Pogalam vaanga! (Come on, let’s go!): thoughts on family and language

by Tulika Publishers, pictures by Rajiv Eipe, 2013

This is a book review of a book that I can’t read. Our children are growing up in the USA, but our families have roots in other countries, other cultures, and other languages. My husband’s family are originally from Tamil Nadu, the southern most state in India. His family speak Tamil, Hindi and English. Sometimes all in the same sentence. Tamil is an ancient language spoken by millions of people worldwide, especially in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore, but in many other communities too. It has its own script, a vast historical and contemporary literature, and it is a beautifully melodic language – that’s very difficult to learn.

After nearly twenty years of marriage, I can manage a couple of words. But it’s a language that my children have in some way inherited, a part of the culture that they come from. Is there a word for a language that belongs to your family, has been spoken by parents and grandparents but you don’t understand? The books of Tulika Publishers are one of the bridges to it that we are trying to build for them.

Despite being unable to read a word of it, I adore Pogalam vaanga! And I recognise the India it depicts, even if I can’t recognise any of the letters. In essence it’s a counting book, with 10, 9, 8 people going to catch a train in different ways. But as you turn the pages, they’re travelling faster and faster to get to the station. The mounting energy springs off the page. I have to tell the story in English  – Daddy can read it in Tamil – but the vivacity and quirky details of the illustrations as well as the driving pressure of getting to that train on time take us along. It’s a wonderfully inclusive book: the people are cheerful, thoughtful, busy, quiet, on their phones, one boy walks with a stick, one never lifts his nose from a book, one is in a wheelchair, one girl is pulling faces, women wear saris and shorts and trousers and salwar kameez, people of different ages, different faiths.

As we read, the kids are full of questions, often the same one every time – who’s he, what’s she doing, what’s the dog doing, why has he got that? ‘That’s not safe’, they say, spotting all the people without motorcycle helmets. What’s she saying?  Why are they jumping? Why are they rushing? We pause for breath on the platform.  We made it. The boy is still reading. The girl is still pulling faces. That man is yawning. The page turns. One great crowd of people all get on the train! Pogalam vaanga!

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