Tales from a Taxi Ride, Tamil Class and Talking one’s Thoughts

Usually, I would prefer to write long, subject-oriented articles, but given the workload, shorter, personal reflections might be a better option. Yesterday, when I was on the way back home in a taxicab, after a long day of revision that ended at 10PM, I struck up a conversation with the driver of Cīna descent, who having noticed the fact that I am Indian, greeted me in Tamil (since a majority of the Indians in Siṁhapurī speak Tamil, though the demographics are changing rapidly, with immigration of Indians who speak other languages).

I was not too surprised that a Cīna knew some Tamil because in the pre-independence period in Siṁhapurī, people of different ethnic groups used to live in a rural setting, a grāma of sorts. Of course, in later times, the pragmatic and highly perceptive rājya, to maintain communal harmony in the tiny dvīpa, implemented an education policy which allowed each major ethnic group to learn its respective mother-tongue. (One may note the unfortunate events that transpired in Siṁhala-dvīpa, the causes of which included the imposition of the dominant majority’s language on others) I was born in Bhārata but was in Siṁhapurī when I was a year old. There was no dearth of Hindu temples here and since Tamil, the spoken language at home, was one of the official languages here, it made it much easier for me to feel at home here.

Coming back to the driver, the conversation started rather innocuously, hovering around the theme of language; but quickly escalated to the topic of caste. The Cīna, being a Bauddha, presented the all-too-common narrative of Gautama Siddhārtha being frustrated with caste, who therefore founded a new path. Although the driver was intelligent in comparison to the average Cīna Bauddha in Siṁhapurī, who was satisfied with keeping fruit offerings for the statue of the Pāṣaṇḍin while chanting “Om Mani Peme Hum” (Peme being a Cīna distortion of Padme), and actually knew that the Buddha belonged to the śākya clan, he had his limits.

Therefore, I was in no mood to impress upon him the references in the Lalitavistara sūtra (Click to read the Lalitavistara sūtra. See the third chapter) which stated the supposedly egalitarian Buddha’s preference for pre-natal accommodation exclusively in the wombs of Brāhmaṇa and Kṣatriya mothers, or the Ambattha Sutta’s account where the Gautama is fiercely competitive in proving the superiority of the Kṣatriya bloodline, śākya specific, vis-à-vis that of the Brāhmaṇa. But I briefly hinted at it before getting down at my destination.

Sometimes, in our extreme eagerness to share our knowledge or insights, we might overestimate the capacity of the vessel that receives our perspectives. Not to say that the bearer of that intellect-vessel is necessarily unintelligent; but their background and experience might have limited their opportunities to develop a more nuanced view. In this context and in light of the above reference to Tamil in Siṁhapurī, I can recollect another instance where I felt the disparity in understanding. A disparity in my favour; but nevertheless never came to fruition because of another disparity-That of authority and status. I was in Primary Six (Or what they would call in Bhārata, “sixth standard” or in USA, “sixth grade”) and would have turned 12 in a matter of weeks. During one particular Tamil class, my teacher was instructing us, in preparation for the final exam before going to a secondary school, as to what strategies we can employ in multiple-choice questions.

Her focus for that class was the strategy of elimination. It was a “fill in the blanks” question, the details of which I forgot, with four options, which I can recollect. The four options were:

அருவம்/Aruvam: From Skt. Arūpa, meaning “formless”

உருவம்/Uruvam: From Skt. Rūpa, meaning, “With form”

அருஉருவம்/Aru-Uruvam: Meaning, formless-form

உருஅருவம்/Uru-Aruvam: Meaning, form-formless

The teacher began her explanation by stating that we could unhesitatingly eliminate the latter two options as they are nonsensical and only have to consider the former two and see which makes more sense. I had been reading Thirumanthiram of Thirumūlar (In the original, with commentary) since I was about 10. I knew for a fact that “அருஉருவம்” or the concept of formless-form was used in Śaiva Siddhānta to describe the Sadāśiva aspect of Iśvara, that is, the Liṅga while the Maheśvara aspect corresponded to proper anthropomorphic representations (“உருவம்” or “With form”) and the grammatically neutered noun (or adjective in certain cases), Śivam that is used to refer to the unfathomable formlessness, “அருவம்”.

When I gave this explanation, I received a blank stare and was dismissed cursorily, to the amusement of other students who had no idea what in the world I was speaking of. Perhaps this incident impelled me to be more discriminating and guarded in my approach towards sharing ideas. It is already difficult being different and not having anyone to share one’s unique ideas with. It is even more difficult when you are aware of your distinct personality and outlandish interests from a young age and the possible challenges it might bring in social settings with other people. The privilege of “knowing what others do not” soon becomes a pain in the gluteus maximus, especially in conversations on religion and history, where you feel the dire need to correct the other’s misapprehension but realize the futility of that enterprise, as those who have not bothered to expose themselves to a broader body of knowledge, are more likely to have an iron conviction in their understanding of things.

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