Be warned! Guard your language. Language is the life of its community of people. If the Tamil language is destroyed, the excellence and glory of the Tamilians, too, will be destroyed.…Let your tongues only speak Tamil; let your quills only write Tamil; let your hearts only desire Tamil” (Subramania Siva 1915: 202).
It is because Chinnasami and his fellow devout are subjects of such an imagination that their stories inevitably differ from those of any speaker of Tamil who loved and praised the language prior to modernity.
Language and Gender
The globalization of the nation form and its cultures of modernity enabled the universalization of the concept of language as “mother tongue,” the site where culture becomes nature. The mother tongue is a construct that emerged at a particular historical moment in the complex transformation of Europe’s linguistic landscape from the middle of the second millennium, as Latin was progressively withdrawn from the public domain and the “vernacular” was elevated as the language first of the state and then eventually, by the nineteenth century, of the nation (Seton Watson 1977). The historicity of the construct, however, has scarcely been explored. Consider the following statement by the American literary critic Walter Ong:
Why do we think so effortlessly of the first language we learn as our “mother” tongue?…The concept of “mother” tongue registers deeply the human feeling that the language in which we grow up, the language which introduces us as human beings to the human life-world, not only comes primarily from our mother, but belongs to some degree to our mother’s feminine world. Our first language claims us not as a father does, with a certain distance that is bracing…but as a mother does, immediately, from the beginning, lovingly, possessively, participatorily, and incontrovertibly. Mother is closer than father: we were carried in her womb. In her and from her we were born. Our world is a fragment of hers.
Yet neither Ong nor other scholars who routinely use the term “mother tongue” interrogate the historical conditions under which the “first language” comes to be so “effortlessly” attached to “our mother’s feminine world,” from philology to pedagogy.
Why in so many contemporary societies whose patriarchal foundations have been only further updated with modernity, and where everything from property inheritance to the generational transmission of one’s very name is reckoned through the father, does the figure of the mother come to be associated with language? The association seems especially surprising given the importance accorded in modernity to language as the essence of the national spirit. Even for feminist theorists of language, this has not been a matter of concern (Cameron 1990), nor has it been one for scholars of South Asia.
This is particularly striking because the category of the “mother tongue”—and its equivalent in Indian languages—appears to have gained salience only from the second half of the nineteenth century in the subcontinent, but has since become ubiquitous. Today, speakers of Tamil invariably use this term, and its Tamil gloss, tāymoli (lit., “mother language”), to refer to their language. Consider how one of its admirers defines Tamil as tāymoli: “Tamil is the tāymoli of the Tamil community. The newly born child calls the woman who gave birth to it, ‘ammā’ [mother]. She, too, coos over her child and calls it ‘kaṇṇē’ [precious one]. So, because Tamil is the language with which the mother is hailed, and it is the language which the mother herself uses, it is our tāymoli” (Sivagnanam 1970: 2).
The echoes here of Ong’s statement from the other side of the world are loud and clear. As we will see, Tamil’s devotees, as indeed others in India, struggled to secure official recognition, from the colonial state, of their language(s) as “mother tongue.” What was at stake in doing so? Why does the new people centered ideology of language and the patrimonial imagination ushered in with modernity resort to the figure of the mother? In attempting to answer such questions for Tamil, this study opens up for critical scrutiny the feminization of languages in modernity, a feminization that has been so naturalized as to have sealed off the “mother tongue” from history.
Tamil devotion would remain simply a rehearsal of Europe’s linguistic history if all that happens to Tamil in the course of being drawn into various structures of modernity is its recasting as “mother tongue,” tāymoli.
Yet this is not the only kind of feminization that the language undergoes within the regimes of tamil pparru. For lurking in the shadows of the “mother tongue,” but frequently disrupting its hegemonic claim on Tamil, is Tamil ttāy (lit., “Mother Tamil”), the apotheosis of the language as goddess, queen, mother, and maiden.
Indeed, in the discourses of Tamil’s devotees, there is a ready slippage between tamiḻ Tamilttāy; tāyppāl, “mother’s milk” tāy, “mother” and tāymoli, “mother tongue,” all of which over time come to be synonymous with each other.
