The Anti Devotee
Finally, I turn to the maverick figure of E. V. Ramasami, the “patriarch” (tantai) of the Dravidian movement, who is reverentially referred to as Periyār (the great one) by his followers and admirers. Perhaps more than any single individual, Ramasami has had the greatest influence, by their own reckoning, on the lives of large numbers of Tamil’s devotees, especially those who write in the Dravidianist idiom. Indeed, in a literary culture given to extravagant adulation and excess, praise of Ramasami is only surpassed by praise of Tamil (Pulamaidasan 1975). To quote a typical example:
You were the courageous one in the group that sought the welfare of southern people. ...... You mastered and embraced the British language as the language of science. You blocked the ascent of Hindi that had gained a place in the life of my people. You are the king who rises up if Tamils anywhere suffer. ...... You, who always think about developing fair Tamil ...... You…came as a son so fair Tamil could flourish. (quoted in Richman 1997: 198, 204)
It is ironic that his admirers wrote verses such as this, for the subject of all this adulation had very little patience with a literary form like poetry. Even more ironically, beginning in the 1940s if not earlier, Ramasami launched a sustained attack on the passionate attachment to Tamil that was the binding glue of the devotional community; in the 1950s, he even referred to the language as “primitive” and “barbaric” (Nannan 1993: 52, 138-50; E. V. Ramasami 1960: 10-11). This attack peaked in the early 1960s when he published a polemical pamphlet provocatively entitled Tāyppāl Paittiyam (Madness over mother’s milk), in which he boldly satirized the hallowed figure of Tamiḻttāy (E. V. Ramasami 1962: 7-17). Nevertheless, devotees who are admirers of Ramasami strategically overlook his denial of Tamil and present him instead as its “savior”—even as one of Tamiḻttāy’s true sons. Indeed, because so many of them profess to be rationalists and atheists, they can no longer call upon Hindu deities to grant protection to their adored subject, Ramasami; instead, they turn to Tamil or Tamiḻttāy to do so. Typically, praise poetry on Ramasami begins with praise of Tamil. For Tamiḻttāy’s devotees, he is one of their own, and one of hers, as well.
And yet all along, Ramasami vigorously resisted being thus appropriated into the Tamil devotional community; hence my characterization of him as “anti-devotee.” So, for instance, in July 1939 at a public meeting in Coimbatore, he announced:
The chairman says I have great devotion for our mother tongue, Tamil. He also said that I toil hard for it. . . . I do not have any devotion for Tamil, either as mother tongue or as the language of the nation. I am not attached to it because it is a classical language, or because it is an ancient language, or because it was the language spoken by Shiva, or the language bestowed upon us by Agastya.…Such an attachment and devotion is foolish. I only have attachment to those things that have qualities that have utility. I do not praise something just because it is my language or my land or my religion or because it is something ancient.
Here, in one sweep, he vigorously set himself in opposition to every assertion made by the devout, across the various regimes of tamiḻppaṟṟu, over the past half century. Indeed, in contrast to its devotees who imagined Tamil as a person—their goddess, their mother, even their beloved lover—Ramasami represented it as a worldly object: an instrument (cātaṉam) for communicating one’s thoughts, a tool (karuvi) for expressing ideas. The greatness of a language, he wrote, lay in the ease with which one could express thoughts in and through it, and the efficiency with which one could learn it; its usefulness lay in its appropriateness for any community’s conditions for existence, its compatibility with the environment, and so on (Anaimuthu 1974: 963-69; Kothandaraman 1979). So, in his 1939 speech in Coimbatore, he conceded that if he had any affection (aṉpu) at all for Tamil, it is because it had some use for its speakers. Over the following decades, he became less willing to make even this concession. Mudiyarasan recalls that at the Language Teachers Conference in 1948 over which Ramasami presided, he scribbled the words “Down with Tamil” on a piece of paper lying on the table; contrary to the spirit of the conference, Ramasami declared in his own speech, “First, Tamil has to die.…Only English should reign. It is only then that the Tamilian will improve” (Mudiyarasan n.d.: 42-43). Ramasami himself wrote a few years later that when he made a similar point at another public meeting, some Tamil “fanatics” (moḻi veṟiyar) asked him whose son he was. Ramasami replied that if-speaking English meant that Tamilians were children of the British, then they should also give up using other “English” products such as the radio and the telephone (E. V. Ramasami 1962: 6-7).
Indeed, in his editorials of early 1967, which were surely a commentary on recent happenings in the state, convulsed as it had been by anti-Hindi protests, he wrote: “In our land today, those who have no other means of survival invoke Tamil in order to survive. They declare in frenzy that ‘Tamil has to be protected; We will labor for Tamil; We will give up our lives for Tamil.’…The people [of this land] should not be fooled by this.…How can people who live in modern times be seized by this language madness (moḻi paittiyam)? The madness over language is like the madness over caste and religion” (Anaimuthu 1974: 983, 1001).
