It is not so easy to disengage a serious argument from R Azhagarsan’s review of my biography of Tamil, especially given the intemperate tone of the review and its heavily ideological prejudice. The book was in part written precisely to counter the kind of views presented there, thus rendering a response in some sense redundant. However, there are several points that may be worth repeating.

Does this book reflect a Brahminical, puranic, and “Hindu” view of Tamil cultural history?

The very terms used by Azhagarsan are problematic to begin with. One has to keep in mind that the Tamil cultural tradition was, from the beginning, largely in the hands of non-Brahmins – indeed, this is a diagnostic feature of the tradition, in contrast, for example, to Telugu literary history. The idea that a reading such as mine is derived from Brahmin informants and Brahmin-authored or Brahmin-influenced works, or from English scholarship, is absurd.

Similarly absurd is the claim that modern Tamil scholarship is ignored. Tamil literary culture was rooted in diverse social and religious milieux and cannot be reduced to a monolithic story of oppression, contamination coming from the North or elsewhere, or a single set of concepts meant to rationalise hierarchy and domination. Even a word such as “Hinduism” has ambiguous reference; I wouldn’t want to squeeze Tamil history into an impoverished and distorted version of that conceptual field.

For a far more nuanced and penetrating attempt to give meaning to the word, I recommend Manu Devadevan’s recent book, A Pre-history of Hinduism, focussed on Karnataka but well aware of developments in the neighbouring south Indian cultures. Sanskrit, too, of course, as Azhagarsan says, is a multi-faceted, multi-contextual, polymorphic thing.

Does the book give short shrift to the Dravidianist mythologies of the last century or so?

Perhaps it does. The alternative, subaltern views of the world that began to appear in the late nineteenth century have their own interest and integrity and deserve cogent scholarship. They should not, however, be projected back into medieval south India. A strident anachronism colours the review: the author seems to want a history of Tamil as seen through modern Dravidianist eyes – or at least a history without reference to what he calls Hindu or puranic or Brahminical prisms, or to what he thinks Indology and/or Orientalism is all about (see next point) – whereas the main effort of the book is explore the perspectives on language and cultural creativity embodied in Tamil authors and artists of many periods and diverse origins (including, of course, Buddhist, Jains, Muslims, and Christians). Some of those authors and readers happened to be Brahmins through no fault of their own. It’s a bit late to punish them now.

Is the book Orientalism and Indology (these terms are not isomorphic)?

I think it’s fair to say that by now all South Asianists have internalised the Saidian critique of the profession. Is there anyone out there who is unaware of the linkages between power and knowledge that Said, Foucault, and many others took such care to establish? That said, and given the evident necessity of establishing real-life contexts for texts, and for philology in general, there is still good reason to attempt to understand the mental universe of a medieval Tamil poet in its own terms, without projecting our prejudices backward in time.

Was Shakespeare a proto-Victorian imperialist? Was Kampan (a lowly uvaccan drummer, by the way, if the tradition is right) a puranic mole burrowing into the paddy fields near Teraḻuntūr and propping up high-caste privilege? And since I have mentioned Kampan, I might add that to hunt desperately for scraps of some primordial Tamilisms in the Valmiki Ramayana, as Azhagarsan (following Manavalan) seems to propose, is a rather pathetic and apologetic defence – I’m not sure of what. Tamil has riches enough to offer the world without stooping to such methods.

There is also a real problem with positing the existence of “levels” in any South Asian cultural setting. The old distinction between “great” and “little” traditions, and for that matter the familiar paradigm of Sanskritisation (MN Srinivas), are by now surely obsolete.

The recent excavations in southern Tamil Nadu have pushed our datings backward by two or three centuries, and if these datings are indeed correct – it’s a big “if” – they will have important implications for our understanding of mid-first-century BC Tamil civilisation. I rather doubt that they will provide a factual basis for the modern Dravidianist puranas, but let us wait and see. For now, “Dravidian” remains a useful linguistic term.

It should go without saying – but I will say it nonetheless – that a deep understanding of the suffering undergone by Dalits, Scheduled Castes, and many others, over centuries, comes with reading Tamil sources from whatever period and provenance. Have a look, for example, at Cekkilar’s description of the ceri in which Nantanar was born. I can also understand the wish to produce an alternative history of Tamil from a subaltern viewpoint.

By all means, let us have such a history, but let it not be driven by distortion, name-calling, hatred, exclusivism, resentment, and, specifically, the irrational labelling of Sanskrit and all Sanskrit sentences or texts as something inherently foreign, monolithic, and harmful.

As a useful principle for writing any cultural history, I would follow Spinoza’s definition of happiness as the move from a state of lesser perfection to a state of greater perfection. The state of lesser perfection is constricted, given to exclusion, defensive, and judgmental. Look for the wider, more expansive viewpoint. I am aware that what might appear to one as the wider view will likely appear to another as the more constricted. Here is a subject we might want to discuss together, assuming each of the parties to the conversation have enough generosity and curiosity to listen to the other.

I would almost certainly be the last person in the world to think that Tamil is a “sub-stratum” of Sanskrit. Like in all Indian languages, there is Sanskrit in Tamil; that doesn’t count as a sub-stratum. And of course Tamilians, like everyone else, sometimes wrote in Sanskrit. It is worth asking what motivates the choice of composing in a particular language, or even in a particular linguistic register. Various considerations come into play, including the specific expressive and intertextual resources that a given medium has to offer.

Tamil studies is a passionate field, and perhaps that is a good thing.

Dispassionate argumentation is a context-dependent ideal. I, too, feel passionate about Tamil. However, some distinctions deserve to be maintained. The understanding of cultural origins that we find in the Tiruvilaiyatarpuranam, for example, is a cultural artefact and a cultural fact, not a Rankean portrayal of how things actually were (I’m not espousing the Rankean ideal). There is some merit in attempting to understand that artefact, or interpreting it, in the light of the usual criteria by which we judge interpretations: above all, economy, comprehensiveness, and beauty.

Or take a seventeenth-century poet such as Turaimankalam Civappirakacuvami, the author of the Pirapu-linka-lilai and (in part) of the Cikalattippuranam, to name but two works. Would it not be worth entering his sensibility, along with locating him in space and society and institutional settings and artistic tradition and polyphonic language, in an effort to achieve a wider, or deeper, understanding? Who would willingly forgo such pleasures?

And are text and context really separate beings? Two thousand years of Tamil literary production are still waiting to be read and recovered by those to whom these masterpieces rightfully belong. “Recovering” means re-conceiving the protocols of reading that have been largely lost. This is hardly a matter of a “Hindu” framing, and even the apparent “puranic” frame of a book like the Cikalattippuranam needs to be interrogated and re-conceived. Not all puranas were created similar. A certain lightness of touch also wouldn’t hurt.