What Makes a Tamil Person Tamil?

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

When I was a teenager, I wrote a poem. It was about how I felt I had to choose between two worlds, between a world of ‘Jasmine and saffron/Dyed cloth and tinkles/Of tiny silver bells’ and ‘the cold milk world.’

The poem was called Venn Diagrams are Wrong (Usain Bolt is in the Mitochondria). I have no idea why Usain Bolt was in the mitochondria and it was almost definitely a private joke I had with friends that I now cannot remember at all. But I do remember exactly what I was talking about in the poem. Venn diagrams are wrong, I said, because there is no overlap, no intersection, between the two circles of my Western, English world and my Tamil world. I felt as if I had to pick. I had to pick which of those two worlds I belong to.

I wrote:

I cannot do both, I cannot be both,

Am I doomed to wander in limbo

Between my two worlds,

Not glue enough to keep together

What makes me me?

The turmeric stained hands

Are letting me go.

The sounds of bell-anklets

Grow ever fainter

As I step closer to the

Cold milk world.

Venn diagrams are wrong, there is no overlap,

Not in life, not in this world.

That is why my feet have to turn

Towards one,

Whilst my head looks back

At what I leave behind.

A large part of me cringes at my juvenilia poetry – I hope I’m a better writer now – but a larger part is so desperately sad for my teenage self who felt she had to pick one way of being because she could see no way to be both.

I know exactly why I thought that way though.

Most human experiences does not happen in binaries, in either/ors, in this or thats. Whether it’s gender, sexuality, or neurodiversity, so much of what makes us human happens on a sliding scale. But this is something we as a society find so difficult to accept. We would much rather put people into neatly labelled boxes rather than acknowledging that humans are protean pegs that you cannot smash into a square hole.

These binaries also operate in the way we think about ‘Tamil-ness.’ To ‘be Tamil’ means you have to like certain things, behave in certain ways, speak a certain way. ‘Tamil-ness’ has become a collection of stereotypes and patterns. It seems as if there is no spectrum for Tamil, especially if you are a second-generation Tamil, living in a country that’s not your parents’ place of birth. You are either a ‘freshie’ or a ‘coconut’.

The most harmful thing about these stereotypes and binaries is that they suggest there are only certain ways to ‘be’ Tamil, to present as and perform as ‘Tamil’. I love reading. I love plays and museums and art galleries and tramping through forests. I love stories. But these things weren’t ‘Tamil’, especially when I was growing up. None of the Tamil people I knew liked these things. I didn’t see Tamil writers or actors or museum curators or history graduates and my 15-year-old self took this to mean that these likes and hobbies didn’t translate to Tamil qualities. I didn’t seem to have any markers of Tamil-ness. I didn’t like Maths, I didn’t ‘sound’ Tamil (whatever that means), I didn’t watch Tamil movies, I was a ‘coconut’ - which all meant I wasn’t Tamil.

And so I had to pick a world. I had to pick an identity and I had to lose one – with a great sense of regret, as can be seen in my poem – because I had been shown that to be Tamil is to be a certain set of things and I wasn’t them and I didn’t want to force myself to be them.

This is what happens when any race becomes a collection of arbitrary tropes. They tell people they are not what they are because they are different. But you can’t escape your race. I couldn’t turn away from being Tamil because every time I looked in the mirror, there I was, and everyone else in the world could look at me and know that I was not white; I would still be treated as a woman of colour no matter how many art galleries I visited.

It’s been a hard ten years trying to navigate my own identity. The wisdom (if you want to call it that) that I’ve learned through the tumultuous journey is that everyone has the right and the need to connect to their race and culture in anyway they see fit. Rather than prescribing what Tamil-ness means, each individual needs to figure out how they see and shape their own Tamil-ness. And this goes for all races and cultures. When we are displaced, when we belong to one culture at home and one outside of it, it’s harder to form a coherent and complete identity. The only way to do that is to pick which parts of your race and culture you connect to and how you wish to connect to it and use that as the lifeline that anchors both worlds together.

I have a friend who connects to his Tamil culture through food. Another friend connects to it through his activism. One friend does it through the language. My brother connects to his Tamil identity almost purely through memes. These people are all what a simplistic society would deem ’coconuts’. But they are not because they have all found ways to interact with and internalize their race and culture, ways that work for them. They have proven that what it means to be Tamil is up to you.

So how did I get to a place where I could be both Tamil and British?

I used the things that I thought made me ‘un-Tamil’ to connect me to who I am. I looked deeper into Tamil and Sri Lankan history. I read Tamil stories. I climbed Sri Lankan mountains. And now I write my own stories about Tamil-ness. My first ever published short story was about a girl coming home to an island- it was never specified which island, but she calls her mother amma. My second published story is about Jaffna museum- and it’s going to be published in a magazine by the National Gallery, a place I frequented as a teenager, sure that being there meant I wasn’t Tamil enough to be Tamil. Irony, eh?

I am Tamil. And I do the things I do. That means that to be Tamil can also mean doing the things I do, that I’ve always done. I redefined what it meant to be Tamil just by being me.

Tamil-ness is a story I tell myself. It’s a story you can – and should- tell yourself.