Like other figures of difference, Tamil ttāy operates subversively to disrupt the flow of hegemonic discourses and ideologies, compelling the “mother tongue” to reveal the convergence between “language” and “motherhood” that has come to be so naturalized. The work of Tamil ttāy thus offers a striking illustration of the displacement and disarticulation of European notions at the very site of their colonial deployment.
My first introduction to Tamil ttāy came in 1988 when I chanced upon an anthology of poems called Moliyaraci, “Queen language.” Its very first selection, drawn from an 1891 play, Manōn maṇīyam, by P. Sundaram Pillai (1855-97), represented the earth as a woman whose beautiful face is paratak kaṇṭam (India) and whose radiant brow is the southern peninsula. The tirāviṭa nāṭu (Dravidian land) adorns that brow as an auspicious tilakam (sacred mark). The poem then declared:
O great goddess Tamil (tamiḻ aṇanku)! Like the fragrance of that tilakam, your fame spreads in all directions, and delights the whole world. Spellbound in admiration of your splendid youth and power, we offer you our homage.
The poem went on in this vein for several more verses (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 1-3). My interest in it was further piqued when I discovered that its first verse was institutionalized in June 1970 as the Tamilnadu state’s “prayer song.” The government’s reasons for doing this are telling:
It is observed by Government that many prayer songs are being sung at the commencement of functions organized by Government or attended by Ministers. In order to ensure uniformity in the singing of prayer songs, the Government have been for some time considering whether a theme might be chosen for being rendered as a prayer song, which will have no religious or sectarian association. After very careful consideration, the Government have decided that the piece containing six lines from Thiru. [Mr.] Sundaram Pillai’s “Manonmaneeyam” which is an invocation to the Goddess of Tamil, would be an appropriate theme for being rendered as a prayer song.
In his reminiscences, M. Karunanidhi (b. 1924), the Tamilnadu chief minister who ordered the institution of the prayer song, observes that there were orthodox Tamilians who objected to this official recognition accorded by the state to the “Goddess of Tamil.” Yet despite this, the government stood by its decision. Soon after, in April 1971, the adjoining union territory of Pondicherry, the predominantly Tamil-speaking former French colony, also instituted an anthem in praise of Tamil ttāy based on a 1939 poem by the well-known poet and native of Pondicherry, Bharatidasan (1891-1964) (Krishnamurthy 1991: 139-40).
Over the next couple of decades, both governments faced many problems in implementing their orders and getting their constituents to sing these songs correctly. Many Tamilians do not even realize that Tamil ttāy is the embodiment of the language they speak when they invoke her in these songs. Nevertheless, what intrigues me is that the governments of both these Tamil-speaking regions chose to make Tamil devotion into an everyday public and performative act in this way. Why personify the language, and why resort to the female figure? How is the female body deployed in devotional discourse(s), and to what ends? Why does the figure of the mother come to dominate from among a whole range of female subject-positions?
Just as intriguing to me has been the virtual lack of recognition accorded to Tamil ttāy by scholars. Elsewhere, I have suggested that this may be due to the many ambiguities that surround the figure in the intellectual and cultural discourses and practices of the region (Ramaswamy 1993: 687-90).
But it is precisely because it is a figure—of speech, worship, and identity—which manifests itself episodically that I am intrigued by the cultural, political, and ideological work to which Tamil ttāy has been put by her devotees. How does one write the history of a concept that is not ubiquitous, consistent, or immediately apparent?
Fellow scholars in Tamilnadu frequently expressed incredulity and even skepticism over my interest in Tamil ttāy. “There is no such thing as Tamil ttāy,” one of them told me; “she is only a figment of our imagination,” another assured me. I found it difficult to reconcile such statements with my innumerable encounters with her in essays, poems, songs, textbooks, newspaper reports, and public speeches.
If Tamil ttāy is so inconsequential, why did these texts dwell in such loving detail and at such length on her various attributes, marvel over her many past achievements, and lament over her current state of decrepitude? If she is only a figment of the imagination, how would we account for the colorful posters and newspaper cartoons which have made visible what is arguably a mere metaphor? And what about her wooden and stone statues and metal images which have transformed literary imagination into material substance? Coming of age as a historian at a time when the clarion call of my discipline has been to make the hidden, the submerged, and the suppressed “visible,” I asked myself how one writes the history of something that is visible but not seen.
