Posts Tagged ‘Tamil literature’

I haven’t read a book in my native language Tamil in a while. So I thought that before I forget it completely, I’ll read a book in Tamil  I decided to read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘ (Ponni’s Son) by Kalki.

Ponniyin Selvan‘ was first published in the 1950s, when it was serialized in Kalki magazine. It was probably the first (or one of the first) historical novels in Tamil and it got great acclaim and a huge fan following when it first came out. It led to a whole historical-fiction-industry in Tamil, when everyone and their brother and sister started writing historical novels. I think that craze died sometime in the 1990s.

I first read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘ when I was in school. It was reissued again  in Kalki magazine. We used to read a couple of chapters every week and then wait for the next week’s issue. The story ran for nearly three years. A few years back, one of the publishers decided to publish the book in the format in which it originally came out in the 1950s, with the same font, and the illustrations by the original artist. When this edition came out, I got it. It was beautiful. That is the one I am reading now. I finished reading the first volume today.

What is the story about? Well, ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ has a long, epic, rambling plot. It is a historical novel set at around 970 C.E. It is about the Chola king and queens and princes and princesses and their friends and enemies. It has everything that one would expect in a historical novel – many characters, intricate plot, conspiracies, palace intrigues, romance, war, amazing adventures, secrets from the past, charming characters, spies, badass villains, many surprising revelations. The influence of Alexandre Dumas is deeply felt in Kalki’s book – there is a young man, Vandhiyadevan, who looks like D’Artagnan, there is a beautiful woman, Nandini, who looks like Milady de Winter, and there is even a minister like Cardinal Richelieu. Of course, the actual plot and characters are different and fascinating in their own way.

One of the things I loved about the book is that it focuses on the plot and the characters. There is a lot of charming dialogue, but there are no long monologues or boring descriptions. There is rarely a dull moment in the story. Another thing I loved about the book is that, the author gives the required historical background, whenever it is required for a better understanding of the story. He doesn’t push the historical background into the footnotes or into the notes at the back of the book, but provides it in the middle of the story. That way he makes us learn history on the way and I loved that. Another thing I loved about the story is that different characters in the book quote classic Tamil poetry, and they follow it up with a commentary on the poem. Sometimes a poem has mythological allusions which are not readily apparent while reading the poem and the author, through a character’s voice, explains them. It was fascinating to read.

I read the book for the first time when I was fifteen and now when I am reading it again after many years, my reading experience is totally different. For example, when I read it the first time, I unconsciously classified the characters as good and bad, the way we tend to do when we are younger. But reading it now, I realized that the way Kalki has depicted the characters, they are complex and imperfect and fascinating. The bad characters are not really bad, and the good characters are not really perfect. It is fascinating how we see a book with new eyes, when we read it again after many years.

The artwork in the book by Maniom, is very beautiful. It has a classical, vintage feel to it. I’m sharing some of my favourite pictures from the book, below. Hope you like them.

Left : Vandhiyadevan ;
Middle : Aazhvarkadiyaan
Left : Nandhini ;
Right : Vandhiyadevan
Palace sculpture
Palace sculpture
Left : Vanathi ;
Right : Kundhavai
Left : Vandhiyadevan ;
Right : Kundhavai

Hoping to start the second volume later today 😊

Have you read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘? Do you like re-reading your favourite books? Do you relate to them differently when you read them again?

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Lakshmi’s was one of my mom’s favourite Tamil writers. Many women from my mom’s generation grew up reading Lakshmi’s books. Though my mom loved other writers too, there was a kind of veneration, a reverence that my mom and other women from her generation felt for Lakshmi. There was a reason for that. Lakshmi wrote books which had strong women characters who were inspiring. She singlehandedly increased the female readership in Tamil by many times through her stories which were published to much acclaim. She did it in the late 1930s / early 1940s, when a woman Tamil author was rare or unheard of. In addition to all this, she was a doctor. She started writing stories during her student days in medical school and continued till the end. My mom had told me about this memoir of hers, many times, and I had wanted to read it for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

Before I read the memoir I thought that Lakshmi was from a privileged family and that is how she could go to medical school, and after finishing college, she got married and became a homemaker and she started writing as a hobby and became successful. Every one of those assumptions turned out to be wrong, of course. There was a reason I thought that, because I have seen many highly educated, talented Indian women – doctors, lawyers, scientists, bankers, PhDs – do this. But still, I was an idiot to believe in those assumptions. Lakshmi shows in her memoir why.

