On First Reading Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan

I consider myself an handsome reader in English having studied in an English medium Boarding School from my first kindergarten school days, in the late 1960’s. As a consequence, I evolved into ‘thinking in English’, as the way my brain goes about its business, internally processing, translating ad outputting into other languages, as required.

I’ve read, and keep reading, as many books as I can, and as often as possible. It all started with Enid Blyton’s, Famous Five; Captain W. E. Johns’s, Biggles series; James Hardly Chase’s, Never Love a Stranger; Alistair MacLean, The Guns of Navarone; Louis L’Armour’s Western Novels; Oliver Strange’s, Sudden series; P G Wodehouse’s, Jeeves and Blandings stories; Leo Tolstoy’s, War & Peace; Boris Pasternak’s, Doctor Zhivago; Sidney Sheldon’s, Master of the Game; Frederick Forsyth’s, The Day of the Jackal; Robin Cook’s, Coma; Ken Follet’s, The Eye of the Needle; Michael Crichton’s, Jurassic Park; Jeffery Archer’s, Kane & Able; Ayn Rand’s, Fountain Head…and the many fabulous Novels (E.g.,Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Vide; Donna Tartt’s, Gold Finch) of these times.

I’ve hardly read in my mother-tongue, Tamil, by choice, but never shied away from grabbing a read in the yesteryear popular magazines — Kumudam, Kalkandubeing my favourites. I’ve read the weekly episode stories of Chandilyan, who wrote historical fiction, and Tamilvannan, who gave us Tamil’s first ever James Bond kind of detective, Shankarlal, to mention a few. Over the years, from my College Days through the Job Working stage my Tamil reading dropped to zero while English reading reached Himalayan heights.

I’ve never hesitated to discuss the books I’ve read with like-minded people and during one such occasion, a few months ago, I was challenged, by a well-read Medical Doctor, to read the Tamil Classic Ponniyin Selvan, written by Kalki Krishnamurty, in Tamil. This is was in the background of the ‘Game of Thrones’ series running on Television — I had read the book version. The good Doctor gave me a copy of the original hard-bounded book, to get going. I hesitantly started and once into the flow of the story there was no looking back. It was a return to my mother tongue. A homecoming.

“I was quickly reminded of John Keats sublime sonnet, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer ‘ and felt about the same:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been,
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse have I been had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his Ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien”

Well, I discovered Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan and in it traveled through the realms of the saga of the great Chola King Raja Raja Chola. After finishing the two borrowed volumes — of a set of five, I ordered my own, from Anantha Vikatan Publishers, and continued reading. I couldn’t put it down; and every evening, after work, found a favourite place to curl-up and read the wonderful story, which had enough twists and turns to give ‘The Game of Thrones’ a run for its throne.

Ponniyin Selvan is a fictional story based on real time historical characters of South India, Tamil Nadu’s Chola Era, when the Pandiyas have been trounced in battle and the Chola Dynasty was beginning to flourish. It’s about the early years of the Chola Prince Arulmozhivarman who becomes the great Raja Raja Chola. When a young boy, when the Royal Family takes a boat ride on the River Cauvery, Arulmozhivarman falls into the River and is saved from drowning by a deaf-mute woman, a once-upon-a-time lover of the King, and lives to swim with the title Ponniyin Selvan — the son of river Cauvery, for the rest of his life.

Kalki breathes life in to the characters, with Vandhiyathevan Vallavarayan,Poonguzhali and Kundavai, almost springing out of the book to sit beside me, while reading: I could feel their breath on my face. The beauty of Nandini shines through the pages as did the spying antics of Azhwarkadiyan Nambi, and the regalness of Arulmozhivarman. The Characters are brought to life by the drawings and paintings of famous Painter Maniyam Selvam, who sketches in each Chapter transport us to the Chola era places, giving us an image to hold on to.

The opening scene of Vandhiyathevan, on the day of the unique Tamil Festival Season of Aadiperukku, Aadi-18 (5th August), carrying a message from his Master, Prince Aadithya Karikalan (elder brother of Arulmozhivarman and next in line to the Throne) in Kanchipuram, to the King Sundara Chola, in Thanjavur, riding his horse on the banks of a fully pregnant Veera Narayana Lake-fed by River Cauvery, is unforgettable. Kalki talks about the fertile richness of the Cauvery Delta region and one can almost smell the paddy fields. Seeing the many messengers physically riding through the story, carrying and delivering messages, I almost reached for my mobile phone to call Arulmozhivarman — to warn him about a danger, or WhatsApp a message to Kundavai to impress upon her, the honest intentions of Vandhyiathevan, to protect the Royal Family.

Many parts of Tamil Nadu seemed accessible by riding a boat on the Ponni (River Cauvery) and a system of canals and lakes to manage floods was a highlight of the period. The Veera Narayana (Veeranam) Lake of the story, for example, had seventy-four canals to take its waters to the Chola Empire’s farmers.

