The Nourishing Milk of Tamiḻttāy
For her filial devotee, Tamiḻttāy’s milk (pāl) is just as significant as her womb. As early as 1879, Vedanayakam Pillai described Tamil as “the language which our mothers and fathers fed us along with milk” (Vedanayakam Pillai 1879: 285). In 1891, Sundaram Pillai’s Maṉōṉmaṇīyam featured a dramatic monologue in which the hero, Jeevakan, declared that it is through mother’s milk that pride in one’s language and one’s land is imbibed. By the turn of this century, the assumption that Tamil was mother’s milk had become so naturalized that in 1913, when the senate of Madras University proclaimed that the “vernaculars” would no longer be compulsory for students, the Ņāṉapānu protested by comparing this resolution with one that would dictate that it was no longer mandatory for mothers to raise their children on their own milk. And in 1914, V. V. Subramania Aiyar, an Indianist devotee of Tamil, insisted that it would be impossible for anyone to produce great works of literature in a language that had not been taken in with the mother’s milk (Subramania Aiyar 1981: 20). Over and again during this century, Tamil has been invoked by its devotees as “the milk of our youth,” the “fine milk,” “the glorious mother’s milk,” and the like (Ramaswamy 1992a: 49-51). The 1931 Census even lent the blessings of the colonial state to such an imagining by defining the “mother tongue” as “the language which [one] had taken in with mother’s milk” (Government of India 1932: 287).
Sometimes, Tamil is imbibed through the human mother’s milk, a suggestion that has had important, even conservative, implications for Tamil women’s identity (Ramaswamy 1992a; see also Lakshmi 1990). But more often than not, her filial devotee insists that it is Tamiḻttāy herself who raises her children on her nourishing milk. Thus, borne by Tamiḻttāy’s womb, and having shared her milk, Tamil speakers are rendered “siblings,” members of the same “family.” By midcentury, so entrenched were such assumptions that Ramasami’s rationalist attack on the feminization of Tamil was launched under the title Tāyppāl Paittiyam (The madness over mother’s milk) (E. V. Ramasami 1962: 7-17). This powerful attack, however, has not detracted either its devotees or others from continuing to compare Tamil to mother’s milk, a hit song from the recent film Aṇṇāmalai (1992) being a case in point.
If Tamil is mother’s milk, then foreign languages, like English, are likened to “bottled milk,” even “tonics.” Their virtues are infinitely inferior to those of mother’s milk/Tamil, which they may supplement but never replace. So, in 1956, during the debate in the Madras Legislative Assembly on replacing English as the official language of the state with Tamil, one of the members passionately declared: “Today our mother tongue reclines royally on the throne of government. For a child, its mother’s milk is far more necessary than bottled milk. Even if the children who grow up on bottled milk survive, there are excellent substances (cattu) in their mother’s milk. Children who drink their mother’s milk have fine dispositions as well.”
It is interesting that the legislator, P. G. Karuthiruman, used the Tamil word cattu to refer to the substances contained in mother’s milk, for some of the meanings of that word are truth, virtue, goodness, and moral excellence. These are precisely the fine qualities that every true speaker who was reared on Tamil is supposed to imbibe. Accordingly, the filial devotee insists that it is Tamiḻttāy’s milk that cultivates in the Tamil speaker moḻippaṟṟu (devotion to language), nāṭṭuppaṟṟu (devotion to nation), āṇmai (manliness or courage), and taṉmāṉam (self-respect) (Iyarkaiselvan 1959: 8). Not surprisingly, Tamil’s enemies (like Sanskrit or Hindi) were characterized, especially in Dravidianism, as languages that poison the purity of Tamiḻttāy’s milk (Bharatidasan 1948: 4; Perunchitranar 1979: 57).
In premodern Tamil literary culture, mother’s milk was typically associated with purity, coolness, and creativity (Shulman 1980: 93-104). In her ethnography of contemporary Tamil family life, Margaret Trawick (1990: 93-94) has suggested that the importance of mother’s milk derives from the belief that it is the substantial repository of mother’s love (aṉpu). These are all characteristics that her filial devotee would readily associate with Tamiḻttāy’s milk. But there are also ideological uses to which the mother’s milk has been put in the discourses of Tamil’s modern adherents. For one, imagining Tamil as mother’s milk enables the language to be symbolically incorporated into the bodies of its individual speakers to become part of their very essence. As such, it would be impossible to separate the language from its true and loyal speaker, as Bharatidasan declared on many occasions. Equally important, the inscription of Tamil as mother’s milk allows the filial devotee to remind his fellow Tamilian of the duty (kaṭamai) he owed Tamiḻttāy, as in the following call issued during the 1938 anti-Hindi protests by C. Velsami: “When one sees Tamiḻttāy suffering, can any heroic Tamilian who has been born in Tamilnadu, and raised here, and has joyously drunk her sweet milk—can he have the heart to watch her suffering?”
Like the mother’s womb, the mother’s milk, too, serves simultaneously as a mnemonic device that somatically reminds all Tamil speakers of the facticity of birth into the Tamil community and as a mobilizing device—aṉṉaiyiṉ pāl kaṭamai, “obligation to mother’s milk”—that seeks to arouse them into taking action out of recognition of this “fact.”