I usually only write about movies here, but I saw something over the weekend that was rather fascinating — well, annoying if I’m being completely honest — and it has stuck with me. A friend of mine sent me a link from a Facebook page called ‘Malaysian Indian Anthology’ (basically a collection of stories by Malaysian Indians), in which a girl named Divya recounts what it was like growing up unable to converse in Tamil.
Here’s an excerpt from the story:
“One day, a relative came up to me and said, ‘No respectable Indian man will marry someone that can’t speak Tamil’. I was shocked, but I couldn’t respond, as my broken Tamil could not have possibly articulated how ridiculous this statement was.
Given the right words, I would’ve responded, ‘My worth as an Indian woman is not valued by how well I speak Tamil and any man who would equate me to that is not worthy to be a husband’. Dramatic response, I know, but it’s nonetheless true.
I am not any less Indian, just because I can’t speak Tamil. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ Indian, there’s just Indian. I am proud of my identity regardless of what people say.”
Now, this isn’t what I found annoying. It was a lot of the comments that rubbed me the wrong way. People are saying she’s wrong to feel that way. That it’s not okay not to know Tamil. That it’s people like her who will be the downfall of the Tamil culture. That if everyone followed in her footsteps, Tamil — “one of the oldest languages in the world” as many repeatedly pointed out — would soon be extinct.
Here’s what the so-called “culture brigade” needs to understand.
It’s OKAY not to know a particular language, even if said language is your native-ethnic language. Is it good to be fluent in multiple languages? Yes. Is it good to be proficient in your native-ethnic tongue? Of course. But is it wrong if you’re not? No.
Divya (the girl who penned the story) is a Malaysian. Most of the people commenting are Malaysians. As Malaysians, I think it’s important for all of us to be as proficient as possible in Bahasa Malaysia. It is our National language. And unless you live in places like PJ/KL (where everyone including Nasi Lemak sellers speaks English) or only mix around with people who speak Tamil (and only eat at Indian restaurants and only watch movies at LFS), you will need to know Bahasa Malaysia. You’ll need it when you order food and when you’re buying your bus ticket. You’ll also need it for a number of official/formal situations like making a police report, settling a court order, reading a letter from LHDN that comes in the mail or when you negotiate for discounts at the traffic police station (just kidding).
I also think it’s essential that we know English. Not because it’s cool or makes you a better person than those who don’t speak it (it really isn’t/doesn’t — don’t let anybody tell you otherwise). But because English is — right now at least — the International language. If you want to grow your business on a global level, understand the goings-on worldwide or simply be able to converse wherever you are on the planet, being fluent in English probably helps.
As a Malaysian, other than Bahasa Malaysia and English, every other language you learn is a BONUS. The more languages you speak, the more people you can communicate and build rapport with. It also makes it difficult for people to pass remarks about you in a language they assume you don’t understand. The keyword here, though, is bonus. Not rule, not law, not must, but bonus.
As I was skimming through the comment section, I also wondered if the commenters are remotely capable of understanding nuance. Divya isn’t saying that people shouldn’t learn Tamil. She’s merely saying her identity as an Indian woman shouldn’t be judged based on her ability to speak the language. This reminds me of the controversy surrounding Nerkonda Paarvai. Some factions of the masses are unhappy with the film saying that it encourages women to smoke, drink etc. If you’re one of those people, you’ve missed the point completely. Nerkonda Paarvai isn’t saying women should drink, it’s merely saying that we as a society shouldn’t judge men and women differently (and also, no means no).
On that same token, Divya didn’t say “the Tamil-language sucks,” “screw Tamil, learn English,” or “Who cares about stupid Tamil, when you can speak English #Swag?” If she had said that, then perhaps the finger-wagging lectures in the comment section would be warranted. Divya merely expressed that for various reasons, she didn’t pick up the language and that her “Indian-ness” shouldn’t be criticized because of it.
Also, do Divya’s critics even know what constitutes culture?
There are loads of aspects that make up culture, including the food you eat and the art you consume. Is the Tamil “culture brigade” going to condemn Tamilians who prefer Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson over Rajinikanth? Are they going to say, “to be a proper Tamilian, you MUST watch Tamil movies?” “To be a proper Tamilian, you must be well versed with the works of A.R. Rahman?”
Person A: Reads, writes and converses perfectly in Tamil (but doesn’t watch Tamil movies or listen to Tamil songs).
Person B: Watches almost every single Tamil movie that comes out, reviews Tamil movies and studies Tamil movies (but doesn’t read, write nor speak the language).
Who’s more Tamilian?
The answer: Grow and stop being lame.
We live in a global society now. Culturally, none of us are “pure” anymore. Most of us are exposed to various cultures(encompassing various languages, cuisines, habits, films, music, etc) that shape who we are as individuals. Go and direct your anger towards people who denigrate or appropriate culture. Not towards someone who’s simply unable to speak a language.