Category Archives: Reading in Tamil

Srirangathu Devathaigal

Writer Sujatha has been a man I have admired all my life though I knew nothing about any of his works for a long time. It is incredible how my parents’ heroes were always embraced by me in blind faith!  A week or two before the Endhiran release, I read “En Iniya Iyanthira”.  I was fascinated by his imagination, Juno,the brevity of his language and the ease with which he wrote Sci-fi in Tamil. While I enjoyed “..Enthitra”, Srirangathu Devathaigal is really something else. It was a book that tugged heartstrings, triggered memories and made me crave for an era that was all about the moment and simple pleasures. I am sure I romanticize the period in my head too much, but 1960s Madras/India is certainly my “Midnight in Paris”.

Srirangathu Devathaigal, the title itself has a ring of nostalgia and home to it. Through a collection of  short stories, Sujatha presents a wonderful slice of life in small town TN from a bygone era of innocence. The stories are filled with very memorable characters; people I can relate to, eccentricities I have heard of and seen in family and neighbours growing up, a certain sense of abandon and carefree-ness that I crave for and an idyllic setting that I am sure is everybody’s idea of the “good-old times”!

Sujatha is wickedly funny (self-deprecating humor in an endearing way), extremely insightful, reflective , sensitive,poignant and empathetic in the right measures. He flawlessly seams in english and vernacular in the narrative, which gives the setting a certain “thinnai-discussion” feel that is incredibly appealing.  My favorite in the collection is “ஏறக்குறைய genius”, a story where Sujatha brings out the humor and sadness in the story wonderfully, and the ending is beautifully poetic! “கடவுளுக்கு கடிதம்” is an extremely poignant tale of the exasperating hopelessness and incredible strength of faith, and “பெண்  வேஷம்” and “பாம்பு” are howlarious! “சின்ன ர ” while it seemed a little out-of-place in this collection, was extremely clever and had an O.Henry feel to it.

With my reading in Tamil going very well, I have a Jeymohan collection and then hopefully an Ambai one  lined up to read. Very exciting times!

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Filed under books, Reading in Tamil

நந்தி வளர்ந்தது!

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Kalki weaves one hell of a story. The plot is the mother of all mega-serials, it has every element to make a blockbuster masala film sweeping several genres – a chase story, a triangular love story, parentage confusions, sacrifices from an unrequited love, a hero who is the epitome of valor and morality, a scheming seductress, a revenge-thirsty group of villains, a kingdom in turmoil, a unsolved whodunit and above it all a brilliant history lesson. A master raconteur, Kalki keeps the reader hooked throughout using several narrative ploys, timely cuts across the multiple storylines, a non-linear time progression and frustrating thodarum cuts leaving the reader hanging in exasperation. I can only imagine how tortuous it would’ve been to read the weekly serial in the 1950s and can totally relate now to the stories I’ve heard of people fighting over who got to read it first. The story has several twists and turns throughout catching even the most perceptive reader by surprise and some mega u-turns too especially when least expected.

It is a commonly appreciated fact that the biggest strength of this novel is in the characters. The serial format gives Kalki ample scope to etch each of them with great depth and detail. They take on three dimensional forms and step out of the novel and live and breathe amidst you as you read on. The central character in the novel is of course Vanthiyathevan. The journey begins and ends with him. He is quite the atypical hero who wins you over with sheer charm. Thirumalai aka Alvarkadiyan Nambi is one of the most fascinating characters in literature and was the absolute favorite of mine. The eponymous Ponniyin Selvan who is all goodness, charm, mischief and valor personified, was of course the one I fell in love with. The sadness in Aditya Karikalar’s story broke my heart. His story is Kalki’s Greek tragedy.  The women in the novel are all fascinating. The spunky Poonguzhali, the quiet and strong Vanathi and the all knowing, sometime annoying Kunthavai. Nandini is a fascinating character. An enticing femme fatale, perfectly set-up and built as the novel progresses and even the inconsistencies in her actions, as Kalki himself points out in one of his appearances in the novel, are perfectly human. Another character that fascinated me was of course Periya Pazhuvetarayar, for his steadfastness and courage.

