Tryst with Ponniyin Selvan.
(பொன்னியின் செல்வன் )
Recently I achieved what I consider to be a major milestone in my life. I completed reading in Tamizh (not translated) the first volume Puthu Vellam, of the epic historical magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan, by Kalki. I have begun reading the second volume Suzharkaatrru and am delighted to say that I’m thoroughly enjoying it!

Why do I consider this a major achievement? Some background…

My mother Smt. Saraswathi Santhanam passed away last month at the age of 86, after battling multiple health issues. She played a major role in shaping my tastes overall in life. My becoming a professional Carnatic vocal musician was entirely due to her being a gifted vocalist herself. Apart from her lifelong passion for Carnatic music, she was an avid reader, a trait she shared with all her siblings.

One of my mother’s favourite authors was Kalki of course. Her love for Kalki’s writing was present throughout her life – similar to her passion for Carnatic music. Kalki’s epic Ponniyin Selvan held a perennial fascination for my mother, and she would never tire of revisiting and rereading the magnum opus every now and then. I have myself seen her reading all the five volumes serially, at least twice in the last two decades. These readings were probably her third / fourth re-reads!

Other writers whose works she read extensively were Devan, Rajam Krishnan, SVV, and many works of Sujatha and Su-Ba. Sujatha’s Srinrangatthu Devadaigal for instance, was one of the books she thoroughly enjoyed reading in the last one year of her passing. Till the end, she was especially fond of the Tamizh political weekly Tughlaq and would eagerly await each weekly issue.

Coming back to Kalki, my Amma would never tire of emphatically declaring often:

“Very few can write as engagingly as Kalki – especially historical novels!’’

She would recount often how in the 1950s, her elder brother would regularly and meticulously send the weekly issues of Ananda Vikatan and Kalki by post from Chennai to her, when she was based in Tirunelveli before her marriage with my father.

‘’I would eagerly await the post for the two weeklies, reading them cover to cover and then taking out the pages of the chapters of Ponniyin Selvan from the Kalki magazine and keep them carefully till they were bound as a complete book at a later date. I have done this for several serialized novels, particularly those by Kalki and Devan.’’

I have heard this often from my mother and the sheer enjoyment she experienced reading and rereading Kalki’s historical novels. Kalki’s and Devan’s works would also be discussed with great enthusiasm by Amma with her siblings and friends, especially Ponniyin Selvan.

All of this over the years, made me feel that I would definitely be reading Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan at some point in my life. Though I was far from sure how I would actually accomplish this. Not having studied Tamizh formally in school (I was born and brought up in Delhi and studied Hindi and Sanskrit), reading Tamizh was always a challenge. Amma ensured she taught me the alphabet and some basic reading in my younger years. However, to become comfortable with reading prose in a language, one needs to be keep reading daily. Being in Delhi, my reading didn’t really proceed beyond laboured attempts to comprehend jokes featured in the Ananda Vikatan. Also, it didn’t help that spoken Tamizh is very different from the written version!

Relocating to Chennai in the late 1990s and becoming a professional Carnatic vocalist ensured my gradually becoming comfortable with Tamizh – especially reading and understanding the literary aspects of the language. I lay no claims to be an expert but the levels of comprehension and reading speeds increased, to use the cliché, by leaps and bounds. As my parents moved to Chennai with me, my mother continued her readings with gusto. Soon after my relocation, she reread Ponniyin Selvan for the third or the fourth time, having borrowed it from the local library in Chennai.

When I came to know that the Kalki magazine was going to re-serialize Ponniyin Selvan once again in the year 2014, I made up my mind. I would buy the weekly, ensure I would unpin and store all the chapters separately and get them bound in a book format, reminiscent of how serialized books were ‘’taken out’’ from magazines and bound later back in the 1950s.

Which is what I did exactly. This project ran for four years till the final chapter of the epic was published in the fifth volume in 2018 in the weekly. It was not without its hitches. I remember having gone abroad twice and missed buying a couple of weekly issues. This entailed a couple of trips to Kalki’s office at Ekkaduthangal, Chennai, where the staff were very cooperative and allowed me to buy the issues that I had missed.

Finally, I managed to acquire all the chapters in this version and get them bound. The whole exercise gave me enormous satisfaction in multiple ways. More about this later.

With rudimentary reading skills in Tamizh prose, I embarked on, not without a certain amount of trepidation, Ponniyin Selvan during the first wave of the Wuhan pandemic. Progress was a bit slow initially. It was my mother’s enthusiasm and a couple of other friends and colleagues that kept me at it.

And in the process, even with my minimal knowledge of literary Tamizh, I realized for myself first-hand Kalki’s superb writing skills. The very first sentence of Ponniyin Selvan appeared highly unusual, quite different from anything that I had read in any English language fiction.

ஆதி அந்தமில்லாத கால வெள்ளத்தில் கற்பனை ஓடத்தில் ஏறி நம்முடன் சிறிது நேரம் பிரயாணம் செய்யுமாறு நேயர்களை அழைக்கிறோம். விநாடிக்கு ஒரு நூற்றாண்டு வீதம் எளிதில் கடந்து இன்றைக்குத் தொள்ளாயிரத்து எண்பத்திரண்டு (1950ல் எழுதியது) ஆண்டுகளுக்கு முந்திய காலத்துக்குச் செல்வோமாக.

