Tambrahms dissolve into multilingual diaspora

Recently, I got involved in an animated discussion on what a modern Indian middle class family is like. Indians are used to living in large families. My own extended family has around 200 members. I know barely a third of them and that is only because they all live in Delhi where I too live. Not all are from South India though. There are many from the other states as well. Obviously they have entered the extended family via marriage. So far, however, there are only two or three from any of the several religions of the world. ­Everyone else is a Hindu. Some are practising Hindus and others are mostly non-practising. Practising means they observe all the little occasions of ­Hinduism and the rituals associated with them. The non-practising ones observe only the major festivals. The former are a solemnly religious lot. The latter tend to prefer the cultural rather than the religious and ritualistic aspects. No one gets in the way of the others, except perhaps an occasional shrug of non-comprehension. It’s live and let live. The one thing we don’t talk about in the family is caste.

There was a time, just about 40 years ago when the Tamil Brahmins, or Tambrahms, dominated our family. That’s no longer the case. Doubtless, they are in a majority. But it’s not an overwhelming one. There are now plenty of others from different states. One problem that this creates is ­language. Most members of the family are trilingual. Everyone speaks English, of course, but most also speak Tamil. Sometimes when a non-Tamil member is present, and unconsciously the conversation becomes in Tamil, we quickly translate and revert to English. Hindi is also used but not as much as English. Ethnic jokes fall flat on the non-Tamils. But as the Punjabis say, “kee karaan?”

My two-year-old grandson speaks only French. My wife and I will have to learn French if we want to have a meaningful relationship with him.

Now a new element has crept in. Many family members live abroad. My son, for example, lives in the French part of Switzerland. His son, who is not yet two years old, speaks only French. He greets us with a bon jour and bids goodbye with an au revoir. He calls butterflies pappillon and bicycles vello. My wife and I will have to learn French if we want to have a meaningful relationship with him. His parents are trying quite valiantly to teach him Hindi, which he will learn I am sure. But Tamil? Perish the thought. He will follow it but it’s most unlikely that he will speak it. Even my sons, who were born in Delhi and have lived here all their lives, can barely speak Tamil. Thanks, however, to their four grandparents, they follow it perfectly. And let me confess: I can’t read or write Tamil either. My mother taught it to my siblings but, as in other things, I proved knowledge-proof. The loss is entirely mine. But I can speak ­Punjabi and follow it completely. Thanks to the Bengali professors at the Delhi School of Economics, I can also follow Bengali.

While on the subject of languages I must mention that my wife recently retired as a professor of Korean at JNU. My brother, who was a diplomat, is completely fluent in Chinese. My brother-in-law is good at German. My niece teaches French. Her mother is a Kashmiri whose two children don’t speak Kashmiri. We have a Gujarati speaker and many Telugu speakers, too. There is one Maharashtrian, an American and an Englishman, too. Finally I would be remiss in omitting my closest cousins. Their mother was from Allahabad, now Prayagraj.

I think all this is true of thousands of Indian families. It’s a new sociological reality which no one has begun to examine on a systematic basis. It’s high time it was.

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