Kalki Krishnamurthy: His Life and Times — more than just a biography

The English translation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s life is important because it is almost a chronicle of the first half of the 20th century

Published - April 07, 2022 06:22 pm IST

Kalki Krishnamurthi.

Kalki Krishnamurthi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

More than four decades after it was first published, Ponniyin Pudhalvar (Ponni’s son), the definitive biography of Kalki R. Krishnamurthy – an influential figure in Tamil socio-cultural space – has been translated into English.

“I wouldn’t have translated it if it had only been a biography of an individual or about a single person’s life” says Gowri Ramnarayan, Kalki’s grand-daughter. The 900-page Tamil biography by Sunda (MRM Sundaram) “is a chronicle of the first fifty years of the 20th century,” she says.

Published as two volumes, the English translation is titled Kalki Krishnamurthy: His life and Times, and it happened purely by chance.

“During the lockdown, I was reading aloud the biography to my sister and brother in the U.S. on Zoom. When we had crossed the tenth chapter, we realised that this had to come out in English. It was more than a biography; it was a historical chronicle. A mere literary biography would not interest anyone beyond Tamil Nadu. But this book was a saga of India.” So, Gowri’s siblings offered to raise funds for the project and Gowri, a journalist and writer herself, took to translating it.

While outside of Tamil Nadu, Kalki might merely be remembered as the author of Ponniyin Selvan, a magnificent historical novel that the mighty M.G. Ramachandran once unsuccessfully attempted to make a film on, a task now being attempted by director Mani Ratnam, he was much more than that.

Versatility was his forte. If his novels like Thyaga Bhoomi (later made into a film by the same name) were intended to kindle the spirit for the freedom struggle against the backdrop of a personal crisis in an orthodox Brahmin family, historical works like Ponniyin Selvan captured the imagination of Tamil society like none other.

Along with Rajaji, Kalki ran a magazine to propagate the idea of prohibition. He was a journalist and writer, translator and editor, and, of course, a freedom fighter who went to prison.

Sunda’s biography captures the essence of Kalki’s expansive persona without compromising on any aspect, and does this in his own voice, as well as the voices of many others.

As Gowri points out, the description of Kalki’s village Poongulam has been taken from Kalki’s own description in three different short stories. Sunda brings in a wide range of people, those who worked with Kalki, those involved with him in various struggles, and also Kalki’s opponents, both literary and political.

“Sunda has quoted from souvenirs, books, diaries, and letters. It is almost like seeing a film, a pageant. It gives you a sense of history,” says Gowri. “In that sense, Sunda’s biography is a wealth of information on Kalki’s works. It hardly quotes from Ponniyin Selvan, but there is everything else — his short stories, novellas, his political and reformist writing. It gives you an idea about all his work.”

A challenging task

“It was difficult to translate the plethora of voices, the intensity, and finesse,” says Gowri.

“I am not a trained translator, but as a journalist we always translate people we speak to in the language we want to write in. But to translate a work of this magnitude, to do justice to it, was a huge challenge. Because the biography has different voices and different languages. Sunda’s own language is dense and urbane. Kalki’s, quoted extensively in this biography, flows like the Cauvery. Then there is Rajaji’s language, that is stark and sparse. Sunda brings in many people ranging from the scholarly to the casual to present who Kalki really was. The plethora of Tamil styles in this biography is daunting. Kalki’s humour is also very difficult to translate. I don’t know if I have done justice to it, but people who have read it say I have.”

The book.


Gowri says these were the challenges any translator would have faced while on this work, but Sunda’s biography had a special set of challenges.

“For me, this work was both literature and history. That made it more difficult. When I finished translating, I felt an instinctive sense of tremendous reverence for translators across the world. They do the work just for the love of it.”

Also, what worked for her as a translator, Gowri says, is that the Tamil original was not a hagiography. “It honestly doesn’t say Kalki is the greatest man on earth. It was factual and credible. And I did not translate anything I couldn’t check out as facts.”

In writing about Kalki, Sunda wrote also about a country in turmoil and its valiant struggle for identity. This translation will now help it reach wider audiences.

The hard-bound two-volume work can be ordered at: https://www.kalkibiography. com/

The writer is a Chennai-based independent journalist.

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