For months I had been practicing the language. The first several weeks I had painstakingly practiced the script and alphabet, teaching my wrist to twist and swivel ornate shapes that were slowly but surely guaranteeing me carpal tunnel. The English alphabet has 26 letters; Tamil has 246, give or take. Each day I was flexing my ear muscles and straining to distinguish the breakup of words that at times, even today, still seem like a mumbo-jumbo of intonations I can’t quite catch. And yet, and Yet! I truly believed I was getting somewhere. In fact, I felt I was getting so close that I could use a proper Tamil phrase in the right context. How ‘bout that?
Well there’s this phrase and in English it goes as such “Two mangoes, one stone”, which is pretty much equivalent to “Kill two birds with one stone”. So one day, when surrounded by coworkers and it was the perfect opportunity to the say golden “Two mangoes, one stone” phrase I confidently stated “Rendu manga, onu kaal!” And barrels of laughter then ensued. You see the Tamil language is very, I mean very, meticulous with its sounds when the words are being spoken. So tricky that the same vowel will make a completely different word when vowel is made longer compared to shorter. For instance, “kal” means stone and “kaal” means leg. So – two mangoes, one leg – doesn’t quite make the cut.
Another incredible feature of this language is that a single consonant (when thinking about it from the Greek alphabet point of view #westernbiased) can have two, three, even four completely distinct sounds! This is relatively easy to discern in the script (relative being the most important word) and a bit more challenging when spoken. The different sounds of a consonant depend on where you put your tongue. Let’s use the letter “L” for example. Read the name of this language, which has an L – Tamil. Good. Now say it out loud. Awesome, you’re doing well. Now say it out loud but when pronouncing the L be sure to stick your tongue as far to the back of your throat as possible while saying it. Don’t worry you won’t choke but you will fill like you are speaking with marbles in your mouth, kinda like the scene with Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. And that is how you say Tamil.
Remarkable, isn’t it? And this is only one of the three L sounds. The other two I was practicing during one of my language classes and learned a valuable lesson. One week my teacher was working with me on the names of foods and such, and we eventually got to spices. The word for tamarind is “puli”. As class typically goes, Isabel (the teacher) will say the word in Tamil and I have to write it down (Tamil script and all) that way I practice the writing and better understand what sounds go with what letter or grouping of letters. Then after writing I will look up and repeat the word. So I looked up and confidently said “puli”. And then she began laughing. Turns out I said tiger instead of tamarind. You see, “puli” when spoken with your tongue gently tapping your teeth at the letter L is indicative of tiger, while “puli” when said with your tongue quickly touching your palate at the letter L means tamarind. And as crazy as all that sounds (pun fully intended), people around me could instantly distinguish if I said the wrong word even when the sound difference, to me, seemed enormously subtle.
Then there are times when I say the exactly correct thing and still it doesn’t quite make the cut. In India, much of the local transportation is easily accessible and often there are multiple options for transport across states and regions (i.e. bus, train). I was taking a night bus from Ooty to Chennai and given it was going to be long journey they stopped around 10 for a late dinner. I sat and ordered my food, all in Tamil, and suddenly felt the desire for a cold, I mean as cold as possible, soda water. I have been trying to drink as little soda as possible (a horrible habit developed from early childhood after all the summers spent with doting grandparents) but I craved some sort of bubbly sensation. Also, with the intense heat of the Tamil plains I wanted something cold. The waiter walked over and I said “Anna, soda thanni veenum” – Translation – Brother, I want soda water.
He seemed to register exactly what I wanted! – no glazed and confused look of trying to decipher my strange accent among my broken and often incoherent Tamil. Within minutes he brought back a small silver tumbler filled with water. “Soda thanni?” I asked confused. And he affirmed with a nod, smile, and said “Amma, sudu thanni!” Sudu means hot. I was given a glass of piping hot water on a night when it was somewhere around 38 degrees Celsius and I was already sweating profusely from pores on my body I didn’t know existed. This miscommunication registered in seconds, so I smiled and giggled at the mishap and said “Nanri Anna” (Thank you brother) before he scampered off. Well, at least I knew it was clean water.
I still get very nervous speaking Tamil at the office. Yet my dear friend and ever precocious mentor Nandan will say to people “Avangala tamil pesinga”. My coworkers are incredibly kind and indulge me when I attempt to speak Tamil, and are sooooo patient when I ask them to repeat, at least 532 times, the same word that they had told me yesterday. I love this language. Oh excuse me, “Enakku tamil rompa piddikum!” It is a challenge for me every single day and it has been a part of much confusion and awkwardness during my time here but it has taught me so many lessons. Of course, learning a language being one of them but the best lesson of all – how to look stupid and still smile. As described to you in thorough detail above, I have made so many language blunders. These were moments when I could have been embarrassed and allowed myself to give up because failing was too uncomfortable. Yet the more I have made mistakes, the more I have learned. It is a lesson (more like a medicine) I have to keep reminding myself is inevitable but good. If anything, at least I have given people something to smile and laugh about. “Potiyu vareen” – I go, I come – a way to say goodbye in Tamil, without actually saying goodbye – I very much hope that means I return and fully learn this language – mistakes, barrel laughs, and all.