Lakshmi’s memoir has two parts. The first part starts from 1921, when she was born, and continues till the time she finishes high school and pre-college and enters medical school. The second part covers her years through medical school and ends a little after that, sometime after the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the first part Lakshmi talks about how she grew up in her grandparents’ home and how her grandparents brought her up during her childhood, because her dad was away studying. This part of the book depicts a beautiful, fascinating picture of the India of that time, an India which was conservative, kind and casteist, an India which was filled with patriarchy, misogyny, colourism and love at the same time. It is the kind of world which defies modern simplistic descriptions and definitions. To share an example from the book, when Lakshmi’s father wants to send her to school, her grandmothers and aunts vehemently oppose it, saying that a girl doesn’t need an education. Lakshmi’s father defies them and sends her to school. That is, the women oppose the girl’s education, while the man encourages it. When Lakshmi finishes elementary school and has to go to middle school, there is only a middle school for boys nearby, and that school has never had a girl student and so refuses to take her in. Lakshmi’s father fights for her cause, and somehow gets her into that school. This battle for education continues till pre-college, and Lakshmi’s father fights every step of the way for her. Then Lakshmi gets into med school, which is a huge accomplishment for a woman from her generation. But after that, her father flip flops. One day he is encouraging, another day he asks her to wind up things and come back home and take care of the family. Lakshmi’s life is very uncertain during this period, as she doesn’t know whether her education will continue or end suddenly. Her father, from the supporting champion he was, turns into the opposite and tries to undermine her.

Through the course of the two volumes, Lakshmi tells us about her family members, friends, teachers, inspiring people she met, strangers who were kind to her. She tells us things, as they are, in a non-judgemental way, but in a gentle, loving tone. She describes how she became a writer – because she wanted to support herself when she was a med school student, as her dad couldn’t afford to pay the fees – and how writing stories and connecting with people through them has enriched her life. She also describes the Madras of her time, and it looks very beautiful and glamorous, filled with cool people that we would like to meet, very unlike the Madras of today’s time. It almost feels like the film ‘Midnight in Paris’. She also talks about the Independence movement and how things were during the Second World War.

The book ends with Lakshmi graduating from med school. She was a successful writer and a doctor for more than forty years after that, but that is not covered in the book. The end of the second volume seems to imply a third volume, but unfortunately that was not to be. I wish we had atleast one or two volumes after this which described her literary career, her years in South Africa, how she got married (her two younger sisters got married before she did, which is rare in India even today, but almost unheard of during her time), her experiences with the movie industry when her story was adapted into a movie. Unfortunately, that is not to be, and this is all there is. I feel sad.

I loved Lakshmi’s ‘A Writer’s Story‘. It gave me goosebumps, and it is one of my favourite reads of the year. I wish my mom was still around so that I could discuss it with her. It belongs up there with the memoirs of R.K.Narayan and Kamala Das, among Indian memoirs. I wish it gets translated into English. It deserves more readers.

I read this for ‘Women in Translation’ Month.

Have you read ‘A Writer’s Story‘? What do you think about it?

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I have been feeling for a while that I am ignoring some great literature from my own language, Tamil, and so I thought I will read more Tamil books this year. I also thought that I will read more Indian literature in the original (if I know the language in which it is written) or in translation. Sometime back when I was having a conversation with one of my friends, she said that Sujatha’s ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’ was one of her alltime favourite books. When I had a discussion on this book with another friend of mine, who is a connoisseur of Sujatha books, he told me that it is a wonderful book. After two strong recommendations, I couldn’t resist reading this book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.



