Recently a student of English literature defended his Ph.D. thesis on Ponniyin Selvan . A question rose from the predominantly non-Tamil audience : “What does Ponniyin Selvan mean?”
“Ponni is a tributary of the Kaveri...” the wrong answer did not raise eyebrows. The ‘scholar’ was conferred a doctorate!
But Ponniyin Selvan , thankfully, was not written to impress or challenge academicians. It was a tale that sprang from the soul of a writer who grew up on the banks of the Ponni or Cauvery and flowed straight into the hearts of the readers, captivating them not just through the characters that strode through the novel but also for the Tamil ethos that the writing so lovingly evoked and firmly established throughout .
The river, of course became the central and silent character. The author Kalki Krishnamurthy had played on its sand beds in summer, when the water shrunk to a ribbon. On its banks, he and his friends had shared their love for poetry — Bharatiyar being the obvious favourite. They had shared their dreams as well and Krishnamurthy’s playmates almost knew that their friend would take to writing. But none — not even the author himself — would have imagined that Ponniyin Selvan would get written. It happened, decades later. By then the writer had evolved, the process defined by the national movement and his association with great literary personalities. The result was a novel, which has remained an ever-green favourite.
Ponniyin Selvan opens with a colourful scene of festivity by the river. It is the Aadi Perukku thirunaal — the 18th day of the Tamil month Aadi — the day when village folks go to the river bank to thank the Cauvery. Also it is a kind of picnic, as they carry food and eat it after paying their obeisance to their benevolent Mother. The protagonist, Vandiyathevan, is riding his horse by the Veeranarayanapuram Lake (now Veeranam). He watches the festivity with amazement and marvels at the foresight of the Chola emperors, who constructed the lake to store the flood waters from the Kollidam. He counts the 72 sluices on the embankment of the lake! We learn later in the story that he hails from a place north of the river — a land of shallow streams and knows not how ferocious a swirl in the tide can be!
When the scene shifts, we find princesses on dainty boats. The author takes the opportunity to dwell at length on how a Cauvery in spate can transform into sparkling rivulets. It is in one such rivulet — the Arasalaaru — that we first meet the heroine Kundavai and her dear friend Vaanathi sailing. They are listening to musicians sing the praise of the Cauvery and other rivers. They musically recite a verse from the Silappadikaaram which hails the river.
To the author, the river appears to be a young bride. She emerges from her source at Kudagu (Coorg) and flows southward, enriching the land along her course. As she enters the Tamil territory with her two outstretched arms (Cauvery and Kollidam), her foster mother (Tamil land) begins to adorn her. She is draped in saris of myriad hues of green. She wears exotic floral jewellery and rare perfumes. As she moves along an emerald tree-lined course, her eagerness to rush into the arms of her ocean lover overcomes her. One pair of hands is not enough for the embrace. So, more and more arms spring along her sides as tributaries. This passionate imagery (eloquent and vivid in the Tamil original) gives way to real and historic facts as the story unravels.
Karikala Chozhan’s foresight in strengthening the banks of the Cauvery, the times when Kaveripoompattinam was a busy port of trade, the bhakti of Aditya Chozha, who built 64 Siva temples along the banks... and much more get documented in the novel, not as bare facts but as information precious to the rulers and the ruled of the later Chozha period. To them, the Cauvery is not only a life source but also the fountainhead of art and culture.
To the author, the Cauvery is a spring board from which he leaps into history and legend. Arulmozhi Varman, who would become the famous Raja Raja Chozhan, almost drowns in the river as a child. The young boy is aboard the royal boat and while the elders are not looking, tries to ‘rescue’ a bunch of Kadamba flowers that is caught in a swirl. In the process, he falls into the river.
Barely has the stunned royal entourage galvanised itself into action, the child is rescued and held aloft by a beautiful woman. Arulmozhi’s father Sundara Chozan swims towards the child and the moment the prince shifts to his hands, the woman disappears. The women are convinced that it was Kaveri Amman, who saved their darling prince. The queen orders a puja to be performed on the day of the incident every year. And Arulmozhi becomes Ponniyin Selvan — the child of Ponni.
The rationalist in Kalki prompts him to establish an identity and a story line for the woman, believed to be Kaveri Amman. The complex story hinges on the mysterious woman who is both deaf and dumb. It is for Arulmozhi Varman to establish the identity of the woman, who saves his life on many more occasions. Her name, Mandakini, is again that of a river, which flows to join the Ganga. Often the Ganga too is referred to as Mandakini. And like the Ganga, Mandakini too is ruggedly powerful, pure and benevolent.
The river flows through the story, now prancing and playful, now stately, now brimming… Intrigues emerge and plots are hatched alongside her course, astrologers predict the future and sorcerers indulge in black magic, princes and princesses romance around her waters while the common folk toil and partake of its bounties. There are also references to important cities along the Cauvery — Kumbakonam, Tiruvaiyaru, Nagapattinam, Kodiakkarai — and these are tightly knit into the plot.
The novel not only records a wild and destructive storm that makes the river swell. But also a drought, when the monsoon fails and crops wither. It recapitulates the wealth of Tamil literature that flourished along the river, it speaks of the men the river groomed and blessed.
Ponniyin Selvan entices the reader every time — as a story of political intrigue and drama. As a story, which makes the heart swell with pride and as a narrative that endears you more and more to the river we already love so much.