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Ponniyin Selvan – Volume 1

by Venky

(Image Credit: http://www.goodreads.com)

“Amarar Kalki avargalin Ponniyin Selvan Mudhalaam baagam (Pudhu Vellam) Mutrirum” (The immortal  Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan Part -1 (New Water) ends thus). My most excruciatingly slow read has also been my most satisfying – ever. I am always of the uncompromising belief that a movie adaptation can never be compared to, and can never mete out justice to the underlying book. Thus when I took my father (a connoisseur of Tamil and a person allergic to cinema theatres) to the movies for a viewing of Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus “Ponniyin Selvan”, I was not at all surprised or taken unawares when my 83 year old filial companion transformed himself into an epitome of incendiary emotions. Mumbles, grumbles, grunts, groans and cribs later, he not only registered his official protest, but also claimed that my unbridled enthusiasm was on account of my deficiency in not having read the legendary Kalki’s crowning glory.

Thus chastised, I decided to dust away the first of four volumes constituting ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ off the shelves and give it a read. Self-taught and never having had any formal education when it came to my own mother tongue, I stumbled, scrambled and stuttered through the first volume. The saving grace, however, was the unstinting support and succour lent by my pleasantly surprised father to my spontaneous endeavour. The discreet soul that she is, my mother almost went about her chores donning a helmet unable to bear the torture of witnessing and hearing her son slaughter a pristine language.

As and when I gained momentum (thank goodness for small mercies), the activity altered from being a mere endeavour to a fascinating experience. The intrigue jumping out at the reader from every page and passage lent a mesmerizing feel. The extravagance, emotions, exaggerations, ebullience and exuberance enveloped me in a thrall that cannot be justifiably described. Kalki’s historical fiction that revolves around the once invincible Chola Empire is an unparalleled masterpiece that has no comparison either in its sweep or in its wake.

The much decorated and vaunted Chola Kingdom presided over by an ailing Sundara Chozhar is imperiled by a dangerous concoction of external aggression and internal treachery. While the heir apparent Aditha Karikalan is busy putting his dreaded sword and reliable lance to deadly effect by ravaging the Rashtrakutas and Kalingas, his younger sibling Arulmozhi Varman has his hands full annexing the land that is Sri Lanka. While the two brothers are engaged in a bloody exercise of empire expansion, a scheming faction within the Chola kingdom spearheaded by two brothers, Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar and Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar is busy plotting to unseat Sundara Chozhar and replacing him with Maduranthagar, the son of Sundara Chozhar’s departed brother. To add to the woes of the Cholas is the extraordinarily beautiful and singularly scheming Nandini who is seeking unhinged vengeance over the murder of her ex-husband Veera Pandyan at the hands of Aditha Karikalan.

But the cynosure of all eyes and the primary protagonist of Kalki’s endearing book is the cavorting yet courageous, playful yet poised, confident yet cautious, Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan. Vanthiyathevan is entrusted by his friend, Aditha Karikalan to deliver a message to emperor Sundara Chozhar and his sister, princess Kunthavai on the potential threats that the Chola kingdom is facing. His altercations and alliance with yet another master spy, Alwarkadiyan Nambi makes for riveting and absorbing reading.

Kalki’s description of events, epochs and elements is just jaw dropping. Whether it be the description of the lineage of the courageous Chola dynasty commencing with the redoubtable Vijayalaya Chozhar, the founder of the imperial Chola dynasty – and who apparently wreaked havoc on the battlefield, perched atop the shoulders of two lieutenants  even when divested of both his legs – and concluding with an ailing and debilitated Sundara Chozhar, or the acumen of brilliant women such as Kunthavai Devi and Sembiyan Mahadevi (the wife of King Kandaraditya Chozhar, a patron of the arts and empress of the Chola Empire from 949 CE – 957 CE), Kalki just bosses the plot like an absolute Capo!

If the attention to detail is breathtaking, the paradoxical juxtaposition of exaggeration and tempered narrative is astounding. The idyllic romance between Vanthiyathevan and Kunthavai sizzles with an undercurrent that makes the hair stand on the nape of the reader’s neck. The unhinged brutality of Aditha Karikalan, triggered by a ghost of the past that releases sparks of lightning from his piercing eyes has the reader reeling back in desperation.

The book brings to wit every conceivable human foible and strength. The inimitable character of Alwarkadiyan Nambi alone accomplishes more than what whole books in themselves strive to do. Intrigue, irreverence and incandescence characterise every move of this able spy who puts to utter disdain Michael Western, Napoleon Solo, and George Smiley combined. Adroit, accomplished and astute, Nambi is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent.

While I tend to concur with my father about the precocious worth of Kalki’s masterpiece, I still prefer to be in deference to Mani Ratnam’s courageous attempt. This feat has had the marvelous impact of sending a multitude scurrying to learn more about an immortal epic, which unfortunately runs the risk of being relegated to a few loyal memories. For this achievement alone, Mani Ratnam and team deserve all accolades and I am sure my discerning father will concur.

Volume 2, bring it on!

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