What I think


Before sharing my thoughts on the book, a few words on Sujatha himself. (Yes, it is a ‘he’). Sujatha is one of the leading authors in Tamil. In these days, when writers stick to writing books in one genre, he was a real allrounder. He wrote crime novels, murder mysteries, literary fiction, science fiction, plays, feminist novels, screen plays, historical novels, short stories, essays on diverse topics, nonfiction books on science, modern translations of classical Tamil literature – in other words, the works. He was an inspiration for generations of young men and women. I have read some of his crime novels and murder mysteries and books and essays on science when I was a student. I didn’t know then that his work was so diverse. All thanks to my friend, the Sujatha connoisseur, for introducing me to Sujatha’s diverse works.


Now about ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’. I am finding it difficult to translate the title precisely – it roughly translates to Magnolias fill the bank’. The story is about a young man named Kalyanaraman who is different from the average young person. While everyone around him is trying to study engineering and medicine and law and get a good job and get married, he studies literature and music. Then he goes to a village to do research on folk music. While in the village he meets a beautiful, dark village belle called Velli, and falls in love with her. Unfortunately, she is engaged to a handsome young man from the village called Marudhamuthu. Kalyanaraman meets children, old women and different kinds of people in the village and he finds poetry in their everyday conversations – the way they use poetic language to describe everyday things fascinates him. When children play hide-and-seek, they use poetry to decide who will hide and who will seek. When gossiping about neighbours and telling old stories, people of the village use poetry. While Kalyanaraman soaks in the atmosphere of the village and its culture and its folk traditions, a new person arrives in the village. She is a beautiful, young city girl called Snehalatha. She says that she is the local Zamindar’s grand daughter. She has come to see her grandfather’s house and stay over for a few days. Kalyanaraman becomes friends with her. But he also discovers that there is more to her than meets the eye. He finds that she is hiding something from him and is also indulging in mysterious activities with Marudhamuthu. An affair seems to be developing between Snehalatha and Marudhamuthu, which gives Velli a lot of anguish. Then Kalyanaraman discovers a secret diary of the dead Zamindar’s dead wife which seems to talk about a secret treasure. Then the annual village festival happens and the ‘Villu Paatu’ concert, which is about an avenging angel, stretches till the middle of the night. Then there is a murder and all hell breaks loose. Who is killed and why and the identity of the murderer and whether the treasure is real and what is the part magnolias play in the story are revealed in the rest of the book.


It is difficult to classify ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’. From one perspective it is about folk music and village culture and the contrast between the village and the city. From another perspective it is a murder-mystery. I loved the cultural references Sujatha makes in the story and the way he paints a picture of small-town South India of a particular time. For example, in one sentence at the beginning of the book, Sujatha describes how Kalyanaraman pays Velli, for carrying his luggage from the station, ‘without knowing about the local economy’ – in the sense he pays an amount which is not much for him but which is far more than what a village person would expect. In other places, Sujatha describes how a black swallow’s voice seems to be in F-sharp, how all village street dogs are called Mani, how an old village lady’s sharp nose and toothless smile were attractive. There are other such interesting fine observations sprinkled throughout the book which bring joy to someone who has lived in the India of the ‘70s and the ‘80s. The book is also sprinkled throughout with folk songs. Sujatha has done his research and fills the book with actual folk songs, depending on the context. There are songs for every occasion – love, betrayal, revenge, adultery, family life, the harvest season and every other topic under the sun. I wish the publishers had recorded these songs with folk musicians and sold it along with the book. One of the interesting things that I found in the book was the description of the paradoxical sensibilities in villages, how people are conservative and liberal at the same time. For example, how people value money and power and technology a lot, but they are also very superstitious, how they are liberal about man-woman relations but they are also conservative about women’s clothing.


I liked ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’. I liked the first part, which is about folk music, more than the second part, which transforms the story into a murder mystery. But I liked the book overall. I wish I had read this book when it came out in serial form.


If you want to buy this book, you can do that here. Unfortunately, it is available only in Tamil.


Have you read ‘Karaiyellam Senbagapoo’ or any other books by Sujatha? What do you think about this book or about other Sujatha books?

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