Sunday, February 3, 2008

Ponniyin Selvan

One of the best novels ever written in Tamil. One of the evergreen pieces of Tamil Literature. 2600 pages of historical novel strewn intermittently with a few fictitious characters and incidents for the sake of continuity and clarity.2600 pages of classic – absolute classic from the pen of Kalki Krishnamurthy
The writer Kalki with his characters!

I had already read this book during my school/college days when it came in parts in a weekly. I was too young to understand the whole novel, I missed a few episodes in the weekly and the gap of one week was a long time for me to remember what happened the previous week (there was no recap like the TV soaps!)I was only able to grasp and remember the over all story. I had forgotten the nuances and the numerous small plots.

Our Hero - Vandhiyathevan

But this time when I read it, I had decided to read the whole novel in a single stretch. Oh what an experience! What an interesting read! A roller-coaster ride of revenge, anguish, pain, romance, chivalry, suspense, betrayal! The nuances of politics, the details of life style of a bygone era, the beauty of the country side, the definition of a 'town' and 'country-side' of yester years, the political implications of a false rumour – an unputdownable absolute page-turner!

Crown Prince - Adhitha Karikalan

We start the journey with Vandhiyathevan – a prince who is no more a prince, a prince who does not have a kingdom, a prince who has chivalry as his only asset! A penniless prince who is the best friend of Adhitha Karikalan, the Crown Prince of Chola Dynasty. A happy-go-lucky, impulsive, quick witted, good-natured person, who does not hesitate to help a needy, who does not hesitate to get into trouble in the same process and who does not hesitate to lie to wriggle himself out of such a soup! As the novel progresses you fall in love with him. He is the hero of the novel, we experience pain when he is in trouble, we smile contentedly when he lies and escapes troubles, we sympathise with him when he is in grave danger and we forgive him when he falls for the most beautiful, the richest, smartest woman in the kingdom, Princess Kundavai – the only sister of his best friend! He is after all the hero of the story! We, as the readers would have already fallen for him before he meets his soul mate. So we grieve when he is in grief, we enjoy when he flirts with Kundavai!

The Bold and The Beautiful - Princess Kundavai

Vandhiyathevan may be the hero of the story but the story is not about Vandhiyathevan. The story is about 'Ponniyin Selvan' – literally translated means 'Son of Ponni' – here Ponni refers to the river Kaveri – the life line of chola kingdom! A river considered sacred by the people of Tamil Nadu, till this date! And who is this, who is considered the son of a river, who has given his nick name to the great novel? He is the person our history books introduced to us as Raja Raja Chola - the greatest king South India has ever seen. One of the very few South Indian kings who ruled whole of India – right from the Ganges in the north to Srilanka in the south. Ponniyin Selvan is how the people of Chola Kingdom call him with love. He is the pet of everyone – from people in the palace to people on the streets. He may be a young man by age, but he is still a kid for people who love him! He is Arulmozhi Varman, the youngest in the family and apple of everyone's eye – the third sibling after Adhitha Karigalan and Kundavai. He was never expected to rule the kingdom. He has an elder brother who is very brave and able and who has already been coronated as the Crown prince. He dint want to be the King too! He has other aspirations. Travel far and wide! Conquer those places and establish the Chola Rule there! Build huge temples which would defy time and make his name eternal in the annals of history. Ruling a kingdom and the slavery that the Crown brought with it are things he loathes!

Apple of everyone's eye - Arulmozhi Varman

But we know, that he did rule, he went on to become a great administrator! One South Indian King who is fit to be called an 'Emperor'.

Why did this happen? Did he take up the role of the ruler willingly or was it thrust on him? If he became the ruler what happened to the brave Crown Prince? Come, Read the novel and Find the answers!

The Venomous Nandini

The Quiet Vanadhi

A little bit of research into the history of South India would perhaps give you the factual answers for the above questions. But you would miss the style of Kalki. His narration! You would miss reading about a few beautiful women - Nandini, the seductive beauty who with just a glance is capable of 'alluring' any man who sees her; Vanadhi, the quiet beauty who successfully woos Ponniyin Selvan by her silent and sincere love for him; Poonguzhali, the wild beauty who is wilder than a lioness, the uncontrollable storm, a normal boat-lady but who calls herself the Princess of the Ocean and who lives up to that name and at last Manimegalai, the black beauty who has already given her body, mind and soul to one person – our hero Vandhiyathevan!

The Bhishma of Chola - Pazhuvattarayar

The Lakshman of 'the Bhishma'

The Wise Minister

You would miss reading about a few great men – Periya Pazhuvettarayar, the grand old man of Chola Dynasty, one of the bravest men of his times who unfortunately becomes the worst victim of Nandini; Chinna Pazhuvattarayar the younger brother of this grand old man, a la Bharat for Sri Ram; Anirudha Brahmarayar, the clever minister, legend has it that there is nothing in the Chola Kingdom that this Minister does not know; Azhvarkadiyan, the disciple of the minister, the state spy, and our hero's best friend during his adventures and at last Sendhan Amudhan, the quiet young man, a devout Shiva Bhaktha who is ready to sacrifice the entire kingdom for his love for Poonguzhali!

The Princess of the Ocean

The Princess of our Hearts

You would also miss the style of Kalki, his descriptions when two of his favourite women characters – Nandini and Kundavai come face to face (Wow! What exchanges they are! A smile would involuntarily appear across your lips when you read the dialogues that are spoken between the two!), his love for the Land of Kaveri – the lush green fields, the richness of the Empire, his version of what Arul Mozhi Varman would have thought before he became Raja Raja Chola! And you can't but help agree with Kalki that if a prince became such a great emperor in the future, then this is how he should have thought! This is what would have gone through his mind so that he was able to create such wonders as the 'Tanjore Big Temple'. At the end of the novel, you can't but feel proud of Raja Raja Chola and respect the Emperor for what he was! Thanks to Kalki Krishnamurthy's inimitable story-telling!

The Big Fight!

The novel is based on facts; Kalki gives historical proofs in the form of references to scriptures, coins, copper engravings that have been excavated in various parts of South India. But the 'screenplay' is fictitious. The missing links in history have been told as a very beautiful story. What an imagination and creativity this writer has had!

The omni-present spy

The pious lad

You literally emote with the characters in the story and that is the success of this story-teller. You got to read it to understand it! You got to read to enjoy it!

Trivia1: I think this novel was considered among the dream projects of Kamal Hassan, to be made as a movie. But I strongly feel, this novel is best left as it is! One should only read it and interpret and imagine it according to one's own imagination. If made as a movie, it will only be the interpretation of one person, which will fall short of people's expectations! I would personally not want to see this movie as a commerically flop one for it's beyond the plagues of commercialisation!

Trivia2: This novel first appeared in the weekly Tamil magazine 'Kalki' with illustrations by Maniam. It ran for almost three and a half years. And from then till now, the magazine Kalki has published this novel in its weekly from time to time with illustrations by various artists including Vinu, Maniam Selvan (Maniam's son), Padmavasan. When I read this a few years ago for the first time, the illustrations were by 'Padmavasan'. The illustrations you see here are by Padmavasan which accompanied the story when it was published in the weekly a few years back.

Note: I can't call this a book review. I am a very small-time reader to comment or give a review about Kalki's books. This is just my experience. The joy I felt on reading Ponniyin Selvan.