Tamil language scholar Ebeling enjoys exploring uncharted territory. (Photography by Dan Dry)

Language bearer

A German student, a South Asian language, a UChicago career.

Globalization produces curious collisions. Sascha Ebeling, a scholar of Tamil language and literature at UChicago, first encountered the South Asian language as a 16-year-old in Soest, the small German city where he grew up.

One afternoon in 1990, Ebeling and a friend went to a Tamil cultural festival in their town, one of many across Germany where Sri Lankan Tamils had settled as refugees from their country’s civil war. An audience had gathered to watch a Tamil-language comedy. As they laughed, Ebeling didn’t understand a word. He had decided to leave when a man sitting nearby offered to explain and translate the play.

Ebeling was hooked. The man, a refugee named Tharmarajah Suppiah, ended up teaching him Tamil informally and became a lifelong friend. The gregarious Ebeling was already studying English, French, and Latin at his German high school and taking evening classes in Spanish and Russian. When he met other Tamil refugees who had enrolled in German classes they found too hard, he developed his own materials and began teaching them on Sundays. “I gave them all German names, which they found hysterical,” he remembers. “I called them Hans and Georg and Johannes and whatnot; it was part of their cultural learning.”

Tamil was once a regional language spoken mostly in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore. But over the past 20 years, globalization and ethnic conflict have created a worldwide Tamil diaspora, with sizable communities in Europe, Canada, and the United States. About 70 million people claim Tamil as their first language, roughly similar to the number of those who speak Turkish, Korean, or Vietnamese.

Ebeling, now an associate professor in South Asian languages and civilizations, pursued his undergraduate and doctoral studies at the University of Cologne, a center for Tamil studies. (He also earned a master’s from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.) During his first year as an undergraduate, when he expressed a wish for a German-Tamil dictionary, a professor roped him into helping create one. In a small field, he says, “if you want something you have to do it yourself.”

That lesson shaped his career. “To this day I like doing things that other people don’t do,” he says cheerfully. “I like to read the things that other people don’t read.” Ebeling surveyed more than 400 works to write his first book, Colonizing the Realm of Words: The Transformation of Tamil Literature in Nineteenth-Century South India (SUNY Press, 2010). The study documents the shift from traditional systems of literary production in south India—where poet-scholars wrote verses for religious and courtly patrons—to new styles, publications, and genres such as the novel.

Tamil, like Sanskrit, is one of the world’s longest surviving classical languages, and the only modern, living Indian language with a documented 2,000-year literary tradition. Yet during the colonial period the British disparaged Tamil poetry and claimed in an 1845 report that “the vernacular languages … are almost totally barren of what Europeans deem useful or substantial knowledge.” Even today works written in Tamil and other South Indian languages—Telegu, Kannada, Malayalam—are not well-known outside of India. Ebeling believes these “hidden treasures” deserve more scholarly and popular attention.

“I have favorites from every period,” he says. Among them are ancient Tamil poems of love and war, the fifth-century Epic of the Anklet, and a grand epic poem from the 12th century called the Periyapuranam, which chronicles acts of devotion to the god Shiva. Ebeling admires 19th-century novelists Vedanayakam Pillai—author of the first Tamil novel—and Rajam Aiyar, as well as living writers such as Ambai (aka C. S. Lakshmi), whose fiction and academic work explore women’s experiences, and the poet Cheran.

Ebeling is now working on a book about 21st-century Tamil literature and its creators, a global community of writers that includes women, refugees, Dalits, and hip-hop artists. Another project compares poetry written around the world in 1907. Beginning with “The Fallen Flower,” a poem by Kumaran Asan that inaugurated the modern period in Malayalam—a language closely related to Tamil—Ebe-ling then draws parallels with poems by Rabindranath Tagore, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rubén Darío, Endre Ady, and others. The focus on 1907, he says, “will help us to understand both romanticism and modernism better.”

Because most Tamil literature has not been translated to English or other languages, Ebeling has had to maintain his do-it-yourself ethic. Some of the most powerful writing focuses on the Sri Lankan civil war, which officially ended in 2009 but continues to affect the Tamil minority. Ebeling has teamed up with Lakshmi Hölmstrom, an Indian-born British writer whom he calls “the most distinguished translator from Tamil alive,” to translate a forthcoming anthology of poetry about the conflict. The two also edited and translated a collection of poems by Cheran, a Sri Lankan Tamil who lives in Canada, called A Second Sunrise (Navayana, 2012).

An energetic teacher, Ebeling offers advanced instruction in Tamil at UChicago and graduate seminars in literature, colonial fiction, and “how to do things with South Asian texts.” He has led a faculty team to broaden the syllabus for the Readings in World Literature undergraduate Core course. Students now study the ancient Indian Mahabharata along with Homer’s Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh; they explore Sanskrit court poetry with Chaucer and The Tale of Genji.

At a Humanities Day talk last fall, Ebeling argued that ancient Greek and Roman texts are as alien and culturally remote to us today as any writings from South Asia. The solution is to banish all prejudice, concede that every literature merits close reading, and accept that every language—from Tamil to Tibetan—is worth learning. “World literature perhaps is not so much a set of books but rather a way of reading with an open mind,” he says, “a form of reading that takes the specific place and time of the text seriously.”