Sunday, July 02, 2023

A Soaring Triumph of Storytelling

 Kalki’s beloved Ponniyin Selvan is a sprawling Tamil epic, that since its serialized publication in the author’s magazine in the 1950s, holds a special place in the hearts of Tamilians and continues to captivate modern readers. A stupendous feat of storytelling, the novel explores a turbulent period in Chozha history. The ageing emperor, Sundara Chozha is bedridden after a stroke has deprived him of the use of his legs. Ominous portents seen in the sky foretell momentous events. The ailing King’s eldest son, Aditya Karikalar has won a tremendous victory against the Pandyas, their traditional rivals, after beheading their King, Veerapandian. He is the obvious choice to succeed to the throne. But the Apathuvadigal, elite bodyguards of the slain King have sworn vengeance, aided by the exquisite Nandini, who has a personal vendetta against the Chozhas. As the wife of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, who along with his brother hold the reigns of power in the Kingdom, Nandini is well placed to strike. Meanwhile, the Pazhuvettaraiyars are conspiring to place Prince Madhurantakar, Sundara Chozha’s elder brother’s son on the throne, convinced that Aditya is too volatile and his younger brother,Arulmozhi Varmar, whom history venerates as Raja Raja Chozha is too unconventional.

Kalki spins an enthralling yarn that is a soaring triumph of storytelling. It is filled to bursting with memorable characters like the impish Vandiyadevan, through whose eyes, we witness the intrigue, adventures, and romance aplenty in this epic saga. Kalki is also famed for his powerful female characters like the Princess Kundavai, who is clever, resourceful and a game changer in the political landscape and fan favourite, Poonkuzhali, the daring boat girl. The author had a penchant for combining historical facts with fiction and blending both to create a truly magnificent tale that keeps the reader hooked from the very beginning and begging for more at the conclusion of every chapter.

Nandini Krishnan has an uphill task in her English translation of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan as she strives to recapture the magic of the original and present it in a contemporary format for today’s readers, without losing the charm and essence of the masterpiece. Her efforts are a triumph and First Flood, Book 1 is masterfully crafted with loving attention lavished on every nuance. Krishnan meticulously stitches together the narrative, taking care to retain the descriptive beauty of the Tamil text which goes a long way in evoking the grandeur of the past, the lush beauty of a land held in the multi-limbed embrace of the River Goddess,

Kaveri, the lives of a hardy people from a harsher age who nevertheless loved, laughed and fought their battles just like us and bringing to life an important chapter in the history of the Tamils. Her retention of Kalki’s love for onomatopoeia and verses in Tamil are lovely touches. Her readers will no doubt be grateful to her for throwing open the doors to a glorious realm made accessible by Kalki and beg for more instalments in this excellent series.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

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