Moving on, a striking character in the story is the truly and absolutely fearless, brave, beautiful, lotus flower-wearing, fiercely independent-minded, awfully skilled, boat-woman, Poonkuzhali, singing her heart out in these haunting lines,

Alai kadalum ooyinthirukka Aga Kadal thaan ponguvadhen

When even the sea and its waves have calmed down, why is it that the sea of my heart is still bubbling over?” She is secretly in love with Ponniyin Selvan who she ferried from Tamil Nadu’s Kodikarai to Sri Lanka and has been smitten by him ever since. The Prince returns the favour by calling her ‘Samudhra Rani’-Princess of the Sea’.

Juxtaposed with women in Ponniyin Selvan, Poonkuzhali is on a league of her own — far ahead of other woman in the story. She effortlessly steers her boat, single-handedly, back and forth across the sea between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, as she does holding on to her unique views. She broke my heart many times over.

The story is told through the eyes of the chivalrous Vandiyathevan, descendent of a warrior clan than once ruled the land. He is almost the hero of the story and secretly finds himself a heroine in Princess Kundavai — the elder sister of the Chola Princes. Their love is told in a very subtle manner leaving much to our fertile imagination. Kundavai is firmly focussed on raising and mentoring Arulmozhivarman to become a great King and expand the boundaries of the Chola Empire, up to the Ganges in the North. She also finds a royal match, Princess Vanathi, for her brother who she hand-holds, trains, grooms and transforms, from an often-fainting girl to a bold and upright woman — to become the wife of her brother. This is to ensure that the goal of making the Chola Empire a great one is achieved, with the right life-partner; and that a royal heir gets made to carry on the job (In fact, the son, Rajendra Chola, or Raja Raja Chola — II out classes his father — Ponniyin Selvan )

The absolutely beautiful Nandhini is the mischievous villain of the story, seeking revenge, with her Father, the Pandiya King being killed — beheaded in front of her eyes by the ferociously hot-headed Prince Aadithya Karikalan. They are actually child hood sweethearts, from very different backgrounds — brought together by Palace circumstances. Their love is a tragic one. Nandhini’s single-minded objective is to exterminate the Cholas and bring back Pandiya Rule. She marries the very much older Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar — the head of King’s Security, only to stay close to the seat of power, to get protection, and plot the fall of the Cholas. Throughout the story, Nandhini keeps her husband out of her bed — while knocking down everyone who sights her (with the lone exception of Vandiyathevan), and I assume, their marriage is never consummated.

The heir to the throne, Aadithya Karikalan, is murdered in mysterious circumstances and Kalki never reveals who actually killed him. The murder gets pinned on Vandiyathevan who musters all his skills to escape the humiliation. Often Azhwarkadiyam Nambi and Kundavai pull him out of life threatening situations. He is also briefly imprisoned for the ‘crime’ he did not commit — vouched by the reader. Who killed Aaditya Karikalan, is something you have to figure out yourself.

In these times of the deadly Coronavirus there is a mysterious illness — for which there is not cure — stalking people in Sri Lanka at that time, and Prince Arulmozhivarman carries the disease to India. When he reaches the Indian shores on a boat steered by Poonkuzhali, and with Vandiyathevan, he is almost given up for dead, but is treated and nursed, in quarantine, by Buddhist Monks in Chudamani Vihara, Nagapatinam, and recuperates after almost (the now mandatory?) two weeks.

There is a twist in the end with Arulmozhivarman gladly offering, sacrificing, the throne to his Uncle’s son, Senthan Amuthan, to peacefully focus on his pursuits of expanding the Chola Empire. He ascends the Chola Throne after fifteen years taking the title Raja Raja Chola-I. Senthan Amuthan carries the title Uttama Cholaand reverts to his real name of Madhuranthaga Chola, discovering that he is in fact the son of Chola Queen Sembiyan Maadevi. Senthan Amutham is in love with Poonkuzhali ever since he knew her and ultimately marries her. The Princess of the Sea, Poonkuzhali actually becomes the Queen — though she despises the royal life! She would have loved to be left to herself and sing her heart out on the waves of the sea, and to the Prince of her heart.

The Cholas of the period followed Shaivaism — worship of Lord Shiva and Raja Raja Chola ultimately builds the great Brihadishvara Temple at Thanjavur dedicated to Lord Shiva. Vaishnavism — Worship of Lord Vishnu was the alternate belief and there was often a constant debate on which one was better. Kalki presents this aspect through Azhwarkadiyam Nambi who doen’t lose an opportunity to debate or pick up a fight, on the issue. He conceals his spying activities masquerading as an ardent follower of Shaivaism.

While reading through the five volumes, Kalki shoots many a shooting star — streaking across the skies — which is interpreted as a sign of something important about to happen. Kalki’s narration takes us through real places such as Kanchipuram, Kollidam, Palayaru, Thanjavur, Madurai, Thiruvaiyaru, Uraiyur (now Thiruchi), Nagapatinam, Kodikarai — the tip of the Tamil Nadu nose — and Sri Lanka.

The story is too good to be told in a two to three hour movie that ace Film Director Manirathinam is attempting. I would prefer that someone makes a Television Serial, running for more than year, to effectively tell the story.

Meanwhile, you should all read Ponniyin Selvan, and could fall in love with Poonkuzhali, or Nandhini, maybe Kundavai. But the light-hearted Vandhiyathevan Vallavarayan is my hero.

Happy Lockdown.

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