Tamil literary voices: An event in preview

“We were shivering. We were locking our doors and waiting. You could hear people shouting and houses burning.”

Appadurai Muttulingam’s words express an experience too common to many Tamils, a people forced out of Sri Lanka in droves over the last four decades after facing rioting, killing, and oppression. And while sweeping statements like “great art comes from great pain” only serve as tinder for the myth of the tortured artist, for Tamil writers and artists like Muttulingam—who, at 75, is one of the Tamil language’s most prolific short-story writers—the pain is altogether real.

On Saturday, Oct. 20, at 1 p.m., at the Toronto Public Library’s Malvern branch, Muttulingam will be just one of four Tamil-Canadian writers bringing awareness to the art of a rising language that has quickly become indelible to Toronto’s kaleidoscopic culture. Joining him at the free event are Chelva Kanaganyakam, a University of Toronto professor in English; Dushy Gnanapragasam, a director heavily involved in Tamil-Canadian theatre groups in the Greater Toronto Area; and R. Cheran, a poet and playwright who is an associate professor at the University of Windsor.

The Tamil language is old—predating and outlasting Sanskrit and Latin—but the pain is recent, too. In 1958, the Sinhalese, the majority race in Sri Lanka since as early as the fifth century BC, began targeting the minority Tamils in ethnic riots that would lead to over 200 deaths. Twenty-five years later, anti-Tamil riots would touch off a 20-year civil war in Sri Lanka, after crushing poverty, political corruption, rural struggles, and governmental nationalism all trained Sinhalese frustrations squarely on the Tamils. During one week of rioting in July—a time so dire it’s referred to as the Black July—between 500 and 10,000 Tamils were killed, according to the BBC. From this emerged the notorious Tamil Tigers, a militant rebel group bent on avenging the pogroms and creating a country of their own.

With a massive diaspora that abandoned Sri Lanka in fear for their lives—Canada is home to over 250,000 Tamils, with at least 200,000 living in the Greater Toronto Area—it is a people without a country, putting the world’s oldest living language at risk of extinction. “I believe a language must have its own country. Without a country, a language cannot survive,” said Muttulingam, who left Sri Lanka at the age of 29 and moved to Canada 12 years ago.

“Some of the Tamil writers are far superior to what we read. Unfortunately, nobody is reading it,” Muttulingam said. “If only the Tamils are reading it, it’s no good for the younger people who read English. So if we translate some of these things, it will go to the eyes of the people, and they will realize, oh god, there is a language and there are people who are writing literature to a real good standard.”

Indeed, those outside the community can learn plenty from the event. Most Canadians are only familiar with the Tamil culture through the lens of those aforementioned Tigers, who have swarmed newscasts with violence and protests, and who were named a terrorist group by the Canadian government in 2006. It can be hard to grasp the dichotomy among the diaspora here: While the RCMP has calculated that as much as $50,000 a month is drawn from Toronto bank accounts to support the Tamil Tigers, Tamil families are also allegedly found through electoral lists and shaken down for fear of harassment, reports the GlobalPost and the Toronto Star. In the recent election, a Conservative candidate for MP in the riding of Scarborough-Southwest, Ragavan Paranchothy, felt it necessary to change his name and hide his Tamil background.

It’s a complex situation with moral ambiguities for those outside the culture. But it’s really the mark of great art—or a panel of great artists with fascinating stories to tell—that it could unspool just such situations for the masses.

Chirograph will publish a full interview with Appadurai Muttulingam following the event, in which he talks about his vivid memories of the 1958 riots, the complicated task of the translator, why he stopped writing for three decades, and the differences between an immigrant writer and a writer of oppression. Follow our Twitter coverage of the event at @TorontoReview.

About the author

Adrian Lee

Adrian is a Toronto-based freelance journalist, and an editor for the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter at @AdrianKLee.

By Adrian Lee