They are crisp, funny, profound… proverbs add spice to everyday conversations, says Tamil professor S. Durai

The rains let him down that year. The earth was dry to the bone; his young coconut trees were in despair. Yet, the farmer managed to survive, thanks to his three working daughters who sent him money. “They say, ‘petha pulla kaapaathataalum, vecha pulla kaapathum — even if your own child doesn’t look after you, the child you sowed, (coconut sapling) will.’ In my case, it is the opposite,” said the farmer to S. Durai, a school teacher.

The proverb stuck on in Dr. Durai’s mind. He recalled it at the Vanavarayar Foundation’s monthly lecture series, where he spoke on ‘The Proverbs of Kongu Region. “A proverb can sometimes give us goosebumps. It can convey profound truth in the simplest of words,” he said.

Passed down for generations through word of mouth, proverbs pack a punch in a single line. They are simple, crisp and unabashedly truthful. “If you want to say something rude to me, you can boldly say it through a proverb. You would have conveyed the message and I wouldn’t have realised you were targeting me,” said Durai.

In ‘A Dictionary of Tamil Proverbs’, author John Lazarus writes of how in Tamil Nadu, no conversation is complete without the mention of a proverb or two. “He says that people use them to illustrate a point, to censure, to refuse, to order...” said Durai. “A proverb can be poetic too. But to understand it, one should have an idea of the environment in which it was born.”

For instance, the proverb ‘Koothellam nalla koothu. Baaram dhan vegu baaram’ tells the story of a man who went to watch a koothu performance. Crowds thronged the show; he couldn’t see a thing. Desperate to see the koothu, he climbed on to the shoulder of his neighbour, who was too absorbed in the performance to sense the extra burden. “The proverb is the man’s reply when someone asked him what he thought of the koothu,” said Durai.

Durai has taught in several village schools where he met the quirkiest people who surprised him with their off-the-cuff proverbs. Peon Soosai was one of them. “He spent his days drinking without coming to work. One day, the headmaster caught him marking attendance for the days he was absent.” An irritated Soosai lashed out at the headmaster thus: ‘Kavadi kaaran aadurannu, mootakaaran aada koodadhu — the man carrying the kavadi can afford to dance; the man with a load on his back cannot.’ Soosai, a bachelor, meant that he could get away with being irresponsible.

From where does a proverb originate? “The people,” explained Durai. “A lot of proverbs I came across showed women in bad light. So, they might have been developed by chauvinistic men. A woman’s perspective has gone unrecorded.” He also noted how proverbs spoke ill of people belonging to oppressed communities. Despite everything, a proverb has its own charm; there are also times it is misinterpreted.

Did you know that in the proverb ‘Oorar pillaya ooti valatha, than pillai thaane valarum’, ‘oorar pillai’ means wife?

Keywords: Tamil Proverbs