Finding new links in old stories
Translating Aboriginal stories into Tamil, Mathalai Somu discovers deep-rooted similarities as well as new pathways for preserving ancient cultures
Anthropologists have deduced that the indigenous culture of Australia dates back 65,000 years, making it the oldest living culture in the world. The ability to adapt, coupled with their affinity for their natural surroundings, have contributed to the preservation of their culture, protecting Aboriginal traditions against the shearing hands of time.
In recent times, one individual has taken upon the task to unearth, compile and present the essence of this rich culture for others to enjoy. Mathalai Somasundaram is a writer of travelogues, short stories and research papers on linguistics. He has authored as many as 19 books in Tamil. Originally from India, Mathalai, known as Somu to family and friends, now lives in Pendle Hill, NSW. He recently released his book, Australia Aathivaasi Kathaigal (Stories of the Aborigines of Australia), recognising and exemplifying the indigenous culture of Australia in all the richness that it deserves.
“Living in Australia has made me realise that I too am part of this land, and therefore it has taught me to accept this culture and preserve it for future generations,” said Somu. “This book is a celebration of the stories from ‘the Dreaming’ or Tjukurrpa.”
Stories from ‘the Dreaming’ or ‘the Dreamtime’ are a gateway into the minds of Australia’s indigenous ancestors. It is a state wherein the psyche establishes contact with ancestral spirits, a continuous experience that links together the past with the present and the dwellers with their land. Aboriginal Australians have the utmost reverence for nature, feeling an acute sense of responsibility for the land. These stories pass on important knowledge, cultural values and belief systems to younger generations.
In his book, Mathalai Somasundaram has translated 94 stories, a majority of which have not yet received mainstream popularity. It is on the basis of his dedication and labour that some of these stories can now be read in other parts of the world. Popular among the dreaming stories are The Rainbow Serpent and Tiddalick the Frog.
“I selected 94 mythological folktales of Australian Aborigines and translated them from English to Tamil language,” Somu said. “These are mostly about gods, sun, moon, trees, animals, birds and nature.”
Whilst translating, he discovered that the legacy and essence of the stories are very much related to that of Tamil – a Dravidian language predominantly spoken by the Tamil people of India and northern Sri Lanka.
Linguists consider Tamil to be one of the oldest spoken languages in the world with a history of over 3000 years, having a classical antiquity on par with Latin. Many classical Tamil literary works dating to the Sangam period (circa 300 BCE to 300 CE) have been discovered. In 2004, Tamil became the first classical language to be legally recognised by the government of India.
“Even though there are more than 60 languages in Australia, this is the first book about Aborigines to be translated from English to Tamil language,” Somu said.
In his foreword, Mathalai Somasundaram has observed that, besides English, Tamil is the second language to have translated Australian Indigenous dreaming stories. He believes that Tamil and Australia’s Indigenous languages have a lot in common, outlining the ongoing research that continues to establish the hereditary link between Tamil, originating in south India, and Indigenous languages. If you could picture the world map geographically, there was a time when Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, was connected to Australia.
The Indigenous language of Awabakal, traditionally spoken in parts of the Newcastle region, contains similar vowels found in Tamil.
Further, Tamil people appreciate the Dreaming stories. Thenali Raman, Mullaa Kathaigal, Kalladi Veluppillai Kathaigal are a compilation of Tamil stories similar in style and substance, resembling Aboriginal literature. He believes that these are not far-fetched or far-removed concepts and that they are not foreign. On the contrary, they are completely foreign to mainstream Australian culture.
Somu believes that while successive governments and policymakers have tried to support Indigenous culture and literature in the mainstream arena, it hasn’t quite borne fruit simply because both these worlds can be quite isolated. This is where elements of multicultural Australia, particularly Tamils, can play a role.
“We have a foot in both camps. We know what it is like to preserve and carry with us thousands of years of literature and tradition, and we also relate to the mainstream aspirations of Australia,” Somu said. “This book, and the cultural connections and conversations that we can have with Indigenous Australians, is the bridge to uplifting Indigenous culture in the mainstream.”
“Hopefully, it doesn’t stop here. These are fascinatingly creative pieces – how the emu lost its flight, how the tiger gained its stripes, how the moon went to the sky. Creativity is the tool we so lack in our education system,” Somu continued. “These stories could serve as the sparks we need to ignite the imagination of our youth in our schools.”