Here’s Jane Kataria in conversation with Nikolai Gordiychuk, who is currently a researcher at the University of Hamburg (Germany). Nikolai is a translator of classical Tamil literature into Russian, including such works as Nālatiyār and Kalinkattupparani, as well as fragments of Tēvāram, Tiruvācakam, Tirumantiram and selected works of Tamil Cittar.

When did you first come to know about the Tamil language? Most people outside India have never heard about it, let alone seeking to learn it.
When I was at school, we had an absolutely fantastic Latin teacher. At that moment, I knew nothing about Tamil, but the mere idea that some people devote their entire lives to the study of ancient poetry struck me very deeply. I was lucky to enjoy reading and interpreting ancient literature early on, and to appreciate and love it without feeling bored. It seemed amazing to me. However, my dream was to engage in something similar to Classical philology, but in a less explored area.

Besides, I had a bright impression of India since my mother travelled there when I was a small child and brought me some nice presents such as a small statue of Lord Ganesha and some sweets. So, when I was a teenager, my plan was to enter the College of Asian and African Studies at the Moscow State University, to learn Sanskrit and Hinduism, and then to study Classical Sanskrit poetry. This was quite a rare dream for a teenager, but I was a typical lotus eater, without much practical concern for how I would earn money in the future.

However, there was no Sanskrit department at Moscow University. If you want to be trained as an Indologist, you must learn one of the modern Indian languages, usually Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, or Tamil, and then take Sanskrit as an optional course. In the year of my admission, it was Tamil. That was the great luck for me because the course was taught by a prominent Russian scholar, professor and PhD Alexander Dubiansky (1941-2020). Meeting him was a life-changing experience for me. So, I have been studying Tamil since I was 16 years old, when I entered Moscow State University in 1999.

I have tried learning Tamil, and I find it quite difficult. Do you agree? Or is it easy?
The difficulty of language learning is always a matter of the distance between your native language and the language you are learning. For a Russian, it would be much easier to learn another Slavic language, of course. Similarly, Tamil is probably not too complicated for a speaker of Malayalam or Telugu but it is quite a complex language for European languages speakers. One essential difficulty for foreigners is that Tamil is a diglossic language, and you must learn spoken and literary varieties separately. The spoken variety has lots of dialects, which are sometimes difficult even for native speakers to fully understand.

How long did it take you to learn reading and writing? And speaking?
When you learn Tamil as a foreigner, you must learn at least three quite different languages: Literary, Spoken, and Classical. The university course usually begins with Modern Literary Tamil, which makes sense, in my opinion. We had quite a lot of hours dedicated to it, so when I came to India for the first time during my second year at the University, I could read and write well enough and also speak to people in Literary Tamil. I think most of them even understood me quite well, though I admit it sounded odd (smiles) But I absolutely had no idea what people said to me because I had no knowledge of Spoken Tamil by that point. Spoken Tamil came a little bit later, but frankly speaking, it is a difficult language! It is so diverse, with so many dialects and sociolects, and many native speakers speak it so fast that often I’m quite at a loss.

When was your first visit to Tamil Nadu? Was it different from your expectations?
When you go to India for the first time, there is always a culture shock. I remember being unable to cross the road in Chennai because the traffic seemed too chaotic for me. The locals were crossing the road easily, but I couldn’t, it was scary. Then my colleague taught me: “Look how cows are crossing the road and imagine you are a cow. Just do what cows do – close your eyes and go, nothing bad will happen to you!” I mean, there are stereotypes about different countries. For example, there is a stereotype that you can run into a bear in the street of Russia, and this is a fable. And I thought it was also a fable that one could come across a cow on the street in India, but this turned out to be true! It was quite a mind-blowing experience for a 17-year-old – so many colors, so many sounds, and such spicy food!

In India, especially more than 20 years ago but nowadays as well, you often have a shocking encounter with bare life: people living in extreme poverty, beggars, and cripples in the streets, fortunetellers, holy people, homeless people, and pickpockets around tourist destinations – this was my first impression, and it made me fall in love with the country. India doesn’t try to look like a fancy showroom or conceal some disturbing things. Instead, it responds to your inner intentions and somehow reflects your inner thoughts.

How often do you visit Chennai?
I have visited Chennai and other cities of Tamil Nadu numerous times for different cultural events, philology symposiums, Tamil literature summits. Currently I am living and working in Hamburg Germany, preparing Tamil language dictionary Indologist, professor of the Tamil language, teaching Tamil seminars at the Institute of Classical Oriental and Antiquities of the Higher School of Economics. I graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in Indian Philology and postgraduate studies at the Russian Anthropological School at the Russian State Humanitarian University. I had an internship at the École française d’Extrême-Orient (Pondicherry, India).