Beyond Translation

Art by Aidan Chang

I have always been pretty mediocre at speaking Tamil. Although I am South Indian and Tamil is central to my family’s cultural heritage, I have never been as fluent as I would have liked. Our family’s annual trips to Mumbai only exposed the limits of my knowledge from a young age. Comprehension was never my struggle; I understood the sweet compliments and questions relatives greeted me with, but the words to respond with floated around in my head like alphabet soup. 

Growing up, my family spent many evenings at a nearby Indian movie theater. Each week, they sold tickets for only a dollar, which was a deal that we couldn’t pass up on. The theater almost exclusively played Bollywood (Hindi Cinema), and the films I watched while munching on chaat and vegetable pakora bought from the concession stand became my initial exposure to Indian cinema. Tamil and South Indian films were often perceived as “less mainstream” and given less visibility. As a result, I was rarely given the chance to watch them. However, at home, Tamil shows were frequently heard coming from my grandmother Pati’s room at maximum volume, and their tunes filled every crevice of our house. I would sometimes accompany Pati on her cinematic ventures after school, where we would delve into juicy family dramas, gory murder mysteries, or fantasy stories imbued with religious and cultural symbolism. She had to stand close to the TV because she couldn’t hear the dialogue from her rocking chair, and I would perch next to her, frantically trying to pick up every word or squinting at the screen if subtitles were graciously provided. (My dad eventually got her headphones so she could remain seated, which she loved.) 

To be fair, neither of my parents are fully fluent in Tamil, which didn’t really help. They spoke Tamil at home, but at school or with friends it was a mix of Tamil with other languages like Marathi, Gujarati, and Hindi, despite Tamil’s status as their “official mother-tongue.” My grandparents were born and brought up in regions that predominantly speak Tamil; for Pati, this was in Gobichettipalayam, a small province in Tamil Nadu. However, this wasn’t the case for my parents, whose Tamil was more informal and diluted. My dad was born in Chennai but moved to Rajasthan at a young age. He spent his adolescent years at school in Delhi, which forced him to brush up on his Hindi. Although his childhood was founded on speaking and reading Tamil, Hindi became a more comfortable medium of conversation for him as he moved throughout India. My mom was born in Kolkata, which gave her basic exposure to Bengali, but her family quickly moved to Mumbai, a city with large numbers of Marathi, Hindi, and English speakers; at markets or restaurants, Hindi and Marathi were more commonly spoken, and the Catholic school that she was forced to attend prioritized English proficiency. 

While my parents are exponentially better at Tamil than I am, Pati was always treated as the “Tamil authority” in our house. She was my dictionary for random words and phrases that didn’t make sense to me and eventually became my true connection to the language. In many ways, she motivated me to continue learning Tamil and speaking it at home. When I called Pati for dinner as a kid, checked up on her after walking home from school, or asked her what she wanted from Chipotle, a favorite of hers, I would often unintentionally refer to her informally or fumble over the pronunciation of certain words. Despite the annoyance I must have been, she would sit patiently and listen eagerly to my broken Tamil, filling in the gaps in my sentences with the little English she knew and complimenting my progress every time. Her love was unconditional; even amid the messy patchwork of Tamil and English that our conversations consisted of, her heart remained open. Even as she had to deal with a stubborn grandchild who constantly teased his older sister and never listened to his mother, she continued to love. 

Every morning, Pati would promptly wake up and make a pot of chai for herself and my dad. Chai was central to her morning routine, and I always arose to its rich, spiced aroma. Pati had her own designated cup; it was orange and ceramic, reading “World’s Greatest Grandmother.” I never had an affinity for drinking coffee or tea, and my mom felt that I was too young to cultivate such a habit. However, I made sure to wake up and join them for chai and rusk whenever I could. With every sophisticated, warm sip, I could feel adulthood seeping in, and I eventually also grew to love its taste. I became a regular in this chai rotation; years later, when I would come home from college, I always received a hot cup of chai from Pati. Regardless of whether I woke up too late or I forgot to drink it, the cup’s location never wavered, always sitting with a stainless steel cover on the edge of the counter for easy access. 

Pati was a significant part of my foundation at home. The large chaise in her room next to her rocking chair was a favorite destination of mine, and I would spend hours after school working or relaxing there as she took her evening nap. We often occupied the kitchen together, raiding an assortment of snacks from Murukku and Mixture to Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars to boxes of baklava and dates my aunt sent from Saudi Arabia. When the COVID pandemic made my senior year of highschool virtual, I spent most of my time lounging aimlessly around the house with her or sitting in our backyard, where she basked in Houston’s heat as I sat in the shade. Though our conversations weren’t particularly intricate or profound and silence often permeated our time together, she was my best friend. She was present from the moment I was born and permanently lived with my family by the time I was 12, witnessing me grow from an awkward middle schooler into a (hopefully) less awkward sophomore in college consumed by the possibility of growing a beard. (She never liked it, even when it became less patchy. But she never said anything.) She was there when Texas froze over and we lost power, huddling by the fireplace in her shawl and gloves and with my Boy Scouts headlamp on. Whenever I was tired or sad, she sat next to me, even if she didn’t understand why. There was always a bowl of peeled tangerines awaiting my return from school, and she regularly made me thayir saadam when my stomach hurt. She was always there, to the point where I never even questioned her presence. She was a source of tranquility at home and kept everyone grounded. 

When Pati started to get sick, I pushed every anxious or negative thought away. While at college, I focused all my mental energy on the next time I would see her, distracting myself from the possibility that I might actually not. I refused to entertain the possibility of home without her, to see her room without the rocking chair, leaving behind mere indentations of its weight on the rug. Yet her health was fundamentally getting worse. The distance of her walks slowly reduced until she struggled to even make her way around the house without the stability of my hand. She spent more and more time resting in her room with less and less of an appetite, and I brought her meals to her rather than calling her out for dinner like I once did. She still wanted chai each morning—that didn’t change—but my mom became the designated maker when it was hard for Pati to get out of bed. The silence at home without her Tamil programs playing in the background or the sound of her feet as she slowly trotted throughout the house was deafening.

Last summer, I noticed a book on the end table in our living room; it was titled Learn Tamil in 30 Days. My dad later told me he had been using the book to master his Tamil writing skills. As Pati was making her chai and breakfast platter with an array of snacks, I enthusiastically showed her. Though she chuckled at the promise of learning Tamil in 30 days, she was encouraging, as she always was, and told me to read it. After she passed away in December, that book became a grim reminder of my shortcomings as a grandson. Guilt and self-doubt consumed me; in retrospect, I felt I took her perennial love and what felt like her omnipresence at home for granted. I wished that she was here—at least until my sentences were no longer a string of doubtful and informal asks, until her ears could rest without strain, until I could ask her about her first love or her experiences during the Partition or why she dropped out of school myself, without the burden of translation. I think we would have had even better conversations. 

Despite the glaring void that exists in Pati’s absence, I now find comfort in the fact that there are parts of her that remain with me. I recently came across the Korean word “정”(jung). It describes a connection between people that cannot be severed even with time or hatred, often representing an abounding sense of belonging and community. For me, jung for Pati is found in my Tamil conversations with family while riding the T, her now empty closet that was once filled with rows of hanging saris and boxes of jewelry, the journals that she diligently wrote in, the pictures of us together, and the tattoos my entire family got in her honor. My sister and I often joke about what Pati’s reaction to our tattoos would be. I think she would have initially freaked out with concern and questioned their necessity, but eventually she would have come around out of pure love for her family; love would have guided her, like it always did.