“Why should we get into a frenzy over language?” This was an interesting question to raise at a time when so many had claimed, and acted on the premise, that a life without Tamil was a life not worth living. In the numerous self-reflections that Ramasami offers on his life, “service to Tamil,” that driving imperative of Tamil’s devotees, hardly figures at all—yet another reason for characterizing him as “anti-devotee.” Instead, the burning passion of his life, as he himself declared on many occasions, was to put an end to caste exploitation: specifically, to Brahman denigration of, and domination over, the “non-Brahman,” Dravidian populace (S. Chidambaranar 1971: ix-xxxi, 15-20). It is caste and religion that were his central concerns for most of his life, not language. As he declared in the 1950s, “language is not so important for man” (E. V. Ramasami 1962: 1).
Not surprisingly, unlike any of its devotees, Ramasami makes no claims to have labored for Tamil. Born in 1879 into a middle-class merchant family in Erode, by his own reckoning he was a rebellious young man, going against the wishes of his orthodox parents on more than one occasion. He dropped out of school—not driven out by poverty, as was the case with so many of Tamil’s devotees, but by choice—and started working for his father. It was not until 1915, when he was in his thirties, that he began to involve himself in civic activities; and here, too, unlike many in the devotional community, his interest lay in local politics, and increasingly in anticolonial politics. By 1920, after serving for two years as chairman of the Erode municipality, he joined the Congress, and by all accounts he ardently threw himself into promoting the end of untouchability, the virtues of khadi (homespun) and teetotalism, and other such staples of Gandhian nationalism. In 1924, he led a campaign in Vaikom (in present-day Kerala) to demand the rescinding of rules prohibiting Untouchables from access to roads near the local temple. He received the sobriquet Vaikkam Vīrar, “hero of Vaikom,” for his efforts, and this campaign also consolidated his growing reputation as a man who was radically opposed to Brahmanical privilege and caste exploitation (S. Chidambaranar 1971: 1-88; Visswanathan 17-66).
Soon after, in 1925-26, he parted from the Congress, dissatisfied with the party’s Brahmanical predilections, the most recent illustration of which was its support of separate dining facilities for Brahman students in Subramania Aiyar’s Tamil school in Sheramadevi (discussed earlier). Over the next few years, he began to drift towards the Justice Party, the premier organization that represented “non-Brahman” interests in the Presidency, although there were considerable differences between its conservative, elite agenda and Ramasami’s own rationalist, atheist, iconoclastic imperatives that found expression in the Self-Respect movement he spearheaded from this time on. He also founded, and often acted as editor of, a number of controversial and radical newspapers and journals, such as the Kuṭi Aracu,Viṭutalai,Revolt, and so on, publications which reportedly had a transformative influence on so many of Tamil’s devotees. And yet his own writings are marked by the absence of the literary flourishes and the erudite citations from ancient Tamil literature that characterize devotional writings; on the contrary, Ramasami appears to have taken an almost perverse pleasure in using colloquialisms, koccaittamiḻ (unrefined Tamil), even what some would consider vulgarisms. Ironically, or perhaps deliberately, the Tamil that he employed in his writings was inflected with Sanskrit, his polemical attacks against the language notwithstanding.
Ramasami’s involvement in activities related to Tamil began in the 1930s (Nannan 1993: 11-14). In 1934-35, in essays he published in Pakuttaṟivu and Kuṭi Aracu, he called for reform and rationalization of the Tamil script in order to make it more serviceable in printing and typewriting. Although not the first person to call for such a reform, nevertheless he was among the earliest to demonstrate by example: his publications began to use a modified version of the script that was eventually officially adopted by the Tamilnadu state in 1978. In the 1940s and 1950s, Ramasami also supported the demand for use of Tamil in temple worship, the Tamil music (tamiḻ icai) movement, the call for renaming Madras state Tamilnadu, the protests over better pay for Tamil teachers, and all other such causes that were so dear to Tamil’s followers (Anaimuthu 1974: 959-63; Kothandaraman 1979; Nambi Arooran 1980: 167-68; Velu and Selvaraji 1989).
Of course, his reputation and fame as devotee of Tamil rests on his spirited opposition to Hindi and on his vigorous leadership of the anti-Hindi movement from the late 1930s through the 1960s. Indeed, as early as 1926, long before the opposition to the language had grown among scholars as well as the general populace, he insisted that Hindi was being favored politically, pedagogically, and financially by the Brahman dominated Congress party at the expense of Tamil (E. V. Ramasami 1985). Over the next few decades, he vigorously flooded newspapers and magazines with powerful, and often colorful, arguments against the language; led numerous campaigns for picketing government offices, schools teaching Hindi, and business establishments run by North Indians; tarred over Hindi names on official boards in railway stations and post offices; burned the Constitution of India and the national map; and was arrested on numerous occasions for all his efforts. His admirers mention that in this process, not only did he instill Tamil consciousness into the hitherto “sleeping” Dravidian masses, but he was also responsible for politicizing women and drawing them into the Tamil cause.
