Yesterday was Adi Perukku. I read not one, but two posts on Ponniyin Selvan. Yes, the novel par excellence by Kalki Krishnamurthy is what first came to my mind when I realized it was the 18th day of the Tamil month of Adi. The thought sent me hurtling back a decade.
I had barely finished by Class 12 exams. My father brought home an armload of Tamil books. The Government of Tamil Nadu had decided to subsidize the works of Kalki Krishnamurthy, to commemorate the birth centenary of the writer. And dad, to his credit, decided to expose me to a world of Tamil literature I was entirely unfamiliar with. I could read Tamil about as well as the current crop of Kollywood heroines can speak it. For those of you who know what that means, it’s like George Bush’s general knowledge, zero!
Dad, being dad, had ambitious plans for me. He laid out the three major works by Kalki in front of me and asked me to choose. Ponniyin Selvan, vigorously recommended by dad, mom, grandmother and a whole army of older relatives occupied the pride of place. Alaiyosai, Kalki’s personal favourite, was somewhere at the bottom of the list. Between these two exalted works lay Sivagamiyin Sabatham. Now, asking me to choose between them was like asking a beginner in English to choose between Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. Both are difficult, each more difficult than the other.
I bravely plunged into the world of Ponniyin Selvan, with mom and grandmother’s encouragements. Dad, for his part, was ready to explain the meaning of Tamil words I did not understand. In hindsight, I suspect that he bit off much more than he could chew. He did not bargain to become the official translator of classical Tamil into Madras Baashai for his darling daughter raised on the banks of the Buckingham Canal. Ok. I am exaggerating…but, truly, my knowledge of Tamil was rivaled only by my (in)ability to do math.
Once I began reading the novel, all was forgotten. My walking, talking Madras Baashai interpreter was troubled for exactly three days. The story was engrossing. It was moving forward at a phenomenal speed. I discovered the Pazhuvettaraiyars, the hero Vandhiyathevan, the beautiful Nandini, the shy Madhuranthakan. History came alive in those words. I suddenly wanted to know more about Anirudha Brahmarayar and the Uttiramerur inscriptions. I wanted to know how Kundavai Prattiyar lived, what the Kudandhai astrologer said. I wanted to visit these exotic places. I wanted to study history. I discovered the romance between Vanathi and Arulmozhi Varman. In the process, I developed a crush on the noble Arulmozhi Varman, long dead. Poor man! Wonder how many teenage girls discovered they had a crush on him! A decade later, I wonder if Rajaraja Cholan was really as noble as Kalki’s Arulmozhi Varman. On second thoughts, I’d rather not know.
It took me nearly a month to finish the five-volume three-thousand-page novel. When I was done, I was incorrigibly spoiled. I was in love; in love with history, with the Chola times. I was in love with the art of writing something so breathtakingly beautiful. I had decided. I was going to study history. I haven’t regretted that decision till date. And yes, I am still in love. I still want to see Uttiramerur, Pazhayarai, Uraiyur, Thanjavur and Gangaikonda Cholapuram. This is a love affair that will probably last all my life.
PS: There is an English translation of Ponniyin Selvan. But, if you can read Tamil even passingly, please read it in the original. I can guarantee the story will take you forward, even if you don’t want to go.