For her devotees, Tamil ttāy is a singular figure with her own unique biography, a repertoire of deeds that cannot be reproduced, and a range of powers unfathomable. There is literally no one like her. Yet it is clear that she joins a pantheon of comparable female icons of the nation such as Bhārata Mātā, “Mother India” Britannia of England; Marianne of France; Guadalupe of Mexico, and the like (Agulhon 1980; Gutwirth 1992; Mosse 1985; Ryan 1990; Sarkar 1987; Warner 1985; Wolf 1958).
Some other Indian languages have been similarly feminized (King 1992). Nevertheless, because she is a figure who cannot be easily assimilated or translated into a ready-made narrative of language-and-nationalism organized around the founding concept of “mother tongue,” Tamil ttay allows me to interrogate and write the language question differently. So, in spite of her interstitial and episodic presence in the narratives of her own devotees, Tamil ttay emerges as one of the principal protagonists of this book.
Tamil’s devotees tell numerous stories about their language. The many variations and differences in these stories are informed, however, by one foundational narrative, which goes like this.
Once upon a time, long long ago, Tamil ttāy had reigned supreme, lavishly patronized by great Tamil kings. That had been an age of peace, prosperity, and happiness. There had been no inequities based on caste, creed, or gender. Learning, culture, and civilization had flourished. Today, however, ignored by her “children,” “Tamil ttāy has been cast into prison.…[S]he has several ailments. She languishes away, devoid of the fine food of poetry.…How many wounds, how many scabs, how many boils, how many pustules, how many scars, plague our mother! Tamil ttāy’s beautiful body—her glorious form—is now riddled with bloody wounds. And what of her heart?” (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 30-31).
Her devotees identify their land and community with the body of Tamil ttāy: “O Mother! Your land shrinks! Your sons diminish! Your body, too, shrinks!” (Suddhananda Bharati 1936: 10). In turn, the salvation of the body politic lies in ridding the body of Tamil ttay of its wounds, scars, and centuries of neglect. Her devotees repeatedly insist that if Tamil ttay prospers, so too will Tamilians, and so too will their land and community. In the mystical poet Suddhananda Bharati’s utopian vision of a new Tamil homeland restored to the reign of Tamil ttāy and Tamil learning:
There is gold and greenery everywhere; The smile of our illustrious queen who reigns over the cool Tamil grove, is like the glow of the morning light that destroys darkness…[!] Countless poets sing their songs! The cuckoos fill the air with sweet Tamil music! ...... The land holds high its head; our own arts and sciences shoot up like mountains! . . . The parched land is now a pleasant grove! ...... Holding her auspicious scepter, our mother reclines gloriously on her priceless throne of knowledges. . . . And celestials pray for her long life thus, “Long live Tamil sweeter than nectar! . . . May you grace us so that Tamil learning flourishes and the entire world flourishes with it!” (Velayutam Pillai 1971: 80-81)
This narrative of the golden past of Tamil, its degenerate present, and its utopian reign in the future provides the driving imperative for Tamil devotional practice, which draws its strength from the desire to restore Tamil and Tamil ttāy’s lost honor and pride. This imperative manifests itself in the repeated plea that Tamil speakers should wake up from their centuries of “sleep” and, filled with a new consciousness (uṇarcci), bring about the “improvement” (vaḷarcci) of Tamil. Only thus could they fulfill their filial debt to their language/mother and reestablish the rule of Tamil (tamiḻ āṭci) (Kothandaraman 1986).
Clear as this agenda may appear, it was constrained from the start by the multiple and often countervailing conceptions that prevailed about the language among its devotees, and it is these that I first detail in chapter 2.
I follow this, in chapter 3, with an analysis of Tamil ttāy, a figure that appears on the surface to bring unity to the multiple imaginings about Tamil, but that on closer scrutiny dissolves into the contrary images of goddess, mother, and maiden.
