Ponniyin Selvan is a hard not to know novel if you are a Tamilian. If you aren't, you might still have heard about it in the past few years due to much publicised English translations and dramatic on-stage retellings. At 1,400+ pages, 5 full volumes and researched over a 3 year period across India and Sri Lanka, Ponniyin Selvan is famous Tamil author Kalki's most ambitious and fulfilling work, a magnum opus, historical fiction possibly at its very best from this part of the world.
Over the years, people who have read the book have told me how it has haunted them. My mother and uncles are Ponniyin Selvan fanatics, using passages and lyrics from the book series while talking in normal terms, discussing and revelling in the beauty of tenth century Tamil Nadu. My mother claims that the protagonist of the book, Vallavaraiyan Vandiyathevan (VV) has a statue of his own under the famous Gemini flyover in Chennai. There is a statue of a man controlling a horse on that spot no doubt, but it isn't clear whether the then TN Government was inspired by VV in installing the statue or whether it was simply a statue signifying abolishment of horse racing in the state.
I have been afraid of picking this book up. The very thought of traversing all those pages in Tamil (mine own mother tongue) has had my knees bending in fear and hands shaking in nervousness. Anyway, early last month, I decided that, if Kalki had been ambitious enough to write such a novel, I sure can set my ambition a bit lower and at least achieve the goal of reading the novel. So, here I am, a month later, in front of you, my dear reader, having read, gotten absorbed and fallen absolutely and irrevocably in love with Ponniyin Selvan. It is perhaps a book I don't deserve, having denied myself the pleasure of this beauty for so many decades now, but that doesn't stop me from passing on some of my happiness to you.
Ponniyin Selvan is set in tenth century, during a period when the Chola dynasty was at its peak and working towards eventual magnificence 100 years down the line. It recounts incidents across an 8 month period when Sundara Chola was reigning over a large part of modern day Tamil Nadu (extending from Chennai to Thanjavur and beyond), and covering a bit of Eezham (Sri Lanka) too. While the book primarily revolves around Sundara Chola, his sons Aditya Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varman, and the drama and politics surrounding the succession to Sundara Chola's title, it does extensively reference the immediate past generations (starting with Vijayalaya Chola) and also the early Chola period (referencing the famous Manu Needhi Cholan and Sibi Chakravarty). The early Chola stories strive to establish the fairness and justness with which the Cholas ruled, a key theme that keeps recurring across the novel's mainstay incidents too. The book also acts as a setting stage for Raja Raja Cholan, one of the most famous kings from the Chola dynasty, attributed with having built the Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple and expanding the Chola dynasty to as far as Malaysia. VV, the protagonist, works for the elder Chola prince, Aditya Karikala but eventually establishes friendly relationships with the younger Chola prince, Arulmozhi Varman (who later goes on to become Raja Raja Cholan), and also gets romantically linked with their sister Kundavai (a) Ilaiya Piratti.
I am no one to review this book, but I am going to use this space to share my observations, rationalising why this book attracts such fandom and fanaticism even today.
1) Deeply descriptive narrative
Only some authors have the power to narrate so beautifully that you are transported to the setting of the book. In this case, this is no mean feat given the setting is tenth century Chola dynasty, resplendent with palaces and princesses, secret passageways and heaps and heaps of gold coins, warfare on horse backs and from elephants. Kalki does more than justice to this. When he describes the sea and the cyclone, I am in the middle of all of it, about to fall into the sea and die. When he describes the royal court and the women's quarters, I am right there, observing the king in his glory, the princes and princesses in their royal couches and thrones. The description is so real and vivid that I lived inside the book rather than the book living by my side, this past one month.