Kalki invites us readers to go with him on this imaginary ride. First time readers will realize the ride very soon turns into a non-stop swashbuckling rollercoaster, spread over five whole volumes!

I will refrain from going deep into Kalki’s writing skills – enough and more has perhaps been written by people far more qualified than me. Instead, I will point out a few things that struck me especially and why the novel kept me hooked.

An ex-colleague of mine once commented, ‘’Kalki’s biggest strength is his power of description, which is truly formidable.’’

I realized this for myself. The opening scene describes the chief protagonist Vandiyadevan arriving on his horse at the Veeranam lake one evening from Kanchipuram at a slow trot. Both the horse and the rider are clearly exhausted after the long journey. The day happens to be the Adi Perukku (in August) and consequently the celebrations are in full swing. Kalki brings alive the Veeranam lake with its copious water, the various celebrations including song and dance indulged in by various groups of people, and the picnicking families. The sheer gaiety of the celebrations serves to act as a restorative to the tired Vandiyadevan and sets the stage for all the dramatic events that unfold the same evening.

We are treated to Kalki’s descriptive powers several times in the first volume alone; I will just highlight a few here.

After exiting the Veeranam lake’s periphery, Vandiyadevan nears the Veeranarayanapuram’s ‘Vinnagara kovil’. Since it is the evening of the ‘’aadi tirumanjana tiruvizha’’, Kalki describes the crowds milling around at the shops surrounding the temple groves with gusto. The best of translations will fall short of the colourful and enchanting descriptions:

பலாச் சுளைகளும் வாழைப் பழங்களும் கரும்புக் கழிகளும் பலவகைத் தின்பண்டங்களும் விற்பவர்கள் ஆங்காங்கே கடை வைத்திருந்தார்கள். பெண்கள் தலையில் சூடிக் கொள்ளும் மலர்களையும், தேவ பூஜைக்குரிய தாமரை மொட்டுக்கள் முதலியவற்றையும் சிலர் விற்றுக் கொண்டிருந்தார்கள். தேங்காய், இளநீர், அகில், சந்தனம், வெற்றிலை, வெல்லம், அவல், பொரி முதலியவற்றைச் சிலர் குப்பல் குப்பலாகப் போட்டுக் கொண்டிருந்தார்கள். ஆங்காங்கே வேடிக்கை விநோதங்கள் நடந்து கொண்டிருந்தன.ஜோசியர்கள், ரேகை சாஸ்திரத்தில் வல்லவர்கள், குறி சொல்லுகிறவர்கள், விஷக்கடிக்கு மந்திரிப்பவர்கள், இவர்களுக்கும் அங்கே குறையில்லை.

Further instances are when he describes the ‘’kuravai koothu’’ at Kadambur Maaligai, Azhwarkadiyan spying on the secret rendezvous taking place in the lonely and abandoned temple in the middle of the forest and several others.

When it comes to declaring one’s love, Kalki’s imagination is truly unique. Again, this has to be read in the original to fully appreciate its import. How the senior Pazhavettaraiyar professes his love for his newly wed wife and Aditya Karikalan’s inability to forget Nandini truly create an indelible impression on us.

These are just minute fractions I’ve quoted from the first volume. The novel is replete with such picturesque writing.

One major factor that made me ‘’collect’’ and get the chapters bound are the impactful and colourful illustrations by the artist Veda. The magazine also featured centre-fold posters of major characters in the novel that emphatically added to the interest.

Kalki also skilfully injects Azhwar paasurams, thevarams, thirukkurals and several other forms of poetry at appropriate junctures.

Examples are the extremely popular ‘’bhaja govindam’’ (can we ever forget M. S. Subbulakshmi’s immortal rendition?) in the second chapter and the paasuram by Periyaazhwaar:

'வண்ண மாடங்கள் சூழ்திருக் கோட்டியூர் கண்ணன் கேசவன் நம்பி பிறந்தினில் எண்ணெய் சுண்ணம் எதிர் எதிர் தூவிடக் கண்ணன் முற்றம் கலந்தன றாயிற்றே!

ஓடுவார் விழுவார் உகந்தாலிப்பார் நாடுவார் நம்பிரான் எங்குற்றான் என்பார் பாடுவார்களும் பல்பறை கொட்ட நின்று ஆடுவார்களும் ஆயிற்று ஆய்ப்பாடியே!'

These only serve to enhance the overall appeal of the historical magnum opus.

Ponniyin Selvan is indisputably one of the most successful historical fiction in Tamizh. Kalki’s skill lies in intelligently combining what truly happened in history with the Chozhas, with his own imagination. He compellingly draws us readers into that era and soon we realize we are inextricably part of that world – comprising the prevailing topography of the region, the festivities, stage performances, the various colourful characters so convincingly drawn and all the political intrigues!

Personally, I’m strongly convinced of one thing. The five-volume Ponniyin Selvan is not a mere novel. As Kalki invites us right at the beginning, let’s all climb aboard his கற்பனை ஓடம் and be rewarded with an experience that we will truly cherish!

Mohan Santhanam is a Chennai-based professional Carnatic vocalist and blogs on his interests.

The Tragic artist!...