The Chola empire disintegrated after the mid-12th century but Tamil’s linguistic horizon seems to have expanded. In “Republic of Syllables,” Shulman tells us that we now live in a “polyglossic reality” where Tamil, Sanskrit, and Prakrit (soon to be replaced by Telugu) share pride of place. These centuries are a time of creative experimentation and sophisticated wordplay with mantic poets holding sway.

Both Sanskrit and Tamil exist very much inside each other by then and a poet could compose in either language. Shulman maintains that they were never in direct opposition to each and yet provides strong examples of exactly that; but in his view, these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Shulman goes into some detail in this chapter on the ever-fascinating Maṇi-pravāḷam (ruby-coral), the language created from the amalgamation of Kerala Tamil and Sanskrit, and states categorically that Kerala Maṇi-pravāḷam is not a separate language; it is early literary Malayalam by another name. It is interesting to note that the Līlā-tilakam, which lays out the grammar of this language, calls out the unity achieved by stringing corals and rubies since they share a single colour. However the poets of Tamil Maṇi-pravāḷam, by contrast, talk of the Tamil equivalent as a combination of pearls and rubies as the father languages are seen as distinct and complementing each other.

The period from AD 1500-1800 that sees Tamil enter the modern era is a continuation of the preceding period with a couple of key additions—Tantric ideas and masters are seen in both court and literature, and to a large extent, Tamil is now a full-fledged deity situated in the speaker’s inner self in a way it never was before, and this clearly has consequences that we see manifested in the present day.

Tamil today

The final chapter, “Beyond the Merely Modern,” stands as an independent essay in itself—it provides a sense (albeit incomplete) of what it means to be a native Tamil speaker in our time. Two major strands stand out—one, the “discovery” of ancient Tamil classics of the Sangam age, and two, the tale of a Dravidian renaissance/nationalism and how the two strands are interconnected. Shulman explains it using a hypothetical Greek example:

“Suppose the literature of fifth-century BC Athens had been forgotten for centuries and then suddenly came to light in early-modern Athens. Imagine the excitement, the passionate responses, the suddenly explosive horizon, the attempts to re-conceive and re-appropriate Greece in its ancient glory. Imagine, too, the inevitable and sudden downgrading of most of Greek literary production from say, late-Antique of Byzantine times on, up to the arrival of a devoutly wished-for modern Renaissance that stood in active relation to the newly recovered masterworks. Here is a paradigm that might work for the Tamil case.”

Shulman goes on then to talk of the appropriation of the above into the Dravidian nationalistic narrative, of its chief proponents and the fringe elements, of extreme linguism and what he sees as the politically effective force of the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu. He looks at different factors in an attempt to explain the “astonishing success” of this nationalistic force—from Tantric themes, Jaffna connections to Brahmin privilege, and colonial bureaucracy. All of which are contributing factors, though I must say that he misses the exogenous provocation from the elements of the dominant culture north of the country, which has no space for distinctiveness.

Tamil: A Biography is a hugely rewarding book, and one that with repeated reading provides more food for thought. It must be said that for a non-academic reader such as this one, this is not an easy book—it is quite easy to get lost after the first set of polyglossias and hyperglossias but that is somehow missing the point. The beauty of this book is precisely in getting lost and then surfacing to find absolute gems irrespective of whether they are rubies, corals or pearls.

Tamil: A Biography, David Shulman, Harvard University Press.

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