(Image Credit: Ananda Vikatan)
The genius of Kalki is an almost deliberately understated – muted even – brilliance. After almost 450 pages overlaying 2 books, in Chapter 13 (that is prosaically titled “Ponniyin Selvan”) of Volume 2, the author in an incredibly matter-of-fact manner conveys one of the most important (if not the most important) and epochal aspect undergirding the entire epic! Trust the reader to be poleaxed and gobsmacked! One gets a feeling as though one is either walking through a ton of bricks or making contact with a lumbering freight train in full tilt! The greatest revelatory moments are unpretentiously narrated and in an unbelievably unassuming manner. There is no “crescendoing” build up, no fanfare and absolutely no fiasco or fulmination.
At the end of Volume 1, a jilted Aditha Karikalan opens up to his trusted lieutenant Parthibendiran and reveals his litany of woes involving Nandini, the current princess of Pazhuvoor, and the Queen of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, a great warrior who is also in charge of all financial aspects pertaining to the Chola kingdom. Aditha Karikalan instructs Parthibendiran to leave post haste for Sri Lanka and bring his younger sibling Arul Mozhi Varman back to Kanchipuram. In parallel, Karikalan’ s sister, the astute Kunthavai Devi, recognising the threat to the Chola Kingdom from both within and without dispatches the cavalier Vanthiyathevan with a message to Arul Mozhi Varman. The objective being to summon Arul Mozhi Varman to Tanjavur to be the bulwark against conniving schemers who pose a veritable threat to the ailing emperor Sundara Chozhar. Vanthiyathevan takes the help of Poonkuzhali an inscrutable oarswoman and a lady of innate resoluteness. The wily and omnipresent Alwarkadiyan Nambi also gets his way to Sri Lanka as do a bunch of dreaded spies swearing loyalty and fealty to the departed Pandyan King, Veera Pandiyan. The singular mission behind the presence of these infiltrators in the Island nation being the complete destruction of the Chola Empire, beginning with the murder of the cynosure of the entire Kingdom, Arul Mozhi Varman also affectionately known as “Ponniyin Selvan”.
Spies, soldiers, saints and statesmen transform an otherwise picturesque, sedate and serene island into a cauldron of chaos, conspiracy and confusion. While Ponniyin Selvan stands as resolute as a rock standing unmoved in the middle of an ocean in spite of angry waves hurling themselves at it – with some benevolent assistance from a mysterious woman who has lost the faculty of both speech and hearing – Kunthavai is forced to make a journey from her palace in Pazhaiyarai to her ailing father’s abode in Tanjavur. Only her acumen and adroitness can save her otherwise vulnerable father from the devious schemes being plotted by a cabal involving his own Chieftains, and led by the redoubtable Pazhuvettaraiyar brothers. The older of the two brothers, Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, is in absolute thrall to his mysterious and extraordinarily beautiful wide Nandini, who keeps egging and goading him on in his endeavours to unseat Sundara Chozhar. The chapters where the mercurial Nandini and the magisterial Kunthavai size each other up like two brave gladiators assessing one another before a literal fight to the finish make for some blistering reading!
The book ends with a breathtaking and nail-biting escapade at sea that involves a roiling ocean with monster waves, piercing bolts of lightning, gargantuan decibels of thunder, a helpless ship with its mast on fire, and a small boat buffeted by gale force winds like a ragged doll.
If the cavalier Vanthiyathevan was the nub of Volume 1, Poonkuzhali is the heartbeat of Volume 2. Two parts effervescent and one part enigmatic, she is the epitome of bravery and emblematic of resoluteness. An aquatic body who considers the ocean to be her filial protector, she is at home in the middle of a vast expanse of water. Her skills in maneuvering a boat through waters both unruly and uncomplaining are second to none. Possessing a mellifluous and mesmerizing voice, Poonkuzhali is also fiercely loyal to Ponniyin Selvan. Kalki liberally employs poetic license to engage in a riveting hyperbole while describing the scorching undercurrents that simmer and sizzle, every time Poonkuzhali meets Ponniyin Selvan.
The limited-edition Ananda Vikatan release of the 5 volume ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ series, embedding the original illustrations by the magician, Shri Maniam, transports the reader to the setting where the fictional saga unravels. The exquisitely drawn pictures will linger in the minds of the reader, long after the covers have come down upon the book.
As I slowly progress from stuttering, stumbling and stammering, to attaining a semblance of fluency in my own mother tongue and remain obsessively enraptured by the series, I can hear the benevolent ghost of Kalki impishly whispering in my ear, a la, Rajinikanth, “Pogha Pogha Paaru, Kannaa, Idhu chumma Trailer thaan!” (Wait until you proceed further. This is just the trailer)!
Volume 3 – Bring it on!