Book review: Ponniyin Selvan

As much as I’d like to write the title as ‘பொன்னியின் செல்வன்’, I’ll have to live with just ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, the translation of Kalki Krishnamurthy‘s original by C.V. Karthik Narayanan. Although I can read Tamil, reading such a huge epic would take a significant part of my lifetime, and most importantly I just know the alphabet, not what most words would mean, especially when the author gets descriptive.

As far as epics go, this is EPIC. It was written for the Tamil weekly Kalki and appeared as episodes for close to 3.5 years, from 29th Oct 1950 to 16th May 1954. The story spans 5 parts, of which the fifth has two volumes. Each book is around 300 pages long, making it around 1800 pages. Some of the pages contain illustrations, usually an artist’s view of the character most prominent in a particular chapter or an event. Not entirely unlike the kinds you see in ‘Illustrated classics’ etc, these are for serious readers and are not as frequent.

The story is set in 10th century AD in Tamilnadu during the reign of the Chozhas. History records that Aditha Karikalan, the crown prince and son of Paranthaka Chozha II (aka Sundara Chozha) was killed in 969 AD. No one knows how he was killed or who killed him. The story of Ponniyin Selvan (eponymous with Raja Raja I or Arulmozhi Varman), traces the events leading up to the murder of Aditha Karikalan but staying true to history, leaves you guessing as to what happens at the moment of the death, even though the author takes you right into the room where he is killed.

After that, much chaos ensues as attempts are made to crown Arulmozhi Varman, the brother of Aditha Karikalan the emperor as Sundara Chozha decides to retire. The last part of the story deals with whether he ascends the throne or not. The family and ascension tree given at the beginning records that Maduranthaka Uttama Chozha, who is the cousin of Sundara Chozha becomes the emperor after Sundara Chozha and rules for 15 years, so we know what happens, but the story deals with how it happens and with enough twists to surprise.

It is set over 8 months from the beginning of the monsoons, the month of Aadi(July) till the month of Thai(January-February), and along with the changing seasons, the changing fortunes of the empire are mapped out as they come close to all-out civil war as the rains gather force, with cyclones and rivers flooding the plains before a pleasant winter sets in as things cool down and Ponniyin Selvan takes control of happenings.

Like any epic, there are a huge number of characters, some of them Pandya conspirators, some on the side of the Chozhas. Different people with different motives which keep fluctuating and remain unclear drive the story in different directions. The story mostly revolves around Vandiyathevan, a warrior in the ranks of Aditha Karikalan who come to Thanjavur with a message for the emperor and the sister of Aditha Karikalan. Along with another delightful character called Azhwarkadiyan Nambi, he stumbles from one adventure to another, mostly ending up in the wrong place at the right time and somehow extricating himself from his troubles. He gains the confidence and trust of Ponniyin Selvan and his sister whom he ends up marrying at the end.

Azhwarkadiyan Nambi is a Veera-Vaishnavite spy and his debates with Shaivites and Advaithins over who is the greater God are seen throughout the novel and mark his entry into the scene most of the times, and the author does present most of the debates. The story stays true to undercurrents of the time like the Saivite-Vaishnavite frictions and passing mentions of people from the North-west of the country invading the North of the country and destroying temples and looting kingdoms.

The descriptions of TN during the monsoons are beautiful and he paints a superb picture of the place. The story uses a lot of rivers as reference points as most of the important cities those days are set near rivers. Part of the story takes place in Sri Lanka and he goes into detail describing the Stupas and Buddhist paintings in places like Anuradhapuram etc.

As far as historicals go, it stays true to known history and does not take any liberties with it, although historical characters are part of the storyline and are as real in the story as the Pandavas in the Mahabharatha. It stays a superb read, although a tad long and paints a good picture of the life and times during the reign of the Chozhas at the turn of the millenium. Although long, it reads fast and is difficult to put down as the author switches deftly between different threads at different places using Cyclones and floods as timeline reference points before bringing them all together whenever needed.


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