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Vol. XXVII No. 18, January 1-15, 2018

Recalling Ponniyin Selvan


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The publisher’s note It was in 1996 that Karthik Narayanan suggested we publish Ponniyin Selvan in translation in time for the centenary. I thought to myself: five hundred chapters… 2,400 pages? The equivalent of at least ten of the short novels I was editing for Macmillan’s Modern Indian Novels project of translations with the support of the MR.AR. Educational Society.

“What’s it about?” I asked and, without once breaking stride or fumbling for expression, KN narrated the story of Ponniyin Selvan and as he did, I was drawn, like so many thousands before me, to the magic and drama of Kalki, one of the greatest story-tellers of our time.

“Who will translate such a work?” I mused.

“I will,” said Karthik with perfect confidence. That was the first step. Then I turned to other practicalities and anything that looked like a mountainous difficulty simply powdered before us.

With the assurance of support by the MR.AR. Educational Society, work on the project began. There followed three years of collaboration on what I call the Gone with the Wind of Tamil Nadu. Karthik introduced me to Kalki and I can truthfully say that I spent so many happy hours following the fortunes of Vandiyathevan (so like D’Artagnan) that I wondered what I’d do when the work was over.

A year later our celebrated illustrator joined the team and we had endless discussions about what he had to leave out! Once it was known that the translation was underway, not a day went by without a call from a stranger or an enquiry from an acquaintance, “When will it be ready?” Excerpts published in the Literary Review of The Hindu spread the news even further and bookshops began to ask when they might place orders.

Karthik freely handed over his scripts for re-workings and revisions and never once hesitated to take a decision when we came unstuck, always and instinctively keeping in Kalki’s shadow. A tireless re-writer of his own work, it was he who said that, following the author, (and though it would sound odd to readers who did not know Tamil) we should use variations of the same name to indicate the attitude and relationship of the speaker to the person referred to. Hence, for example, the different presentations of the same name “Chozhar” and “Chozhan”, “Aditha Karikalar” and “Aditha Karikalan”, in both cases the first variant being the respectful form of address.

Before I saw the first lot of chapters I thought to myself: Surely, we can abridge some of it, used as I was to the style of seralised novels with the novelist recapping situations and plots and even him/herself as the novel progressed. But to my amazement I found that not a single line this great novelist wrote could be taken out because a hundred pages later (in Kalki’s life a few weeks) that line would hook neatly into some conversation or incident. Perhaps, the most memorable of such lines (not that I tried to take this out!) is Sendhan Amudhan’s “She who gave birth to me is a great soul but an unfortunate woman” (ch 23). Two lines later he explains why he thinks she is unfortunate, but readers who know the story will know what a loaded sentence this is because in it lies the secret of Sendhan Amudhan’s origin and future.

There were so many small incidents and coincidences connected with the smooth progress of the work that my curiosity about the original grew. When did the first chapter first appear in print? Six months before I was born and in the same year that Ilango, our illustrator was! A few months before our book went to press, a highly motivated local theatre group, The Magic Lantern, staged a dramatised version of Ponniyin Selvan. Had they known, when they chose the play, that the centenary was two years away? No. They had just thought that the ecstasy of sacrifice that lay at the heart of the novel was a fine note on which to close the 20th Century. Karthik, Ilango, and I talked about very little else. “I think Kalki has decided that the time has come,” said Ilango. And so it had.

– Mini Krishnan

The translator’s note

It is now widely acknowledge, that Kalki was the first Tamil writer who used the ancient history of famous Tamil dynasties and the region as the background of attractive stories. Ponniyin Selvan, which deals with the life of Rajaraja Chozhan, is the last of the three great novels, the other two being Parthiban Kanavu and Sivakamiyin Sabadam.

The best historical writing requires not only a precise knowledge of the incident or facts that laborious research has collected, but the capacity to weave the matter as so to form a lasting fabric which discloses character and motive. Imagination is thus no less necessary to the writer of novels as it is to a historian. In both cases, it has to be used with restraint and judgement. A novel, which is not true to life, will kill itself. Facts woven round an attractive story are better grasped and remembered than when given as dull narrative of the conventional historial type.

It is this aspect of Ponniyin Selvan that fascinates me, when I started reading it in serialised form, ever since it first appeared in Kalki magazine. I used to wait anxiously for the weekly to appear at the doorstep and grab it before the others. It was a voyage of discovery which subsequently made me appreciate the diversity, the richness and depth our culture, tradition, art and religion.

Translating Ponniyin Selvan has been a real labour of love. Every time I flinched during the exercise, the impish Vandiyathevan, the conniving Azhwarkadiyan, the fascinating Nandini, the majestic Kundavai and all the other characters appeared before me enthusing me with their conversation and arguments.

A number of friends expressed concern whether the translation will ring true to the original. At the same time, a lot of them who read the excerpts which appeared in The Hindu were quite appreciative. If this translation can reproduce even a minuscule portion of the grandeur of the original. I will feel satisfied.

– Karthik Narayanan

We remember KARTHIK NARAYANAN with these notes on the most significant work he did.

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