It is a leviathan retrieving pebbles…It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den.
– H G Wells on the final phase of his master, Henry James.
The leviathan of Tamilnadu is none other than its Chief Minister Karunanidhi. Five years ago, he retrieved a pebble – the pebble of Tamil being declared a Classical Language. This had resulted in other states clamouring for a similar status to their languages. The UPA government gave in. Telugu and Kannada have already been anointed classical languages. Malayalam is in the queue. My friend, the noted scholar, A R Venkatachalapathy, has recently written an article in Economic and Political Weekly, in which he has stressed the need to remind ourselves that Classical language status is not a matter for the State to decide. But I am afraid it is too late. I am waiting for the day when Punjabi is declared a Classical Language. I don’t think I will have to wait too long.
So much for the pebble. Though I won’t presume to call him a hippopotamus, the venerable leader has recently managed to pick up a pea too.
Until last year, the Tamils used to celebrate their New Year Day on 14 April. That day usually falls on the first day of chitrai which used to be the first month of the Tamil calendar. Chitrai has now been unceremoniously pushed from her prime position to the third spot. For no fault of hers, she has lost her position to another Tamil month, Thai, thanks to Karunanidhi. At his behest, The Tamil Nadu Assembly passed last year a fiat which decreed that the Tamil New Year day would hence forth be shifted to 14 January – the first day of the month of Thai, which used to be the tenth month of the Tamil Calendar. Presumably, from now onwards, the tenth month will become the first month and the original first month will have to be satisfied with the fourth position.
I agree it is all a bit confusing, but it is difficult to argue with a Chief Minister trying to bolster up Tamil Culture.
Karunanidhi, in his message on the ‘brand new’ new year eve, has waxed eloquent on his tireless efforts in the cause of Tamil Culture, the most breath-taking being the commissioning of a giant Statue of Thiruvalluvar, the greatest of Tamil poets. If this statue, which is blotting the landscape in Kanyakumari, is in strong contention for the ugliest piece of statuary in the entire Tamil country, the ‘Shuffling of Months’ will perhaps qualify for the most maverick pronouncement of the Chief Minister, whose penchant for such pronouncements is legendary.
Maverick it may well be, but there is a history behind this pronouncement.
In the year 1921, a few Tamil scholars belonging to a movement called ‘The Pure Tamil Movement’, which sought to detoxify Tamils of the Aryan poison, affirmed that it would be a wanton insult to the hoary Tamil Culture, if the Tamils continued to accept the first of Chitrai as the beginning of their New Year. The position, according to them, rightly belonged to the First of Thai, the day of Pongal, the harvest festival of the Tamils. There was no logic in their contention as both Chitrai and Thai are months in a calendar whose origin can be traced back to the Hindu religious, and hence non-Tamil, sources. But then logic and ‘The Pure Tamil Movement’ were not exactly coeval.
There was a poet of this movement who was genuinely good but who, in an alliterative frenzy, wrote an appalling poem on this subject, a bit of which I have sort of translated into English. I assure you, the Tamil version is worse than this.
Oh Tamil! sleeping without care,
Chitrai is not your new year!
Thai, I say, is the real New year
Of Tamils who once ruled this sphere.
The Calendar to which you hold dear
Is the one by which Aryans swear-
The Aryans who came seeking here
A hearth to lit a roaring fire.
Karunanidhi was weaned on these poems. He himself has written scores of poems of similar splendour.
When Karunanidhi, under the tutelage of Periyar E V Ramaswamy and Annadurai, was shadowboxing the imaginary enemies from the North India, he had uses for the pure Tamil movement. He has long since hung up his phantom gloves in exchange for the fruits of power. The Pure Tamil Movement has conveniently been forgotten. Nowadays Karunanidhi’s own Kalaignar Channel and his nephew’s Sun Channel telecast programmes in obnoxious Tamil -Tamil that will be considered vulgar in a none-too-classy bordello of Chennai.
Nevertheless, the Chief Minister’s conscience must be pricking him once in a while. The pronouncement is perhaps his way of assuaging it.
P A Krishnan
This appeared in the Pioneer. Happy Tamil new year!