This is another post after a long break in my blog. But still this was a pretty quick entry to write up. The post which is really long pending is my review on “One hundred years of solitude”. Apart from the novel itself being very dense with a lot of symbolism, I also have to hunt through it for quotes whose location I have forgotten – felt I should have made a note of quotes as I did for “The Fountainhead”.
Coming to this post’s topic, it is the review of the Tamil historical epic novel – Kalki’s “Ponniyin Selvan” (Son of Ponni (Ponni is a river)). I had heard about this book for quite some time – it is arguably the most widely read Tamil novel and though written about 50 years back, it is still very actively read among the current generation of Tamil readers. It deals about the events during the succession of the Chola emperor Parantaka Chola II (Sundara Chola) around 970 AD. It is really an epic novel in characterization and the length – it runs to an amazing 5 volumes and nearly 2200 pages (in a size slightly bigger than normal English novels!).
Though the novel is too big to summarize here, I would attempt a very short summary to the story. During this time, Cholas are the dominant force in the south and their empire stretches from Kanyakumari to the banks of river Krishna and east cost to the Nilgiris. Aditha Karikalan is the crown prince (leading the northern forces at Kanchi) for over three years now, as the health of the emperor gets worse. However, due to some reasons a section of Chola generals plan to bring Madhuranthakar, the younger cousin of the emperor to throne. Vandiyathevan, heir to a now defunct royal family, brings a message from the crown prince for the princess Kundavai and comes to know of this plan and is sent by her to Srilanka to where Karikalan’s younger brother Arulmozhi Varman is leading an armed invasion of the country. On the way, he meets the bewitching Nandhini who is the wife of Chola chief general Periya Pazhuvettarayar (who is aligned with Madhuranthakar) and unknown to her husband is involved with a group of Pandya conspirators who are plotting to destroy the Chola family. The novel builds on the relations between these main characters and many more characters who come in later and finally ends with the succession being resolved in a rather unusual manner.
There are many areas in which I feel that the book is top notch. Below are the few of those.
- Retaining the interest of the reader for this length is itself quite an achievement, for any novel of any genre and Kalki does this with ease. Though I could notice a bit of slowing down in parts 3 & 4, part 5 picks up with more interest than ever. And of course I never felt the story was being dragged (considering that this was first serialized in a Tamil magazine and noticing the current mega serials in T.V!).
- Most of the major characters are real historical characters and many of the incidents are also real incidents. The amount of research that has gone into this is spectacular. Kalki brings alive the Chola world before more than 1000 years, reveals to us ancient Tamil culture and rule and all this without compromising much on historical truths! It seems he has only capitalized on the fuzzy areas of history to makes his own characters and incidents.
- The amazing depth in characterization. All the characters in the novel are truly multi dimensional and in fact nobody is portrayed as a villain! Kalki shows the fallibility and the prowess of all characters, except perhaps Arulmozhi. Here too, he shows that it is Arulmozhi’s nature that he is very gentle and obedient to elders, so this also seems quite realistic. In fact the novel seems to have two equally important heroes, Arulmozhi and Vandhiyathevan. Though the story is named after Arulmozhi (whose other name is Ponniyin Selvan), the narration starts, ends and mostly proceeds through with Vandhiyathevan. There are varied kinds of romances in the story from the matured love between Kundavai and Vandhiyatevan to the mad love of Manimekalai to Vandhiyathevan. This is one of the best, if not the best novel I have read as far as characterization goes.
- Kalki’s style of writing. In this story of betrayals, revenge, love and murder, Kalki succeeds in keeping a gentle undercurrent of humor mainly through the characters of Azhvarkhadiyan and Vandhiyathevan. He also turns the prose enjoyably poetic in quite a few places. And of course there are quite a few songs and poems, some of his own and some culled out from classic Tamil texts. Most touching among these were the song by Poonkuzhazhi (which appears quite a few times in the novel) –
(When the sea of waves is silent, why is the sea of my heart turbulent?)
