Hindi is taught across India in all Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools by a central government ruling. But in Tamil Nadu it is an optional third language, vying with French. “This goes beyond the language politics of the Dravidian movement, it is the genuine sentiment of Tamil people,” says P. Shivakami, 49, the Tamil Dalit IAS officer, who has published four novels, several short story collections and regular articles on social issues.
“Lack of interest in Hindi is no longer emotional. Nobody would immolate themselves against it today, like those Tamil students in 1965,” says Maari, a transporter from Madurantakam, whose son Yuvaraja, 8, learns English, Tamil and Hindi in a private school. “The common man here watches the news. He simply does not see a future in Hindi. Tamils do not need it, except when we visit other states and there we manage somehow. Today even a coolie wants his child to learn English.”
Statistics are unavailable on how many Tamil students presently learn Hindi in schools. But a Tamil blog has been collecting signatures (in English) since 14 months with which to petition the chief minister to make Hindi compulsory in Tamil Nadu’s schools, “for the sake of future generations who want to work in the north.”
“Those interested in that option may choose to learn,” says Shivakami, herself fluent in Hindi after learning on the job. “But it is ridiculous to suggest that the whole state wants to migrate. Poor people can barely learn English and Tamil here, why should they be burdened with one more language that is not relevant to their lives?”
Reinforcing the Tamil preference for English is the new trend in Dalit writing: English translations. Mini Krishnan, the pioneering Editor, Translations, at Oxford University Press (OUP), Chennai, was the first to source, edit and publish the first woman Tamil Dalit writer, Bama (the novel Karukku in 1999). “People grasped the potential, the field suddenly opened up,” she says. “Shivakami contracted with Orient Longman, Bama was further translated into French: new, controversial, making a great humanist statement. When OUP made a commitment to Dalit literature, many people expressed their interest in translating Dalit writing into English. Bama is now the subject of many M.Phil theses.”
Today, a modern Dalit poet like Meena Kandasami of Chennai, in her early 20s, prefers to write in English and readily finds niche publishers like The Little Magazine in Delhi. This, says Azhagarasan, Reader in English at the University of Madras, has also to do with the development of Tamil Dalit literature. “In the 1970s it was the pain and anguish of autobiography. Today issues are addressed through novels, poetry and prose, of land rights, social rights, man-woman relationships within Tamil Dalit society: an outward movement.”
Says Bama, who taught math in 1988 at a convent in Jammu, “Tamil has a lot of translation from Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Bengali. Not Hindi, though I like Hindi bhajans and hymns. We are not against Hindi as such. But the language with the momentum from Tamil to a larger world, both within India and outside, is English.”