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Ancient Tamil poem

THE FOUR HUNDRED SONGS OF WAR AND WISDOM: Translated and edited by George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz; Columbia University Press, New York. Price not mentioned.

TRANSLATING ANCIENT Tamil poems for earlier collections, George L. Hart and A. K. Ramanujan have spoken of them as poems of "love and war" for their volumes, equating "aham" with "love". Hart and Heifetz have gone for an elegant variation: Songs of War and Wisdom.

This does not mean a banishment of love from Purananuru, as the present translation of this classical Tamil anthology demonstrates several situations of loving togetherness in emotive contexts.

In fact there are three kinds of love in Tamil, says the note for verse 92: "Kaathal", romantic love; "anpu", the love one feels for those one is familiar with; and "arul," the disinterested love the ascetics feel towards everyone. Here, "arul" signifies the paternal love a father feels for a child.

This poem of Avvaiyar about Neduman Anji comes off with a crystalline movement in the translation, as indeed most of the poems in this fine production are.

Apart from those who do not know Tamil language, even the Tamilian who is not able to go through his old Tamil text with ease, will find the book a wonderful reading experience. Not always pleasant, though.

For, the society-sanctioned violence against women makes one wonder how the Tamil culture could behave so crudely towards one half of the populace. There is the shameful chief, Nannan, who "had a young girl executed because she ate a mango fruit that fell from his royal guarded tree into the water near where she was swimming."

From many of the poems of male heroism we also gather instances of patriarchal chicanery, which made the widow's life on earth a living hell by cutting away her tresses and removing her bangles and inflicting every kind of indignity upon her body and soul.

Not surprisingly even queens preferred death to such continuous dishonour and Perunkoppendu chides those around her for not allowing her to commit "sati" (verse 246):

All you noble men with your perverse planning! 
I am not a woman to endure eating a ball of boiled rice
Squeezed within a hand and left lying overnight on a leaf 
Without a touch of fine fragrant ghee pale as the seeds 

From a curving cucumber striped like a squirrel and split Open with a sword, or to eat food of steamed velai leaves, Nor am I one to sleep without a mat, upon a bed of stones!"

This is indeed dire wisdom to answer the war on women by the male of the species in ancient Tamil Nadu. The glory of battle heroism apart, there is a lot of administrative wisdom in the Purananuru. Poets are to be honoured, the common people guarded gently and taxation should be resorted to judiciously. With the foundation scholarship provided by the priceless editions of U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer and Avvai Duraiswami Pillai, the translators have done well to probe the indeterminate texts in the anthology and have provided copious notes as well along with some new interpretations.

There is nothing in this translated version to indicate that we are dealing with songs that were probably sung to the accompaniment of a lute by the Panar. Perhaps the poems in the Purananuru are themselves not oral, says Hart as "the text is often far too complex to have been extemporized." Poetic conceits and resonant words are avoided. The summaries of the original poems are well done in a down-to-earth language, but the Tamil images are so original that the poetic ilan is unmistakably present as in the "handsome nuts curved like the massive horns of a buffalo" or in Peruncittiranar's wish "that I die in the spiralling of this whirlpool of pain."

Perhaps there is a real danger to old Tamil texts, now that large tracts from them are getting translated into English. We who have studied English literature have given up our Beowulf and the Venerable Bede, now that they are available in modern English translation. Would we be jettisoning Perunkathai and Madurai Tamizh-k-koothanar also at an early date?


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