My Relationship with Tamil, Madurai's Beloved Mother-Tongue

-Julie Edelstein, MA Student in Religion

Edelstein, right, with local Indian farmer

This past summer, I returned to Madurai, India to study Tamil language at AIIS as part of my MA program in Religion. My research focuses on deity possession at a small temple in Tamil Nadu, and language instruction is indispensable for the field research I hope to conduct. This was my eighth trip to India, so being in Madurai this time offered a special opportunity for me to continue forging relationships that began during my first visit as an undergraduate study abroad student in 2009. In addition to spending time with old friends and making new ones, I was very excited for the opportunity to focus on Tamil, a language that I have fallen in love with despite (or perhaps because of) the many difficulties associated with studying this uncommonly taught language. I relished every possible chance to practice my language skills, which although still quite modest, never failed to elicit a joyful and sometimes incredulous response from the many friendly people I engaged with out and about in the city. So many people - often complete strangers - that I have encountered in Madurai have been so deeply enthusiastic and supportive of a foreigner learning their very beloved mother-tongue, that I was consistently encouraged and revitalized even in moments of frustration over the difficulties of learning and interacting in a new language. One moment from the summer that particularly stands out is when a smiling woman selling vegetables at a local farmer’s market insisted that I step inside of her booth to pose for photos alongside of her and some beautiful cabbages. She even sent me home with free veggies! Madurai will always be one of my favorite places in the world, not least because of such kind gestures as this.