I’m finally done with reading my first big tamil novel – Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy. My interest in the novel was first piqued when Arjun mentioned it to me and said it was amazing. I looked it up and found that the novel is split into five large books. I was lucky to find hard-bound tamil copies of all five books at my university, and hence had the pleasure of reading the epic on paper instead of on screen. What a journey it has been!
Kalki is a master of storytelling and he takes us on a journey filled with political intrigue, adventure, and romance. The story revolves around Vallavarayan Vandhiyadevan, a young, sprightly, quick-talking warrior prince. He is a close friend of the Chola crown prince, Athitha Karikalan, who charges him on a secret mission to get a scroll to his sister, princess Kundavai. The king, Sundara Cholar, is sick and rumored to be on his death bed. Confusion breaks out as to who should succeed him as king, as every character in this epic has their own idea as to who that should be.
My favorite character in the book is Vandhiyadevan. In fact, I could devote an entire post to describing his character. He is intelligent, quick-thinking and charming. At one point in the book, the King, impressed with Vandhiyadevan’s wit, exclaims that the Godess of Learning Saraswati resides on his tongue. It is a pleasure to see Vandhiyadevan work his way out of the various holes that he gets himself into over the course of the novel. He lies left, right, and centre, and makes up stories as he goes along to suit his purpose. After meeting Arulmozhi Varmar, the youngest Chola prince (also called Ponniyin Selvan, after whom the book is named), he resolves not to lie anymore, and this was a sad point for me, because his inventiveness and stories were an essential part of Vandhiyadevan.
Each character, not just Vandhiyadevan, is well etched out as Kalki takes us inside their heads and shows us what they are thinking. And yet, he keeps us in the dark enough to build suspense throughout the chapters and lead to a nail-biting finish. At certain points in the book, you literally cannot put it down. Kalki is also adept at describing things in the most creative manner possible. Let me borrow some words from The Drunken Monk‘s blog post on this book:
Kalki’s genius is out in the open, where he says Cauvery is the woman of Tamil Nadu who goes to meet her husband, the big sea, and is sent by the other women of Tamil Nadu with Sarees as porandha veettu seedhanam on Aadi Perukku and as she nears her husband, her eagerness to reach him makes her spread her arms which grow multifold to hug her beloved (distributaries of the river as it reaches the estuary). Ponni, as Cauvery is called, with the Sun’s rays on her, gives the impression of a blue Saree with golden streaks over it with the green trees on either banks forming the borders. A man with a top angle view of nature alone can bring forth such creativity into his words.
This is simply one instance where Kalki excels. One of my favorite examples is the scene where Vandhiyadevan first meets Kundavai in the palace gardens.
He saw her face for the first time. The sight immobilized him, and he looked and looked at her face. In between them, there was a flower, and a butterfly landed on the flower. Kundavai looked at the butterfly and smiled. But Vandhiyadevan had no eyes for the natural flower, his focus was on the human flower in front of him.
As he gazed at her beauty, the little waves from the stream stopped. The birds stopped singing. Everything stopped moving.
Vandhiyadevan and Kundavai looked at each other and felt the love that Adam must have felt for Eve, and since then passed down through generations. They knew in their hearts that their entire lives were building up towards this one meeting, this one moment.
You could go on and on like this. For example, when Vandhiyadevan meets Kundavai after a long time, he is lost in the beauty of her eyes. Kalki describes this sweetly as the bee that goes in search of honey and upon finding a honey pot, drowns in it. No blog post is enough to list all the incredible descriptions that Kalki uses. You could read the book just for that.
But even if Kalki was not the master of description, the book would still be an enjoyable read for the plot. Kalki takes you on a rollercoaster ride through politics and it is very hard to predict what will happen next in the novel. He had me thinking on wrong paths at several points. At the beginning of the novel, we hear of this prophecy:
A son like Vishnu himself will be born to this girl. Her husband will have to overcome many obstacles and problems. But there are no obstacles for her son. Everything he plans will succeed; every undertaking will lead to victory; everything he touches will become gold; everywhere he goes he will win and conquer; all lands he lays his eyes upon will come under the Chola rule. The goddess of victory will always be with him. His country will earn fame in the three worlds. His clan will earn undying glory!
As the novel proceeds, you learn of several events coming together to prevent this from happening. The reader is lead to carry on to find out if this will come true!
Due to the depth of characters, you find yourself rooting for certain people. You feel annoyed when they act contrary to what you had thought they would do, and feel anguish when it looks like they are getting into trouble. It has been a long time since I read a book that made me invest in the characters at such a level, and shows what a master Kalki is at the art of storytelling.
Having read the d’Artagnan Romances by Alexandre Dumas, I could not help but draw parallels between the two great works. Vandhiyadevan reminded me strongly of d’Artagnan – they have much the same character with the same love of adventure, battle and wit. Thirumalai, who is the chief spy in the novel, reminded me of Athos at times. But the largest similarity is the femme fatale in both works – Nandhini and Milady de Winter. The characters of both these strong, beautiful, seductive, intelligent women is strikingly akin to each other. They are both primary antagonists in each novel, and both use various agents to carry out their dirty work. The chief difference is the romantic angle between Nandhini and Vandhiyadevan. Both novels are supreme works of art, and you are left wanting more at the end.
The five parts of the novel have some interesting patterns. Each of the five books starts and ends near a river or the ocean. Rumor has it that Kalki drowned in a river as a child, and hence this preoccupation with water bodies. The Drunken Monk also notes that each book begins and ends with a storm in the hearts of one of the major characters. The 5th book is somewhat nostalgic, with Vandhiyadevan returning to the same spot that the first book starts in, and ruminating on the events that have taken place over the past 8 months. Curiously, Vandhiyadevan’s journey in the story and my own in reading this book took almost the same amount of time, and hence the title
The critic in me does not rest until he finds fault with everything, and this book is no exception. Though the ending of the 5th book is supreme, and the nostalgia that Kalki sets up is wonderful, I could not help get the feeling that Kalki was rushing things a bit. For example, Poonguzhali’s sudden reversal after holding an opinion for majority of the novel was very jarring. One would also expect that Arulmozhi’s decision would cause massive uproar and not be taken as lightly as it is. When you are nearing the thrilling end, Kalki sometimes takes time out to tell us about Appar and the history of the Cholas. I found these deviations annoying. But barring these minor nits, this ranks among the best books I have ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone interested in a historical fantasy-adventure-romance novel. And if you can, try to read it in the original Tamil version.
For those interested in reading the book, you can find the tamil version online at Project Madurai in both HTML and PDF formats. Pavithra is translating the novel as a work-in-progress at her blog here. Her translations are excellent, and retain the flavor of the original. If you cannot wait for the whole thing, I found one complete translation in PDF format.