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AADISHT KHANNA
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

When it comes to books from Tamil Nadu, why this obscurity di?

very now and then, the parts of India that lie north of Hebbal flyover discover Tamil pop culture. The most recent manifestation was Why this kolaveri di, which has gone so impressively far into the hinterland that I heard it even at a Marwari / Gujarati wedding sangeet in Indore. Before that, there was Rajnikanth-kitsch. When it comes to books, though, there hasn't been much. This is a shame, considering that there's a great candidate: 'Kalki' Krishnamurthy's Ponniyin Selvan, which he wrote and serialised in his own periodical (also called Kalki) from 1950 to 1955.

What is Ponniyin Selvan? The simplest explanation is that it's historical fiction about the Chola dynasty, specifically, the royal succession from Rajendra Chola to his younger son Raja Raja Chola (but with a brief interlude of Raja Raja's uncle Uthamar Chola's rule). That's also a grossly inadequate explanation. The best description of Ponniyin Selvan comes from another book, The Princess Bride, in which the narrator's father explains that the book-within-book The Princess Bride is about: "Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."

Okay, to be truthful, Ponniyin Selvan doesn't have that many spiders. It has all the rest, though.

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As the past eight years have shown us, public renunciation is not necessarily a good thing if it means privately amassing power without responsibility.

alki had learned about the copper plate inscriptions that listed the family members of Raja Raja Chola and a few other nobles of that period. His characters, thus, are real historical figures. The essential details of the succession in Ponniyin Selvan are also historically accurate. But every plot point that links up those sparse bits of information has come out of Kalki's imagination — and it's a saga (the English translation is published in five volumes, and like the Harry Potter movies, the last one is in two parts) full of imagined palace intrigues, regicidal conspiracies, fights against pirates, astrological prophecies, love affairs, and a cyclone. (The Princess Bride never had a cyclone.) The dialogue swashes as many bucklers as the action does. My particular favourite line is "Appane! My sword is thirsty for Veera Vaishnavite blood!" This, I should point out, was the English translation — going by 'punch dialogues' in Tamil movies, the original was probably even better.

Every so often, the cycle of outrage on the Indian bits of the Internet shifts over to the inadequate discussion of South Indian history in the CBSE syllabus. I haven't seen the latest textbooks, but I suspect that South Indian history is mentioned in detail — but as is typical of the NCERT, presented in such a boring manner that nobody notices it exists. Ponniyin Selvan is quite possibly the most constructive solution to this problem. It's hardly definitive or accurate history, but it's an antidote to the NCERT making history as boring as possible. Someone who reads this could easily be inspired to read up on actual histories to find out more about the era. (And also to attend costume parties dressed as Vallavarayan Vandiyathevan, brandishing a wootz steel sword, but that's a separate matter, and honestly you can only pull it off if you first build a six-pack.)

The one part of this saga that did leave me uneasy was the morality and politics. In the last part of the book, titled 'The Pinnacle of Sacrifice', Kalki writes with admiration of the young Raja Raja Chola offering the throne to his uncle rather than sticking up for his birthright. As the past eight years have shown us, public renunciation is not necessarily a good thing if it means privately amassing power without responsibility.

That sour note apart, Ponniyin Selvan is lots of fun and well worth the trouble taken in getting the complete series.

Ponniyin Selvan is out of copyright in Tamil. The English translation is published by Macmillan.

 
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