My aim in this chapter is to demonstrate that just as Tamil is multiply configured, and Tamil ttāy is multiply imagined, so too is language devotion multiply manifested, as religious, filial, and erotic, all struggling for prominence and domination.
From love, I move to questions of labor in chapter 4. Here, I explore how the differing agendas of the various imaginations about Tamil come into play in public policies and politics, and I track the many dilemmas that trouble its devotees as they translate their “talk” of tamil pparru into tamil ppaṇi, “service” and “work” for Tamil.
And then at last in the penultimate chapter 5, I turn to the lives and stories of those devotees, which are offered as models of emulation for all good and loyal Tamil speakers. My concern here is to chart the production of what I characterize as the “devotional subject,” an entity wrought in the cauldron of Tamil devotionalism whose history is the story of the language, and whose life cannot be imagined independently of Tamil. At the turn of this century, the devotional subject is one among a large number of possible subject-positions occupied by speakers of Tamil. By the middle of this century, not least because of the myriad activities of tamil pparru, there is a dramatic shift: the devotional subject is the only legitimate subject, for to be Tamilian meant that one has to be a devotee of Tamil; there is no other subject-position possible or desirable for its speaker, in the view of the ardent enthusiast. I explore this at some length in my concluding chapter 6, where I consider how the “Tamilian” becomes a subject of Tamil as the language itself becomes subject to tamil pparru.
Love, labor, and life as these are articulated in the discourses of Tamil devotion around the figure of Tamil ttāy: these, then, are the primary concerns of this study. It is with the help of Tamil ttāy and the practices of tamil pparru that coalesce around her that I set out to explore the language question in Tamil India differently—as a history that appears almost the same, but is not quite.
On the cultural politics of language in the colonial period, see Cohn 1985; Kaviraj 1992; Sudhir 1993; and Washbrook 1991. Surveys of language issues in independent India may be found in Ram Gopal 1966 and Brass 1990. For the role of caste, class, and religion in linguistic politics, see Brass 1974; Harrison 1960; and Karat Prakash 1973. The emergence of Hindi to sociopolitical prominence and the crisis of India’s national and official language policies are discussed in Dasgupta 1970; King 1994; K. Kumar 1990; Lelyveld 1993; and Nayar 1969.
Barnett 1976; Irschick 1969, 1986; Nambi Arooran 1976, 1980; Ramaswamy 1992b; Washbrook 1989.
In 1899, Sabapathy Navalar (1844-1903) published his Tirāviṭa Pirakācikai Ennum Tamil Varalāru (History of Tamil: The Dravidian light), but this work did not explicitly draw upon comparative philology or historical linguistics. It begins with a treatment of Tamil’s divine origins, and then surveys its grammatical and literary works on the basis of Tamil’s own traditions. Sabapathy’s varalāṟu is more a “story” of Tamil litterateurs and their work than a secular “history” of the language, its title notwithstanding (Sabapathy Navalar 1976).
Government of Tamilnadu Order No. 1393 (Public), 17 June 1970. Decades before the hymn was authorized as the state prayer song, it was sung at the gatherings of literary societies and revivalist conferences, and included in textbooks. In 1929, M. S. Purnalingam Pillai (1866-1947), a devotee of Tamil who taught English at Madras Christian College and other institutions, and founded and edited the monthly journal Ņānapōtini, declared (perhaps too enthusiastically) that the hymn “has become a household word among the Tamils and is recited in every Tamil Society [sic]” (Purnalingam Pillai 1985: 343). Thaninayagam observes, “The burden of these lines has been a recurrent theme during the last sixty years and has not been superseded even now as the main undertone of patriotic Tamil writing” (Thaninayagam 1963: 3).
Some argued that Tamilttāy was nothing more than a minor deity and that it was sacrilegious to subordinate the great gods of Hinduism to her. Others wondered whether the state’s new prayer song would signal Tamilnadu’s intention to separate from the Indian union, and commented on the inappropriateness of singing about Tamil ttay in gatherings where there would be non-Tamilians present. There was even concern that Sundaram Pillai’s poem ridiculed other languages in its extravagant praise of Tamil. “Is it necessary to praise our own language by debasing others? Is this Tamil culture?” (Karunanidhi 1987: 233-36; Vimalanandam 1971).