On a recent flight, I was alarmed at first when I saw that my seat was next to a lady with a few months old baby. I have nothing against babies in social situations, as long as they are at a safe distance of at least a hundred metres away from me. The prospect of spending eleven hours in the close proximity of one was daunting. However the mother was a sweet lady who kept the baby fed, warm and entertained with great efficiency throughout the flight, and so charmingly apologetic when the kid tried to grab my blanket, glasses and book, that I did not mind the least when the little human tried the above antics or held on to my shoulder with a hot, grubby paw as it slept.
The plane soared silently through the skies, the baby clung to its mother and I clung to the collected plays of Ibsen, each of us cocooned in our own worlds.
What stood out in this mundane encounter was the fact that the lady played Tamil rhymes to the baby whenever he showed signs of getting cranky. His cries immediately toned down to a soft whimper on hearing the sounds, while his mother sang softly along, cooing to him in Tamil.
The sounds of the language brought with it to me, the forgotten warmth of long conversations in colloquial Tamil and casual Hindi with friends and family, the correspondence with most of whom has now been reduced to standard paragraph long Facebook messages on festivals and birthdays. I thought of cousins from Chennai who had acquired funny Tamil accents after a few years abroad, of friends who had studied Tamil as a second language with me and now chose to sign off their emails in French and German and Spanish, a Tamil Professor who told me with great pride that her grandson did not care to speak the language for he dreamed in English. Language is so much more than a medium for communication, it holds within its intonations, slang, idioms and dialects, so many personal associations of time and space and memory specific to each speaker. Perhaps all these people had their individual reasons to choose to distance themselves from certain languages, and make new memories with others.
Watching that homely baby with large intelligent eyes focused on his mother’s smartphone, it warmed the cockles of my heart to think that thanks to his excellent mother, one more child would grow up multi-lingual and perhaps one day, grow to admire Kamban and Bharati as much as he would Keats and Shelley.