Kalki’s language is elegance personified. His prose is never tedious, always measured, with the perfect dollop of poetry and cadence in the words to make it an absolute reading pleasure. His descriptions of the landscapes, of the new floods in the river, of the Buddha statues in Anuradhapuram, of the storms and mid sea cyclones and so many others are absolutely fantastic. The prose is rich in metaphors, and some of my favorites include how he described the sea of people swayed by Arulmozhivarman as the waves of the tide rising to a full-bloom moon, and in another particularly sober and sad moment, compared the gurgle of the water in a rivulet to the sounds of the anklet of a dancer dancing to a sad melody. There are several beautiful and poignant moments in the book. My favorite chapter in the entire novel is the one I named this post after. In the middle of a very grim and tense situation, the future Raja Raja Chozhan and his philosopher and guide sister, Kunthavai are sitting in a dilapidated mandapam with a small nandi in it. Ponniyin Selvan talks with a fire in his eyes about the lands he will conquer, the temples he will build and the giant nandis he would construct and in that moment in their eyes, the nandi in the mandapam grew. Nandi Valarnthadu…and how! It was an absolutely poetic moment for me, sitting in the comfort of the future, knowing of the lands he conquered and the unmatched splendors that he built and having seen the giant nandi at Thanjavur. Goose pimple inducing brilliance! Another one of my favorites is the conversation between Arulmozhi and the Buddhist bikshu which sets the foundation to what is the defining moment and crux of the novel according to Kalki. There is an undercurrent of humor too in several of the conversations and Kalki’s satirical side comes to brilliant display in Azhvarkadiyan and in also one brilliantly written conversation between Poonkuzhali and Anirudhar. Kalki throws several philosophical conundrums on religion, god, belief, astrology, war and human behavior and some of his out looks on them are ahead of his time and truly fascinating.

This book is probably the best lesson in the history of ancient Tamil Nadu which is really not dealt with in great detail in our school curriculum. From learning about the hierarchy of the Chozha dynasty, to the timeline of some of the succession battles between the Pallavas, Pandiyas and the Chozhas, to learning about the religious movements and the stories of the temples built and lands conquered, it is provides an absolutely fascinating slice of the history. I must shamefully admit that I hadn’t even heard about Sibi or the Thiruvalangadu copper inscriptions before this. The book also is a great geography lesson on the course of the Kaveri, and we cover the wealth and abundance of Tamil Nadu as Vanthiyathevan makes his journey from Veeranarayanapuram (modern day Veeranam) through several landmark towns all the way to Kodikkarai (Point Calimere). Along the way, Kalki tells us about the temple deities, the stala puranams and the devarams/pasurams that have been sung in their praise. I was especially moved by Sundaramoorthy Nayannar’s song lameting the desolation of Kuzhagar Kovil in Kodikkarai. I have resolved that one day I will do the Ponniyin Selvan tour of the temples and landmark towns of the novel like several people in the PS forums do. Kalki introduces the readers to several pieces from Tamil literature too through his various characters: a lot of the characters quote from the Thirukkural several times, Azhwar pasurams were through Alwarkadiyan and thevarams through Amudhan. Unlike my father, I am from a generation that was not exposed to this wealth of literature, and a lot of the thevarams and pasurams I know are from my carnatic music listening or in the rare occasion that it features in a Thalaivar padam paatu :P  Surprisingly of the very few pasurams I know, my favorite which is the  Chera king Kulashekara Alwar’s, Sediyaga Valvinaigal, featured not once but twice in the novel! It is a truly beautiful poem of devotion.

Reading this novel has piqued my interest and passion in the history, literature and heritage of my language. That to me is Kalki’s greatest gift to his readers. Which is why, while I am quite apprehensive about the Mani Ratnam’s upcoming movie and even put off by some of the casting choices, I am happy the movie is being made. It will make more people in my generation pick up the book. The past few years have seen a kind of Ponniyin Selvan revival with a lot of my friends reading the book in Tamil, and I hope they like me will agree that the book has opened doors for them to go back and take a better look at their history.

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Filed under books, Carnatic music, Reading in Tamil

மலர் உதிர்ந்தது!

He invited me to a journey through the boundless ocean of time travelling in the boat that is his imagination and what a journey it has been these past 10 months! To say I finished a mammoth masterpiece of a novel is a misstatement – the novel consumed me. Very quickly into the reading process, it became beyond achieving a personal goal, trying to reach the end, figuring the story out or solving the mysteries. It became a soul searching and defining experience for me, where I found out more about my roots, found a renewed pride in my history, and now a yearning to learn more. To talk about this almost spiritual experience, we need to go back to the beginning of it all to get to how reading Ponniyin Selvan became what it was for me.

