I memorized the names of the thirteen children of Kallakurichi like you were a prayer or a poem, exercising lingual movements in all the cardinal directions. You are a family of ducks, with the eldest, Parvathy Aunty, leading the raft and you floating at the tail. I see your names cascading down the curves of a question mark, each a key to this place of dreams, jolly and ebbing sorrow at the bend of the Gomukhi River, fed from the Kalvarayan Hills.
After we immersed your ashes in the river Ganga, I wrote a letter to my friends back home: “Our journey began in North India,” I wrote, “but this story really begins in South India in Tamil Nadu, in a place called Kallakurichi, where my father was born.” It was where your father, my Thatha, became a spinner of cotton and a diviner of water.
Kallakurichi was an origin story, a beginning, a middle, an end, a home, a chosen ancestral land, a birthplace, a death place, an idea, a moral philosophy, a work ethic, a revolution, an ashram, a refuge, a refusal, a reversal, a retreat.
A dream told Thatha to come to Kallakurichi. Inge than irruku. It is here only.
A dream tells Savi Aunty to do the same. When Savi Aunty was stationed as a nurse at a TB sanatorium in Patna, she had a premonition during her morning ablutions. She requested a ten-day casual leave. Upon returning to Kallakurichi, she gave her father a glass of water. “How did you know I was thirsty?” Thatha asked.
“A dying tongue speaks the truth,” she tells me.
The Indian Ocean seized my fin one day, but then returned it. I thought it was lost, just like my first language, but when I overheard a woman ask in Tamil what all mothers ask—Saapittacha (Did you eat?)—I retrieved it.
The Tamil biographer David Shulman says one interpretation of the etymology of Tamil is “waterness.” Another Tamil scholar, K. P. Aravaanan, says Tamil is derived from amil—to submerge. Maybe my Tamil was never lost or forgotten, merely submerged.
Breathing underwater is like remembering this submerged language.
The first rule of scuba diving is do not panic. When I do, my shallow breath shoots my body upward. Exhale all the way, my scuba instructor signals to me. I blow everything out of my lungs and my body sinks. I inhale and wait for it to rise again. I want to be a seated Buddha levitating in lotus position in the middle of the ocean. I want my breath to let me safely hover over cities of coral. I want to transform into an elegant sea creature, like you, who always felt more at ease in water.
I decide to take Tamil lessons, as a way of connecting to ancestral history, bodily knowledge, and the memory of water. The vowels in Tamil are uyir, breath or life. The consonants are mey, body or truth. The truth is in the body.
“Vanakkam,” Sasipriya, my Tamil tutor, says as she brings both hands together in prayer. “We do this when we greet each other, because we see God in everyone,” she tells me.
“Katrathu kai man aravu. Kalaathathu ulagalavu.” What I know is in the fistful of sand in my hand, she says. What I don’t know is the whole ocean. She will share whatever she knows to help me, like the squirrel helping Rama grout the holes on his bridge to Lanka.
Sasipriya says in Tamil that we use different pronouns for describing location and feeling.
I is “Naan,” if I want to say, “I am on the verge.”
I is “En,” if I want to say, “I feel ready.”
Add “ku” to “en” if I want to say what I like, love, want, know, or understand.
Enaku enna vennum? What do I want?
To know, love, and understand everything submerged.
The early Tamil Sangam literature was lost to katalköl—seizure by the sea. The poets moved inland, and the sea followed. After each city submerged, a new one emerged bearing the same name—Madurai—the amphibious kingdom of our ancestors. Do their poems sink or swim?
A sangam is a confluence. What does a sangam of poets look like? A comingling of waters.
I learn there are similarities in the philosophies of Dravidian and African languages and read about the legend of Kumari Kandam, the submerged lost continent, linking India to Madagascar. A British zoologist called it Lemuria to hypothesize how the ring-tailed, wet-nosed, leaf-eating prosimians traveled across oceans. Can we imagine these epic journeys of lemurs and languages?
“You are making me very happy,” Jaya Aunty tells me after we find a Karuvelam Maram along the roadside on a temple pilgrimage we are making together. The tree reminds her of Kallakurichi. The seeds look like toor dal—salty and peppery and thorny with yellow flowers. You would pack bags of them in Kallakurichi and ship them. Native to Africa, their roots are now submerged in the groundwater of Tamil Nadu.
I first learn water words as a kind of remembering. Water is thanir or neer. Stream is neerotam—water running.
I ask Sasipriya how to say water diviner.
Neerotam paarpavar—Stream seer
Enoda Thatha—My grandfather
I wondered if the Sangam poets were the first poets. Sasipriya says we have an expression in Tamil: “Kal thondri Mann thondra. Kalathilum Mun thondriya mootha kudi Tamil kudi.” Before sand was birthed from stone, there was Tamil.