2) Strong characterisations
While I am a book snob who thinks no movie / series can do justice to the book, the only truth, curiosity has always got the better of me in wondering how a book would translate into the visual medium. However, even when reading this book, I knew it wouldn't be possible to visualise this. Kalki has spent reams and reams of papers in developing his characters, and this is not just through anecdotes of their heroic deeds. Their deepest thoughts are vividly described to establish the greys in their minds, the motives for their actions, and their real emotions at results of their and others' actions. Ponniyin selvan, as the younger prince ArulmozhiVarman, is an embodiment of all things virtuous - truthful, brave, down to earth, loved by the masses and classes equally. VV, the protagonist, is an attractive young man, loyal to his king and princes, street smart when the need arises, confused in matters of women, as human as all of us. The antagonists are also not fully antagonists, they have their reasons to be who they are, they sometimes want to be nice people who are imprisoned by circumstances. How will anyone be able to visualise so much of one's flitting thoughts in a movie without doing major injustice to the book and its characters?
3) Women of substance
The Chola kingdom, like most other kingdoms across the world then, was male dominated. The king was God, armies were full of men etc. However, that did not stop the women from playing significant roles in politics and state craft, acting as key influencers of the men in their lives (husbands, sons, fathers). In that regard, Kundavai, Sundara Chola's daughter, does play a very important role. We also get a glimpse into how much she cares for the Chola dynasty and its victories. More than once in the book, important male characters mention how Kundavai would have been the obvious, rightful and most deserving king in succession to Sundara Chola if she had only been born male. While Kundavai influences the story positively, Nandini is the chief antagonist, and brings about many of the twists, turns and pitfalls to the Chola dynasty. Again, this is a character rich in intelligence, though she uses it differently, under the guise of a pitiable woman in need of help, manipulating men who fall for her beauty. Diametrically opposite to these two women (who already are diametrically opposite to each other) is Poonguzhali, the boat woman. She is the princess of the sea (as nicknamed by Ponniyin Selvan) who is a muscular beauty, and saves the prince and VV on more than one occasion from natural calamities and evil conspirators alike.
4) Real, flawed warriors
Men are macho, men are brave, and male warriors fight and kill, is what popular fiction has us believe, be it the written or visual medium. However, Kalki focuses on reiterating how warriors are real. Many are the instances when these warriors cry, when they realise they have not adhered to the dharma of their work, when they realise they have inadvertently caused mishaps, when people close to them die. There are instances where the elder prince, Aditya Karikalan, rues over how he handled an enemy after combat, how the victory doesn't taste sweet anymore. This realism makes the book that much more endearing.
5) Flavourful and enjoyable story telling
This is no boring treatise on history, no mundane collection of passages extolling virtuous men and smart women, describing an era long dead. The book is a beautiful amalgamation of drama, humour, action and romance in parts. Especially, the skirmishes between Vaishnavites and Shaivites (centuries old and still ongoing) are interesting, educative and humorous. Azhvarkadian Nambi, a staunch Vaishnavite, that being a facade to his spy-job, someone we aren't clear of as to who he works for till 50% of the story gets done with, makes these sequences so much more fun. While friendship is explored deeply (both the younger prince and VV put their lives on the line to save each other more than once), duty to the kingdom seems to be foremost, as evidenced by the actions of Sundara Chola, Kundavai and all other characters loyal to the kingdom.
The author speaks to the reader as if he is an on-stage narrator speaking to a theatre full of audience. For instance, after talking about a particularly disgusting lie that one of the antagonists tell one of the princes, Kalki spends a fair amount of real estate starting with, “I know that you, my reader, would be disgusted with this lie. But, you must understand how this person’s mind was working at that moment and what all they had gone through since birth to have been pushed to this extent,” and goes on to explain, with rationale, why this happened. It is as if the author anticipates the reader’s every reaction and is readily waiting at the turn with the antidote.
I agree with all those good people who warned me before hand. Not only did this book haunt me while I read it, it will continue to haunt me for many more years to come, as it has so many fanatics before me. What a shame Kalki died soon after publishing this wonderful contribution to Tamil literature and history! He never got to know what this book of his did to its readers, what kind of reverence people speak with when talking about this book even today!