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.