In the land of the mountain king

An emperor bedecked in a jewelled crown and silk dhoti who left his golden chariot to not disturb a jasmine creeper that got entwined on its wheels — this is how our history books depict Paari. But writer Su Venkatesan’s Paari is a tribal king; broad-shouldered, long-haired, and moustachioed, he’s a man of Nature; one who knows the birds, animals, insects, and plants of the mountains he ruled, like the back of his hand.

Venkatesan told the story of the Velir king as a series that ran for over 100 weeks in Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan. The concluding piece of Velpari was published on November 29, 2018. The series, that’s being brought out in book form by Vikatan Publications, was recently launched in the city.

In the land of the mountain king

The Madurai-based writer also has to his credit the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novel Kaval Kottam (2008). A portion of the historical novel that traces the history of Madurai, was made into the Tamil Film Aravaan (2012). Velpari has been in the making for over six years now; this is no surprise, given the scale of Venkatesan’s research — he pored through Sangam poetry and travelled extensively to tribal settlements of the Western Ghats.

“Paari was the head of one among the 14 tribal clans that ruled the Western Ghats, ranging from Goa to Kanyakumari,” says Venkatesan. “It was because he ruled a mountainous terrain, that the Cheras, Cholas, and Pandiyas couldn’t defeat him, despite their combined efforts,” he adds. The story’s soul — the conflict between Nature and man’s greed — is particularly relevant today. “Loving Nature, and striving to protect it, are two sides of a coin,” he says.

In the land of the mountain king

In Velpari, the lines between history and fiction are blurred. While history supplied him with a rich base to work on — Sangam literature, which, according to Venkatesan, is among the most nuanced works that details the flora and fauna of the time — it marries fiction somewhere along the way. The man cannot stop raving about Sangam poems. “They are treasures. A simple line will speak volumes. For instance, savour the term ‘sirukann yaanai’ (the small-eyed elephant). That single reference tells the reader that elephants have small eyes,” he says.

The 46-year-old has been travelling with tribal people for the past 15 years to learn about their lives. “This contributed to 50% of Velpari’s research while the rest came from reading modern anthropological and archaeological research on Sangam poetry,” he explains. Artist Maniam Selvan, son of the legendary artist Maniam, has illustrated for Velpari. “He worked with such dedication,” notes Venkatesan.

Father of two girls, Venkatesan often finds himself deep inside his stories that he forgets what’s around him. He remembers how when he wrote Kaval Kottam, his young daughters ran in and out of his room at his home in Thirunagar, Madurai, and he simply kept writing. They’re older now — his youngest is 16 — and he shudders to think how much of their growing up years he’s lost out on.

“Oh don’t remind me,” he says, when we ask of the father-daughter moments he missed. “Just when I’d finished Velpari, I thought I’d go somewhere with my children. But they were at their grandparent’s then,” he says. “I wondered if this was how my life will be; if I can achieve something only at the cost of something else.” It’s too early to ask what Venkatesan’s next work will be, for he says it’ll take a while for him to leave the world he had created for Velpari.

Velpari will be available at the Chennai Book Fair and at book stores from January 4.

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 9:28:12 AM |

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