The use of Metaphor

By one objective measure, such as willingness to sacrifice one's life for the language, the Tamils surely rank near the top: by documented estimates, at least 9 Tamils have voluntarily given their lives for their language during various demonstrations and actions during the last four decades (Ramaswami 1997:1) and unofficially, the loss of life by Tamils fighting for an independent Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka ranks very high. In fact the invocation `remember the martyrs!' is often used whenever enthusiasm for Tamil causes is seen to be flagging, and can penetrate even discussions of how to encode Tamil characters in Unicode, a debate one might consider essentially devoid of potential emotional content.

But the quality of primordialism that seems to be admired most is the most ineffable sort, and that is the creative use of Tamil itself, especially in the use of metaphor. At the 6th World Tamil Conference in Kuala Lumpur in 1987, I observed a display of this creativity that I had never before been fortunate enough to witness. (In fact, I had usually avoided devotional speech-making if I could, because I found it mystifying and difficult to comprehend. At one such rally, several weeks after arriving in India the first time, I asked my `host' at the rally to translate, since I couldn't follow the rhetoric, and couldn't understand the speech. ``Neither can I," he replied, ``but isn't it beautiful!")

The (as of this writing) current Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, Mr. Karunanidhi, then out of power, attended the conference and gave a keynote address. This featured speech was perhaps only possible because the then Chief Minister, Mr. M. G. Ramachandran (better known as MGR) was literally on his death-bed back in Madras, and because he was unable to attend, attendance by any other members of his party was also forbidden. Mr. Karunanidhi profited from this situation by using the keynote address to obliquely attack MGR on the issue of who loved Tamil the most (a metaphor for the question of who ought to be the next Chief Minister). Since it would have been unseemly to attack MGR directly, he chose to construct an elaborate metaphor, in which he described a chaste, virginal bride (, i.e. the Tamil language) who had been `left standing at the altar'.

In rich detail he described her beauty, the glory of her raiment, the auspiciousness of the moment (chosen by astrologists), the splendor of the guests in attendance at the wedding. But where was the bridegroom?, he asked. Again and again he described the trials and tribulations of this chaste virgin, again and again he asked where was the bridegroom?, and we, the audience, could only compare the situation of this jilted bride to the situation we found ourselves in--waiting in the grand hall for the chief guest (MGR), who never appeared. What was keeping him? Did he lack ardor? Did he not love (his) Tamil (bride), or did he not love her enough? Was he not strong enough, ardent enough, deserving enough of her? Could he not lift the veil and behold her chastity, her beauty, reserved for him? But we could also see the bride's plight as the plight of Tamil linguistic culture, jilted by her saviour on the political scene, while the once-revered leader (MGR) languished on his deathbed, his government paralyzed.

The metaphor went on and on, a seamless web of submetaphors and other poetic devices, full of the alliteration that Tamils love, but never once was the perfidious bridegroom mentioned; the question maappiLLai engee? (where's the bridegroom?) hung in the air, and as it was repeated again and again, the audience began to chime in. Never once was MGR's name mentioned, and never once was it stated that Tamil was the jilted bride. But it was clear that another bridegroom must be found. Who would come forward? On and on the metaphor was built. The speech, the use of favored literary devices, the linguistic skill showed the expertise of the speaker to elaborate advantage. He was the obvious candidate, he was the obvious choice to fill the gap. Only he possessed the linguistic skills, only he could rescue the bereft bride, weeping for her suitor. Mr. Karunanidhi didn't have to say ``I love Tamil more;" he demonstrated it in his mastery of the rhetorical style. The question seemed to answer itself.

This speech, though in itself a virtuosic performance of a particularly Tamil sort, in some ways seems to me to epitomize Tamil primordialism. There are a number of features, and I would like to enumerate them.

Tamil is anthropomorphized as a woman, especially a pure, virginal, beautiful woman; sometimes the woman is called Tamil taay `mother Tamil' and in imagery, she is the mother of us all (or of all Tamils.) She has given us life, the life-breath (uyir) without which no Tamil can speak (Ramaswamy 1997).

The love of the Tamil devotee is above caste, creed and religion; any Tamil, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, can love Tamil, and Mother Tamil loves all her devotees equally.

Love of Tamil is best expressed in devotional poetry or prose (such as the oratorical metaphor of Mr. Karunanidhi) spontaneously generated in praise of her. The creativity of the poetic construct is in, of, and for Tamil; it is Tamil's finest moment to be praised in the most creative (ineffable, spiritual) use of the language.

Other expressions of devotion, such as the more mundane memorization and recitation of classical texts, or the long-drawn out generation of alliterative prose oratory (known as the DMK style) almost devoid of meaning, is admirable, but cannot hold a candle to the oeuvre produced by the likes of Mr. Karunanidhi

Harold Schiffman