In search of parent rock, I look up the geology of Tamil Nadu. These stumblings and tumblings toward provenance lead me to a 2009 riverbed discovery of clusters of eggs buried in the limestone of the Kallakurichi Formation. They belong to the long-necked, plant-eating sauropods.
I wondered if Thatha’s divining rod would have sensed these football-sized eggs of our vegan ancestors. Year after year, placed layer on top of layer, the dinosaurs kept trying. Researchers called the unhatched eggs “infertile”—a word that is often cruel and unimaginative. I wonder if the Sangam poets wrote of these bountiful, elliptical orbs of knowledge that survived sixty-five million years, absorbing and carrying the entire history of the earth.
I delight in reading The Treatment of Nature in Sangam Literature by M. Varadarajan. The poems are categorized into akam and puram, inness and outness. The natural world is always connected to the inside, and all species are entwined. Varadarajan notes how trees were intimately connected with the birds who inhabited them: “vênkai with the peacock, the mango with the cuckoo . . . and the ya with the kite.”
Who were the animals who took refuge in the coconut, lemon, and cashew trees in Kallakurichi?
What gives me delight is how the Sangam poets portray animal joy. With Varadarajan as a guide, I witness the leaves of the plantain tree gently stroking an elephant and the aerial roots of the irri tree caressing her to sleep while the running water of the stream serves as a lullaby.
I want you to tell me of animal joys in Kallakurichi. How you bathed the buffaloes and cows in the Gomukhi River, scrubbing and massaging them with coconut shells.
The Sangam poets also understood animal fear. “The poets have imagined the fish and other aquatic creatures in the tanks and backwaters as feeling afraid of the objects that look like their enemy,” Varadarajan writes. “The shadow cast on the deep water by the rattan stem waving on the bund is mistaken by the valai fish for the fisherman’s angle, as the poor creature has once had [his] own bitter experience of it.”
In addition to speaking, I want to learn to read and write Tamil so I can experience these poems directly. On paper, the script looks like jalebis, waterfalls, and whirlpools. I first learn to write the words for birds.
Their names sound like their songs.
Crow Kaakaa. Crane Kokku.
One day I will write Kallakurichi.
“Back to the pavilion,” Jaya Aunty says during our temple pilgrimage. “I lived in my own world in Kallakurichi. Each of us had our own world.”
I had asked that we pull over at a wild animal sanctuary, “My kind of temple,” I say. Among grassy plains, there were birds, mongooses, squirrels, and deer. Goats foraged across the street. G. S. Uncle, who was quick with his puns, called it a mild animal sanctuary.
When we arrived at the other kind of temple, the stray dogs approached. Jaya Aunty did Reiki on them and offered them prasadam, but they were too sick to eat. She sat on the floor, and they sat on her lap, dirtying her saree. Dog is important. Saree is not, she said. But society cares about sarees, not dogs.
The way Jaya Aunty said “society,” it was as if it were outer space. “Kallakurichi,” by contrast, was not society. It was “Jolly jolly,” she told me. “Did not yet know suffering.”
As I write you, it is raining birds in India. Parched kites fall from the sky. Fledglings not ready for flight are fleeing their nests too early to escape the heat. I asked Sasipriya how to say veterinary hospital in Tamil. Kaalnadai maruthuvamanai—the hospital for those who walk on their legs. We too are animals.
I search the 3,068-page Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to find 428 mentions of mental health, 31 instances of grief, and 12 of solastalgia. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined this term by combining solace (solas), desolation (desolare), and suffering (algia) to describe eco grief and distress caused by environmental change. M. Varadarajan shows us the Tamil Sangam poets communicated this precarity nearly two thousand years ago. They wrote about the deer, who, in unbearable heat, “forgets the food of leaves and faints forlorn.” The thirsty elephant, with a raised trunk, looks “at the sky for rainy clouds.” She runs toward a mirage. Disappointed and defeated, she lies down like “a boat in a waterless river.”
I observe my dog, Asta, who follows the moving patch of sunlight in the apartment from east to west, throughout the day. Another Tamil scholar, Xavier S. Thani Nayagam, teaches me how the Sangam poets paid equal attention to shade, noting the different kinds—thick and dense or spotty leafed—and how coverage changed daily and seasonally. Shade, he concludes, was kin to kindness.
Though their homelands were swallowed twice by the sea, the Sangam poets still viewed water as a gift. Sasipriya tells me that the Tamil word for beauty, ezlilili, is used by the poets to denote a rain cloud. “The cloud is the symbol of beneficence,” writes Thani Nayagam. Rain clouds accumulate the wealth of oceans and redistribute them to the lands. A tender heart is described as a moist one, he says.
“Poitu Varen,” Sasipriya says when Tamil class is over. I will go and come back. “Because we believe words have power,” she says, “we never say ‘I am going’ without saying ‘I am coming back.’ I, like you, like my fin, like Madurai, like the Sangam poems, will submerge and emerge.
This story appears in our spring 2023 issue, Conjunctions:80, Ways of Water.