As he lifts his left hand to type in front of his home PC, his fingers don’t keep pace with his mind.
“Look at that. The finger is trembling and refusing to listen to me,” Sengai Podhuvan, dressed in a blue T-shirt that sports logos of Tamil Wikipedia and a saffron dhoti, says. “Now I just have to wait for my hand to stabilise and type one letter at a time. It takes a while but I am used to it.”
The 78-year-old is an unlikely poster boy of the Tamil computing fraternity. Having authored over 2,600 articles in Tamil Wikipedia, Mr. Podhuvan is well known within the closed group of Tamil Wikipedia editors as the man who translated ‘Tolkappiyam,’ one of the oldest surviving Tamil works, into English for WikiSource.
He has also developed a new standard for transliteration of Tamil to English, using just the Roman alphabets available on regular keyboards. “I have avoided the use of diacritical marks and capitalisation. Instead, I have constructed the sounds of Tamil on a new standard that will allow any user to grasp the nuances of Tamil pronunciation,” he says.
Mr. Podhuvan, who types for five hours every day, has achieved all of these things despite having a degenerative neurological disorder. “It is most probably Parkinson’s and it is genetic. My mother had it and her mother before her,” he says.
He has refused medication because he feels that ultimately, it won’t matter, much to the chagrin of his wife, 71-year-old Sengai Selvi, his five children and his family doctor. Selvi supports Mr. Podhuvan through all of his chores at their home in Nanganallur, where the elderly couple live by themselves. Their four daughters are all married and live in different parts, while their son is in Canada.
Sengai Podhuvan’s love for Tamil started early. “I had studied only up to class VIII, but became a teacher when I learnt the government allowed those with at least three years of teaching experience to appear for SSLC exams,” he says, recalling the events of the early 1960s when he was in his 20s.
He continued in the teaching profession, earning subsequent degrees leading up to a PhD from Tiruchi Bharathidasan University, which he received just after retiring in 1994. His big break into the world of Tamil literature, however, started in 1971, when veteran Tamil scholar Dr. Mu. Va (Mu. Varadarajan) offered him a job as the editor of scholarly works for a project to record the ‘Authentic History of Tamilnadu’.
Mr. Podhuvan has also been the editor of sports journal ‘Tamizhar Vilayatu Madal’ brought out by the directorate of sports development during the Chief Ministership of M.G. Ramachandran.
His tryst with computers began in 2005, when he acquired his first PC and trained himself to be able to publish his own books. He has already published six books. “My ambition is to translate Sangam literature works — ‘Pathu Paatu’ and ‘Ettu Thogai’ — for Tamil Wikipedia,” he says.