Who Gets to Define Tamil Culture?
By: Pallavi S.
If you’d asked me that question a few years ago I wouldn’t have known how to answer. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot since the controversy with the Jodi magazine cover. I’ve been thinking about it a lot for what feels like forever.
I’ve spent most my life trying to run away from Tamil culture. From the mess of expectations and pressures that comes with being from a place and community of people full of grief and rage and fire and hope. Tamil culture was always something I didn’t fully understand. Tamil culture was something that never tried to fully understand me. I didn’t fit in it, when I was younger I couldn’t make myself contort in the ways that my community expected me to.
My parents, bless them, didn’t try to make me be someone I wasn’t. If their daughter was shy at family functions, if she snuck in a book during weddings and didn’t want to learn the language, well, they might not have liked it but they accepted that I was, and always will be, my own person. To be honest, if they had tried to make me act the way Good Tamil Girls were supposed to then I would have run away from my culture and never found my way back.
And I did find my way back. Sort of. Eventually. But it took a lot of work, years of it.
I was stereotypically nerdy child and I dealt with the loneliness that comes with that by devouring every book I came across. Like most socially awkward bookworms I found friends in the stories I read. I knew that even if I didn’t fit in with my classmates, with my cousins and the expectations of white Canadian and Tamil cultures, that there were places I could fit in. I just had to find them. It was one of two things that made the not fitting in now bearable.
The other thing was my family. White Canadian and Tamil cultures might not have accepted the strange things about me, but my family did. I was lucky to have what a lot of people, regardless of background, don’t. Unconditional love. I was never told that girls can’t do certain things, never had to justify the esoteric books I checked out at the library. My opinions didn’t have to line up with my parents’ beliefs. I was stuck with my family, which also meant they were stuck with me. Growing up like that, secure that I was loved no matter what, gave me the ability to cut ties from the things that didn’t, or couldn’t, love me back.
And understand, Tamil culture never loved me. Tamil culture loved the girl it thought I could be. Should be. Fair and thin and beautiful. Educated but also obedient, hard-working but serene, strong but passive, passionate but chaste. Tamil culture wanted a good girl who had no ambition higher than marriage (to a good Tamil boy) and (good Tamil) children. Tamil culture wanted someone who would be happy praising Shiva but ignoring Parvati. Tamil culture wanted me to give every part of myself to my family and community. It wanted me to take care of everyone else but myself.
Tamil culture wanted so much from me except for the things that would make me happy. I wanted to be a writer, to have a life outside my family, I wanted to take care of my mental health. I wanted to wear short skirts and date girls. I wanted to have time to decide if marriage (to someone of any gender) and children were right for me. I wanted to go on adventures and loudly celebrate all the things that made me different.
But I couldn’t do any of that. I was messy. I was complicated. I wanted things that I thought couldn’t exist in Tamil culture. So, I rejected it, and looked at white Canadian culture instead. I believed the lie that I would somehow be freer there. Instead I found that white Canadian culture had its own set of demands.
White Canadian culture didn’t love me anymore than Tamil culture did. It wasn’t concerned about my happiness, just that I fit into its own ideal of what was right. White Canadian culture told me that there was only one way for women to be strong. That there was only one way to be queer, only one way to belong in a family or community. And, much like Tamil culture, it expected me to take care of everyone else but never myself. To ease their guilt and hold their hand so they wouldn’t feel bad about the things I had to go through every day.
I realized that if I wanted to be myself, to truly get rid of all these arbitrary standards and binary understandings that did nothing but try to make me flat and colourless, I would have to create places where I could exist as I wanted to, where I could take the good things and leave behind the bad to make something that truly saw me, that accepted me. That loved me.
So, I did.
I looked for people like me, at school and online and wherever else I could and I eventually found them. Other queer and trans people of colour and immigrant kids who knew what familial expectations felt like. People who also didn’t measure up to cultural values and impossible assumptions. Together we formed our own communities, our own cultures and families. We created a home for ourselves in a world that didn’t want us.
I didn’t do this because I was any smarter or stronger or braver than the countless other Tamil girls that wanted the same things. I was just lucky enough to be able to. I still had that unconditional love and the support that comes with it. I still had that knowledge that there were a lot of weirdos like me out there. That there have always been Tamils like me in our families and communities and cultures and histories.
I was able to chase the things that made me happy, to find safety and satisfaction and the kind of love from friends and lovers that didn’t want me to be anyone but myself. And even if there are things I’m still looking for I’ve found so much that I’m thankful for, so much I would never give up. I’ve found communities of brilliant, bright, beautiful people who are exactly like I am and completely different. People who pray and dance and sing and speak and create exactly like I do.
I learnt something, too. Tamil culture is my birthright. Tamil culture belongs to every Tamil person. We are all free to experience it, express it, embrace it, reject it. We’re all allowed to unlearn, relearn, recreate, remake, reshape, revise and reimagine it as we see fit. Tamil culture belongs to every Tamil person. No one person owns it, no one group gets to claim that our culture doesn’t have the space or the ability to change and adapt and grow because it always has.
More importantly, Tamil people, especially Tamil women, have been defying and transforming Tamil culture since its creation. Tamil women have been showing a little leg, have happily been spinsters, have fought colonisers, have left abusive husbands, have been warriors, have flourished in whatever they’ve chosen to do, have been whole people, for millennia.
There is space in Tamil culture for all of us to exist. Tamil culture belongs to every Tamil person. And if you ever feel like you don’t belong in someone else’s idea of Tamil culture know that you belong in mine.