Kalki’s historical novels deserve to be called classics, as they continue to be popular years after they were first written.

Some years ago, a professor of English in south India got around to organising a four-day seminar titled “On Creating a Modern Classic”. Everything went well till the third day when a professor of English from Singapore declared the title was absurd. How could a work be a classic before it is created?  Even more absurd was the term ‘modern classic’. To be called a classic, a work has to be time-tested, and should be at least 100 years old. He shattered the composure of all the participants who had read papers earlier and those who were about to.

There are hundreds of examples of works being extremely popular soon after they were published but being forgotten in less than 10 years. In 10 years, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote so many books that the resultant pillar, when the books were stacked, was taller than the tall writer. Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susan, Arthur Hailey, Irving Wallace and Mario Puzo were once read by all ‘up-to-date’ men. Now, even shop assistants may not be sure if there were authors by those names. Maybe Mario Puzo is an exception. Because Marlon Brando is still remembered.   

In 1941, it would have been impossible to think of the popular Tamil weekly, Ananda Vikatan, without writer Kalki and vice versa. Both Kalki and S.S. Vasan, the proprietor of Vikatan, were nationalists and expert communicators but differed in certain matters about making the readership grow. Vasan thought crossword puzzles were a legitimate means of attracting more buyers and subscribers. In India, The Illustrated Weekly of India and Sunday Express were running puzzles successfully with no complaints about the organiser’s conduct. Ananda Vikatan lodged the correct answer of each puzzle in a sealed cover in a bank and the envelope was opened a day after the last date. But their parting of ways occurred not because of puzzles but due to the manner Kalki, the executive editor, reported that he would be unavailable for an unspecified period because he was offering satyagraha. Even then, Vasan asked why he hadn’t informed earlier. Kalki’s reply was that there were editorial staff who could manage the magazine in his absence. Vasan said, “Then you better resign and go.” He had given Kalki a free hand all along ato fill the pages of his magazine week after week, even to banter with his critics.

Kalki started a magazine in his own name soon after his release from the prison. He then began a lifelong project of writing historical novels. Though it is said he had Sivakamiyin Sabatham in mind for 12 years, it would have been an afterthought while his first historical novel, Parthiban Kanavu, was progressing successfully. Sivakamiyan Sabatham began on New Year’s Day of 1944 and concluded in 1946. His earlier historical had three parts, Sabatham had four. The denouement was, in many ways, like that of Alexandre Dumas, but Kalki added classical dance, sculpture, medieval devotional poetry to embellish his story of a prince falling in love with a dance-adept commoner. Of course, it could not materialise in a marriage and, to cap her misfortunes, she is abducted by a powerful enemy king. The prince is crowned king, marries a princess and, as a father of two, sets out to take revenge. He defeats the enemy and releases the dancer, who then dedicates herself to the service of god.

Since its publication, the novel has been serialised again and again in Kalki and as a book in a number of editions. Kalki’s four historical romances have been popular successes and it is surprising that, in 2012, it occurs to two young translators to render Sivakamiyin Sabatham in English. Pavitra Srinivasan had a release function for the first of the four parts, but Nandini Vijayaraghavan has got all four parts translated and published. One can’t find fault with either, but Nandini’s volumes are better edited.

The majority of Indians don’t know much about the history of south India and these translations should evoke curiosity about it. On reading Karthik Narayanan’s five-volume translation of Ponniyin Selvan, another of Kalki’s historical novels, Aravind Adiga said that he felt comfortable about the rich heritage of Tamil Nadu.

Sivakamiyin Sabatham is a fictional account of two great emperors of the South. Both the Pallavas of Kanchi and the Chalukyas of Vatapi (now Badami) were great builders and have left behind extraordinary rock sculptures. Sivakamiyin Sabatham is a tribute to our past. It may not be a modern ‘classic’, but is certainly a time-tested popular classic!

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