Ponniyin Selvan and Me:

The first I heard about Ponniyin Selvan was through my father who thinks it is one of the greatest novels ever written and rightly so. Not having really studied Tamil formally, and reading at the speed I did then, it never occurred to me that I will ever read it one day. I was perfectly fine with hearing nuggets from my dad from time to time. The next encounter, was sometime in middle school when the serial was being run again in a magazine and this neighborhood akka was totally into it. She would tell us about the nail-biting finishes to each chapter and as this was before the mega-serial era I never understood then that feeling of cutting the rope off when you are right at the edge of the cliff. It wasn’t until I was in college that I even considered reading the novel. It was around the time the English translation came out, and a bunch of my friends were reading it. UR would tell me all about the dashing Vanthiyathevan and how gripping the story was. I went to Eshwari one weekend to find it and Pazhani told me it was out in circulation. He then went on to ask me if I read Tamil, and once I hesitatingly answered in the affirmative, he proceeded to tell me that no matter how good the translation is it is nothing like reading the original for the sheer magic in Kalki’s writing. That somewhat became a defining moment in this journey for me. I decided that day that I will either read it in Tamil or not at all, which at that time was somewhat stupid cause bird in the hand and all that, but in retrospect seems like a very good decision :) I never asked for the English versions again, and went on to regular reading in English as always (CBD and Scott Fitzgerald were two authors I distinctly remember discovering in that period). I never made any effort to source the Tamil book or try to read it either. Where does a giddy 19 year old have time for a 2400 page Tamil historical novel!

Kalki and Me:

Growing up, I had always know of Kalki as a freedom fighter, activist, journalist and friend of MSS and Sadasivam  :P Later in that glorious Carnatic summer, when I began reading and learning more about the Tamil Isai movement, Kalki’s role in it, Karnatakam –Kalki’s music critic hat, I became very intrigued by this wonderfully multi-dimensional personality. It wasn’t however until I heard this song in the album Maaya (from the Madhirakshi team) that I was totally enchanted by his words and I resolved to read his works. The first book I read was the short story collection compiled by Gowri Ramanarayan, and the Kalki I met there was not the one of the devout surrender in Poonkuyil or even the Kalki I later discovered in PS. The cynical, satirist and humorist that I found in that collection does peak in sometimes in PS. But the Kalki I met, adored and worshipped in PS, is the one who holds your hand and says, come with me and I will show you the wonders of your history and ancestors, I will show you the beauties of your language and the wonderful heritage and pride that comes along with being Tamil.

 

Reading Ponniyin Selvan :

The reading was not very easy for me in the beginning. I started multiple times and wouldn’t move beyond the first chapter deterred by the pace and strain of reading in Tamil. I needed to get hooked to the story to be able to motivate myself to read and at the end of April 2010 I discovered this. San-Fransisco Bay-area illirundhu Sri kept me great company while I wrote my thesis. I will be eternally grateful to him for providing the initial impetus for this effort and the first volume I went through almost entirely as an audio book. Around that time he was still doing the reading of volume 2, but by then I was hooked and motivated enough to read it by myself. A toddler taking her first steps out. My mom had brought me the books by then and so reading became easier too. I love my copies of the book-they are not the published versions in the book format but bound collections of the magazine print from the late nineties with Padmavasan’s illustrations (bagam 3 alone is the original Maniam version!), bought from the same Pazhani!  Another motivation for me was my father, who on hearing that I was reading the book, proceeded to re-read it himself and finished the entire series in the time it took me to read 10 chapters- grrrrrrrrrrrr. The second volume I read fairly quickly as it introduced some of my favorite characters and also, besotted as I was by then by Arulmozhivarman from all the build-up given, when he finally made his appearance, I fell in love instantly! The third one was a little more tricky, as just as I was in the middle of it, packing, moving etc took total control of my life and by the end of it all after a two month gap my motivation was significantly diminished. That was when Sri came to my rescue again and the rest of the third book was audio book-ed again. The fourth book was quick and thrilling. It is very cleverly written where Kalki puts in all the set-pieces in place for the grand finale. I read it in what I thought then was a record two months. The finishing volume, though the longest, is also the thriller perfectly designed for the short-attention spanned current generation readers. It was utterly un-putdown-able.  I read it in little over a month, and the only reason the last 5 chapters took as long as they did was because of the WC. Trying to express the joy I felt on reaching the last line of the mudivurai strains my stunted vocabulary. It was an extremely emotional moment. Close to what I felt on Saturday but not quite the same :)

One of the greatest goods to have come out of this is the fact that my Tamil reading has become fast enough now for me to take that plunge into reading in Tamil more regularly and read all the works I have always wanted to. Sujatha’s “Srirangathu Devathaigal” is first on my list. I am really excited at the prospect of reading Balakumaran, Jeyamohan, Ambai and all the authors I have heard so much about.

And to my readers out there, if you haven’t read the book already, pick up your copy now! I will urge you to read it in Tamil if you can- the cadence and beauty of the language does not translate. Sri’s audio books are awesome if your reading is not up to it. Only if you don’t follow the Tamil, pick up the translated version which is pretty good too and fairly faithful to the original. To reading bliss!

P.S-Since this post has already gotten too long, I will save my thoughts on the book itself for the next one.

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Filed under books, Music, Reading in Tamil