Through all this, Ramasami paradoxically maintained that he was-speaking out against Hindi not because he was a devotee of Tamil, but because he saw Hindi as an agent of continuing Aryan, Brahman, Sanskritic, North Indian imperialism. During the 1930s, he was willing to concede that given their other choices—the irrational and ritualistic Sanskrit, and the “backward” Hindi—Tamilians were much better off with Tamil (Anaimuthu 1974: 968-69, 1763-825). But from the 1940s, even as he was leading the fight against Hindi, he also attacked the enormous political, symbolic, and emotional investment in Tamil made by so many of his fellow Tamil-speaking Dravidians. He ridiculed neo-Shaiva attempts to divinize the language, declaring that if Tamil society had to progress, and if Tamil had to take its place among the modern languages of the world, its intimate ties with religion had to be severed. What use was it to declare that Tamil emerged from Shiva’s drum or that it could magically create a woman out of some old bones, as some of its devotees were wont to do, when the language did not have the capacity to express rational thought? he asked with brutal realism (Anaimuthu 1974: 969, 976-77; E. V. Ramasami 1960).
While he was willing to go along with the contestatory classicist and Dravidianist claim that Tamil was more ancient than and a superior language to Sanskrit, he questioned the wisdom of the proposition that the salvation of modern Tamil speakers lay in a return to the imagined perfect past of their Canḳam poems. And here, his growing disparagement of Tamil was matched only by his utter scorn for its high literature, whose “classicality” its devotees had so painstakingly constructed over the past few decades. Instead, he insisted that all of Tamil literature—with the possible exception of the Tirukkuṟaḷ—was tainted with Sanskritic ritualism, casteism, gender inequalities, and irrational follies, arguing that it was the very means by which Tamilians had been, and would continue to be, enslaved to Aryanism (Anaimuthu 1974: 959-1002; Nambi Arooran 1980: 164-66; E. V. Ramasami 1960).
But above all, Ramasami attacked the feminization of Tamil as a mother figure, that construct so dear to the Indianist and Dravidianist imaginations. What is this “obstinacy” over the mother tongue when the language spoken by our mothers is itself so problematic? he demanded. “Having given birth to us, if our mother left us in the house of a Telugu speaker or a Muslim, would we not start to speak in Telugu or Urdu? Just because our mother spoke Tamil does that mean that Tamil will spurt from us all by itself?” Moreover, can the baby talk that mothers use with their infants be used by us as adults? Is this not utter foolishness? he asked (Anaimuthu 1974: 969).
Ramasami thus deconstructed the metaphorical construct of the “mother tongue” to reveal what it was, after all—a metaphor; and in general, there was a remarkable absence in his writings of references to Tamiḻttāy, “mother’s milk,” “mother tongue,” and all such staples of tamiḻppaṟṟu. This is not surprising, for as he asked in his provocative pamphlet, Tāyppāl Paittiyam (Madness over mother’s milk), why is it that Tamilians insist, as if they were “children,” that they would only live on their mother’s milk, Tamil: “ ‘Mother’s milk is superior’ only if the mother’s milk has power (cakti) and substance (cattu). When the mother, Tamil, is herself without substance and diseased, how could the child who drinks her milk improve? The mother’s milk will be strong only if the mother herself is well-nourished. Is Tamil well-nourished?” (E. V. Ramasami 1962: 9-10).
Contrary to so many of her devotees who proposed that imbibing Tamiḻttāy’s milk cultivated in the Tamil speaker the true “Tamil” qualities of virtue and chastity, heroism and self-respect, Ramasami argued that Tamilians who had been content with drinking her milk were diseased with irrationalism, superstition, and traditionalism, so much so that one recoiled from the nasty odor of religiosity and orthodoxy that emanated from them. He went on to propose that if Tamilians took to drinking “bottled milk,” that is, English, they would gain in fortitude, independence, and rationality (E. V. Ramasami 1962: 10-12). As in his antireligious and anticlassicist arguments against devotional claims, he invoked the power of modern science and rationalism to undermine the “irrational” follies of its devotees’ attachment to Tamil:
The pamphlet ends by announcing that through deploying the trope of mother’s milk to stir the gullible Tamilians’ devotion to their language, Tamil devotees had only succeeded in turning them into fools. This, Ramasami concluded, was “the real fruit of mother’s milk.”
If Tamiḻttāy offers her milk for scientific examination, it will be proven that there is nothing in it that provides strength or fortitude to the body, and the reality of mother’s milk will be revealed. Is it not appropriate that those who praise the virtues of mother’s milk should tell us what its constituents are that supposedly contribute to our well-being? Instead of so doing, they have turned…mother’s milk into a capital resource with which they have deluded the people.
