Indianism and the “Mother Tongue”
In all these struggles—to counter the excessive influence of Tamil’s divinity and classicality, to wean Tamil speakers away from their infatuation with English, to create new vocabularies for use in scientific education and modern government, to fashion a language that would be understood by “the common folk”—Indianism relied extensively on Tamil’s status as “mother tongue.” In the Indianist regime, as indeed in Dravidianism, the speaker’s relationship to Tamil is cast in the intimate and familiar terms of a child’s interactions with its mother, rather than with some distant abstraction called “the classical tongue” or “the divine language.” Early in this century, Bharati (1937: 29) observed that “nations are made of homes.” For both these regimes, however, the nation is not merely made of homes; symbolically and discursively, it is home, a domain of selfless love and sibling solidarity, a realm of nonpolitics (Chatterjee 1989).
The language of the home acquired potency and validity for Indianism, precisely because it was imagined to be not the language of the colonized, Anglicized, public sphere. Untarnished by the West, it was the language of every Tamil speaker’s heart, mind, and true self, and hence the means through which anticolonial resistance could be launched. The home, however, was also the abode of the mother, imagined as the true bearer of all that was noble and spiritual about Tamil (and Indian) culture. Just as crucially, the mother was also the vehicle through whom Tamil, the “mother tongue,” would continue to be reproduced, even as in the outer, material world, away from the home, Tamil speakers, especially their menfolk, would perforce have to employ English. Not surprisingly, there was much agony among the devout over the alarming escalation in the use of English by women and girls, especially within the intimate and hitherto uncolonized space of the home. Why are we surprised, they asked, that there is no respect for Tamil when “even our women in their kitchens rejoice that they speak English” (Vasudeva Sharma 1928: 18)? An editorial in the nationalist daily Cutēcamittiraṉ (23 August 1917) similarly lamented that if this alarming trend were to continue, “we will be spoiled in every way.”
Although the construct of “mother tongue” frequently erupted in neo-Shaiva and classicist discourses, generating paradoxical formations such as “our divine mother tongue” or “our classical mother tongue,” it was with Indianism from the turn of the century that the term assumed both popularity and political saliency. English, it was argued, would only turn Tamil speakers (and other Indians) into clerks and accountants; their “mother tongue,” however, would transform them into patriots and citizens. As Kalyanasundaram declared in 1924, “The nation in which the mother tongue does not flourish will never achieve freedom.…The first step towards freedom is respect for the mother tongue” (Kalyanasundaranar 1935: 21).
Indianism was particularly concerned that such a “respect” for Indian languages was being denied by the colonial state’s classification of these as “vernaculars”—“the language of the slaves.” Thus S. Satyamurthy, a leading spokesman for the Congress Party, declared to the Madras Legislative Council in November 1928: “Vernacular means the tongue of slaves. I do not think we ought to insult our languages by calling them ‘vernaculars’ or tongues of slaves. Of course, the answer of the Englishman would be, ‘My vernacular is English.’ But he never uses the word ‘vernacular’ in connection with his mother tongue.”
Therefore, where classicism protested the categorization of Tamil as a “vernacular” by seeking recognition for its classicality, Indianism did so by insisting on its status as tāymoḻi (mother tongue)—as the language of the people, of their homes, and of their mothers. Consider the following statement from an essay entitled “Tāymoḻi,” written by Kalyanasundaram, that appeared in his Navacakti in 1924:
Every man reveres the woman who gives birth to him, the nation (nāṭu) where he was born, and the language he speaks, by referring to these as his “mother.” As much as the love he has for the mother who carried him, ought to be his love for the nation that delivers him, and the language that rears him. A man who does not revere his nation and his language is like the sinner who does not reverence his own mother. Indeed, the language that one speaks is the very wellspring of the love for one’s mother, and of devotion to one’s motherland. A man who is not devoted to the mother tongue he speaks is a man who has reviled his own mother and his own nation.
So endemic does the identification of language with motherhood become with Indianist discourse that even when Tamiḻttāy herself was not specifically invoked, Tamil and mothers came to be spoken of in identical terms. In his memoirs Sivagnanam, an autodidact who remembers learning much of his Tamil at his mother’s knee in her kitchen, writes, “As far as I am concerned, when I say Tamil is my ‘mother tongue,’ it is not rhetorical. It is really true. My knowledge of Tamil is my mother’s gift. For that reason, Tamil is my mother tongue” (Sivagnanam 1974: 868). For its devotees, there was nothing more natural than referring to their language as “mother tongue” because it was literally something they acquired from their mothers. It was, as Sivagnanam reminds us, their mothers’ gift.