And the love song of Manimekalai.
Also he handles the narration almost continuously for over 6 months, which is quite difficult to do. He achieves this by focusing the story at some place and then goes back and forth a little in time. Though this doesn’t make the narration non-linear, the effect was quite different.
- Kalki includes so much of historical information that this almost becomes like a historical text! Though the story is about the Chola dynasty which has been flourishing for about 100 years, Kalki takes pains to illustrate the history of earlier Cholas and also the history of some Chola general’s dynasties. He also deals quite a bit on the religion, culture and even food habits of the time! In particular he shows the Saiva – Vaishnava dichotomy in Hinduism very clearly. He also maintains the tone of the novel very objective. Whether it’s dispelling myths of Kollivaipisasu (a form of ghost) or discussing atheism and religious theism at one stretch, this is about the most liberal a historical novel can get!
No doubt the novel rekindles the interest in Tamil history, literature and culture among the people in the current generation and is hence a hot favorite even now. I have personally seen copies of this book getting sold out in a book exhibition when copies of most other novels were still available. In spite of all these, I feel the novel could have been better in some ways. These are not flaws, but I feel the novel could have been even better (though many may not agree with me). I feel the difference especially when comparing this with my other favorite historical novel, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet. This novel tells about the English history from about 1123 to 1174 AD. I feel the following points are worth noting –
- The novel seems to be almost obsessed with happenings in royal household. Most of the major characters are royal characters and even the few exceptions like Poonkuzhazhi and Senthan Amuthan are highlighted only when they interact with the royal family. This is of course not a flaw, but I feel that to reflect more on practical values one could have focused on some commoners. This is where I like the “The Pillars…” more, since it shows a few commoners as the main characters and through them illustrates a range of values. Though this novel also illustrates few values like good governance, true love, generosity I feel it lacks the full range of values as done in “The Pillars…”.
- I personally like an epic novel to span a large time, like 50 years for “The Pillars”. I feel this shows the real nature of the characters as they age and take on more responsibilities and change. However this novel stretches only for about 8 months. Though Kalki tells some history about each character and ends with a note on the future of the main characters, this still doesn’t have the same effect.
- (Spoilers here!) I can’t fully appreciate the climax of the novel, which is the sacrifice done by Arulmozhi – relinquishing the throne to (new) Madhurantakar. At least if he had relinquished it to old Madhurantakar it could be called a sacrifice, since old Madhurantakar wanted the throne badly. But in the climax, when every one wants him to be the emperor, Arulmozhi almost forces new Madhurantakar to be the emperor. This seems more of a shrewd move, of freeing himself for his long wanted expeditions, than a sacrifice to me! Of course, as I have learnt from some articles in Ponniyin Selvan e-group, history could be actually different here, as it is mentioned in some engraving that the Madhurantakar who was crowned as Utthama Chola “wanted” the throne.
To summarize, this is an excellent read for anyone who is even slightly interested in Tamil / Indian history. For a non-Tamil reader there is a complete English translation available here. It seems to be quite a faithful translation of the original.This novel is ideal to be made into a two part or three part movie. It seems the cost is deterring people who wanted to film it, but it's nevertheless a pity that this hasn't been made into a movie. Though there is a related movie by name Raja Raja Cholan, it deals with his life after coronation and it seems to be more of fiction than history.
[Note on history: For those who haven’t found this out already, the novel’s hero Arulmozhi is later crowned as Rajaraja Cholan. He and his son Rajendra Cholan expanded the Chola Empire far and wide by conducting successful expeditions to various places like Srilanka, Bengal, Myanmar, Malaya peninsula, Sumatra and came to be known as one of the greatest emperors in south Indian history. He also built the famous Thanjavur Big temple and later built a new capital for Cholas – Gangaikondacholapuram, consecrated with water from the Ganges. The Cholas flourished for nearly another 300 years, creating a Golden age for Tamil literature and culture, until they finally fell to the resurgent Pandyas by about 1279 AD]