Ramasami’s most vehement statements about the “madness” over Tamiḻttāy, or the “barbarism” of Tamil, were made in the 1950s and 1960s, when the DMK was riding the crest of the popular and political wave in the state by projecting itself as the guardian of the language. In 1949, that party had split off from Ramasami’s DK, which he had created in 1944 out of the ashes of the defunct Justice Party (of which he had been president since 1938). The ostensible occasion for the split was Ramasami’s (second) marriage, at seventy, to Maniyammai, a party worker forty or so years younger than him; the marriage was denounced as a betrayal of Ramasami’s own dearly held principles. But other ideological differences had accumulated between Ramasami and Annadurai, his able lieutenant of many years, including their varying stances on Dravidian and Indian nationalisms, Brahmanism, and electoral politics. As the DMK became more and more vigorous in its espousal of the Tamil cause, Ramasami took an alternate route. After 1953, he even backed the Congress in spite of that party’s reputation as “anti-Tamil,” a reputation that Ramasami himself had helped establish in earlier years (Barnett 1976: 56-84). He also called upon Tamil speakers to abandon Tamil and to embrace English, at one point even urging, “Speak with your wives and children and servants in English! Give up your infatuation with Tamil (tamiḻp paittiyam).…Try and live like human beings!” (Anaimuthu 1974: 989). Where the DMK was willing to concede the usefulness of English in the public sphere, Ramasami insisted that even in the private, intimate space of their homes, Tamilians should abandon their “mother” and adopt English—a stunning repudiation of a fundamental devotional premise.
Yet it would be a mistake to reduce Ramasami’s iconoclastic pronouncements on Tamil to the shifting vagaries of electoral and party politics alone. His dismay over Tamil-speaking Dravidians’ preoccupation with their language cannot be separated from his dominant ideological and political objective through much of the 1940s and early 1950s—the creation of a separate Dravidian nation, in opposition to the Indian nation (M. S. S. Pandian 1993). He argued that their ethnic/racial identity as “Dravidians” was, and should be, more important to Tamilians than their linguistic identity as speakers of Tamil. Unlike language—which he insisted could be picked up today and dropped tomorrow—the bond of blood was durable and distinctive. And yet, paradoxically, he had as encompassing a vision of Tamil as so many of its devotees, for in making his case for a “Dravidian nation,” he suggested there was no distinction between Tamil and the other Dravidian languages: “Some of our pandits declare that these four languages emerged from one, that they are four sisters that were borne by one mother’s womb. This is utter nonsense. There was only one daughter who was given birth to by Tirāviṭattāy [Mother Dravida], and her name is Tamil. We have given it four different names, because the language is spoken in four different places. But in all four places, it is Tamil that is spoken” (E. V. Ramasami 1948: 30, emphasis mine). So, for Ramasami, “Dravidian is Tamil, Tamil is Dravidian”—a sentiment that led him to deny the existence of the non-Tamil languages and their speakers as autonomous entities, and enabled his imagination of a unitary Dravidian nation.
Why did Tamil’s devotees absorb Ramasami into their ranks, despite his stunning disparagement of their object of devotion? They lionized him for his leadership of the anti-Hindi struggle: since so much of tamiḻppaṟṟu from the 1930s defined itself in its opposition to Hindi, it follows that Ramasami’s catalytic role in these protests bestowed the aura of a Tamil devotee on him. Moreover, for all his numerous slippages, contradictions, and turnabouts in politics, Ramasami consistently and fiercely opposed Brahmanism, Aryanism, and Sanskrit. Since so much of the devotional community was itself animated by such an opposition, he is seen as a fellow traveller in their own struggle against these forces. Further, Ramasami’s fundamental ideological and political commitment to restore the “self-respect” and rights of Dravidians resonated with the devotees’ own efforts to reinstate the lost privileges and honor of Tamil.
But above all, I would maintain that this most undevoted “Tamilian” was ensnared by the inexorable logic of tamiḻppaṟṟu. In that logic, there is no other subject-position available to someone like Ramasami other than that of “devotee of Tamil.” For, as the century progressed and especially as the Dravidianist idiom came to hold sway over the devotional community, a “Tamilian” or “Dravidian” had to be, by definition, a devotee of Tamil; no other ways of being were possible. As one of the founding fathers of the Dravidian movement, Ramasami’s status as paradigmatic “Tamilian” was sacrosanct; it could not, and indeed should not, be interrogated. Inevitably, this meant that if he had to retain that status, he had to be converted into a tamiḻ aṉpar, a devotee of Tamil. His protests notwithstanding, the devotional community appropriated this maverick individual and rendered him, like many others, into a subject of Tamil.