I cursed myself for the umpteenth time for not being able to speak the regional language the proper way in spite of living in Chennai for decades. The moment I start speaking in Tamil, people look perplexed at me and ask me a lot of questions regarding the place of my origin. When I tell them no matter to which place I hail from I am a Chennaivasi in every sense of the word, they look accusingly at me for not having learnt to speak the tongue as it should be spoken.
Perhaps this is the plight of someone like me who has no flair for languages. My attempts to learn to read and write Tamil proved equally futile. Not one to give up, I thought the best way to improve my proficiency in the language was to keep conversing in Tamil with whomsoever I met. I was also sure that it would increase my contacts and help me in developing affinity with people because they are likely to take to someone speaking in their own language.
My first experience (perhaps the last) was at the eye clinic. The doctor there was a loquacious person and we chatted for a long time in Tamil before he actually got down to testing my eyes. When I was asked to read the letters on the board placed before me, I found myself at a total loss. Noticing me faltering and fumbling at every letter, he promptly removed the first set of glasses, inserting another pair, he asked me to read.
When he found no difference and was about to change to another pair, I had to confess that my problem was more with the language than with my vision (I felt like an illiterate when I said this). He let out a loud guffaw and then placed a board consisting of letters in English. As I took leave of him, he said he only did that to test my proficiency in reading Tamil, having noticed how badly I spoke the language. I complimented him on his patience as well as his sense of humour.
My next experience was at the humour club where I was invited to speak (in Tamil, of course) on the importance of humour in life. I readily agreed thinking it was a golden opportunity to experiment my “command” of the language on a large gathering. The organisers offered to pick me up from my residence and drop me back. I took care to intersperse my speech with jokes and anecdotes and I was delighted to notice the audience breaking into peels of laughter whenever I paused.
When I concluded my speech there was a standing ovation and I congratulated myself on my achievement. I was sure that I would be invited to speak on more such occasions.
One of the office-bearers accompanied me on our way back. I expected him to shower me with encomiums on my “excellent” performance. Finding none was forthcoming and we had almost reached home, I asked albeit hesitatingly whether their club members liked my speech.
Oh yes, they all enjoyed the way you spoke in Tamil, they felt it sounded very humorous, he said after a long pause.
But I thought they laughed at the jokes all right, I was sure they understood them, I said, feeling like a deflated balloon.
Jokes or no jokes, our policy is to encourage the speaker and have audience participation. We make sure that they both don’t lose their sense of humour. Therefore, it is mandatory for our members to applaud the speaker while he/she is making the speech and give a standing ovation at the end of it, he said.
N Meera Raghavendra Rao