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HeritageINDIA student Nithya Venkat talks about speaking konjam Tamil
July 29, 2019
| Author: Nithya Venkat, HeritageINDIA 2019 cohort
No Translator Needed
In my family friend group back home I always felt like somewhat of an outsider. Out of all of them, I feel the least connected to Tamil culture. I don’t listen to Tamil music, I rarely see my grandparents, but most of all— I speak the language poorest out of all of my Tamilian friends. My accent is jarring, my pronunciation is laughable, and my vocabulary is non-existent. Every time we had come to India I hid my behind my parents and didn’t even bother practicing. But language is a unique element of culture: while quality might be dependent on exposure and practice, necessity will demand usage— regardless of quality.
After we did a small guided walk of Kochi, we went to this museum restaurant called Ginger. And while the food was amazing, the scenery around was even more beautiful. The restaurant was situated in a beautiful seaside garden— like a scene out of a Wes Anderson film.
Once we finished lunch we were all given time to walk around the surrounding market place to buy souvenirs or clothes or jewelry or whatever it is we wanted. Traveling in one big pack, our NRI demeanor practically screamed ‘overcharge us!’ Walking through the stores, we saw many beautiful items that we all wanted but none of us knew how to negotiate. But, I worked up the courage to ask the shopkeeper selling palazzo pants if she spoke Tamil.
To which she replied ‘konjam,’ meaning ‘little’. I was elated as I too spoke ‘konjam’ Tamil. Using my lackluster Tamil skills I managed to negotiate the price of me and PJ’s pants to 250 each, and had a lovely conversation with the shopkeeper. From there my confidence was soaring. I negotiated me and DJ’s Benares silk scarfs from 350 to 225, Anuja’s pants from 500 to 350, and PJ’s perfume to 250— all in Tamil. My confidence had never been higher. I no longer felt like an ABCD. Just ABD.
I think there is something to be said about the importance of language in India. India is a true multilingual society as you will rarely meet anyone who knows only one language. The ability to connect with India carries an intrinsic link with the ability to communicate with India. Not just in language. I often find I have an easier time jelling and meshing with resident Indians if I use an Indian accent when I speak English. In my mind it’s not pandering, it’s removing any perceived and falsified difference that exists. India is a country of connections and relations— thus eliminating barriers is key to building a cultural network. The moral of the story is as follows: you can still connect with your cultural roots even if you speak ‘konjam Tamil’.
Nithya is one of 8 students in Indiaspora’s inaugural HeritageINDIA Program. A unique, immersive, 3-week summer program, this initiative gives high school students of Indian descent the opportunity to connect to their ancestral homeland. Students experience and engage with India’s rich and diverse cultural history by completing hands-on projects, participating in stimulating discussions, and building friendships with a cohort that will share in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. With the exciting theme of India’s Riches: History, Culture, Diversity, & Democracy, students visit three areas of India that are geographically and culturally diverse, yet all very much represent India:New Delhi, Gujarat, and Kerala.