Ponniyin Selvan – A Masterpiece from a Master Raconteur

By SI Blog reader Racer44
(Parts 1 to 3)

(For SI readers Boopalanj and Shadowfax_Arbit who first mentioned this tour de force)

Note to SI Readers: I have used the word “Sozha” which I have verified with scholars as being the phonetically correct spelling, as opposed to “Chola”.

Caveat: Before delving into the review of Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki, I would like to acknowledge that my knowledge of other similar historical Tamil fiction novels is limited, having had the good fortune of reading only two more works, also of Kalki, Parthiban Kanavu and Sivagamiyin Sabadham (those too a fairly long time back). Readers should, therefore, forgive me for not including references to what, I hear, are works of similar magnitude such as Sandilyan’s Kadal Pura series and Yavana Rani.


Set in the latter half of 968 A.D and beginning in the month of Aadi (which corresponds roughly to July-August), Ponniyin Selvan is a semi-fictional account of the tumultuous period that culminated in the simultaneously orchestrated assassination attempts on the lives of the then Sozha Emperor Sundara Sozhar and his two sons, the anointed heir to the throne Adithya Karikaalan and his younger brother, Arunmozhi Varman (whose sobriquet forms the title of the epic and who would go on to acquire great glory, take the Sozha empire to dizzy heights and forever etch his name in the annals of history as the Great Rajaraja Sozhan).

From the very outset, Kalki chooses not to follow the oft-tread path, by centering his saga, not around any of these aristocratic men, whose own heroic deeds would easily fill a thousand pages, but around a little-known bold, quick-thinking young man, our protagonist Vallavaraiyan Vandhiyathevan, who happens to be the last remaining descendant of the great Vaanar kulam (clan) who, in their glory days, controlled large swathes of the peninsula and cast terror into the hearts of the Sozhas, Cheras and Pandiyas, his father’s generation having been vanquished, ironically, by the very Sozhas to whom he now swore allegiance.

In fact, a poem composed about a Vaanar king goes:

En kavigai, en sivigai
En kavasam, en duvasam
En kariyeedhu en pariyeedhu
enbare – pankavala
maavendhan vaanan
varisaipparisu petra
paavendharai, vendhar

The poem is an amusing account of how even great kings (Vendhar) had to wait in line to seek an audience with the Vaanar Emperor as they had been preceded by great poets (PaaVendhar) who had already gone into the royal palace. As the kings wait patiently, they watch in a mixture of awe, shock and envy as the tributes they have brought for the Vaanar Emperor, such as jewel-encrusted shields, prize horses and elephants and expensive palanquins are generously handed out by the Vaanar Emperor to the poets with no heed to the expensive nature of these gifts. The poem exemplifies the boundless munificence and large-heartedness of the once-renowned Vaanar kulam.

Having earned the confidence and friendship of the Crown Prince Adithya Karikaalan while serving under him in the Northern Division of the Sozha Army, Vandhiyathevan is entrusted by Karikaalan to deliver two confidential letters, one each to his father, the Emperor who lies bed-ridden at his fort in the Sozha capitol of Thanjavur, rendered unable to walk by a debilitating illness that has its roots in a troubled past, and his sister, the lovely Kundhavai Devi living in Pazhayaarai, once capitol and now home to the ladies of the royalty.

The story thus begins with Vandhiyathevan aiming to rest for the night at the waystation of Kadambur, home to the minor kingdom (one among several in the Sozha Empire) of the Sambuvarayars, whose prince Kandhamaran is a close friend of his. Vandhiyathevan’s curiosity is piqued when he discovers that, on the very night of his stay at Kadambur, the Sambuvarayars will also be playing host to a coterie of minor rulers and chieftains from around the Empire, gathering for a clandestine rendezvous convened by one of the most powerful men in the Empire, the Revenues and Foodgrains Minister, Periya Pazhuvettarayar (Elder Pazhuvettarayar). Circumstances arise that cause him to stumble upon their meeting, and, in a life-changing decision, he decides to spy upon the assembly.

In an atmosphere charged with growing resentment against the two princes (for the elder’s alleged vanity and indolence at the northern front and the younger one’s insistence on shipping foodgrains from home to feed the soldiers fighting under his command in Sri Lanka), and pent-up frustration against an Emperor seen as relying too much on the advice of his daughter and aunt on critical issues of governance, the members of the secret conference soon decide to take matters in their own hands and thus, the seeds of a conspiracy take root, whose stated purpose is to install on the throne the cousin of the present Emperor, Madhuranthakan, once the Emperor, whose demise is said to be imminent, passes away. Vandhiyathevan also discovers, to his mounting dismay, that several previous communications to the Emperor have been intercepted by the Commander of the Thanjavur Fort, Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (the Younger Pazhuvettarayar), and prevented from reaching His Highness.

Kalki’s story-telling skills come to the fore in this segment, as he conjures up the scene in front of our eyes in prose that is, at once pithy and yet, evocative.

Sample this:

“Keezhe kurugalaana mutram ondril, moondru pakkamum nedunchuvargal soozhndhirunda idathil pathu pannirendu paer utkarnthirundhargal. Paadhi madhiyin velichathai nedunchuvargal maraithana. Aanaal oru suvaril padhithirundha irumbu agal vilakkil erindha deepam konjam velicham thandhadhu.

Much like a Lion stalking its prey from behind the long grasses of the savanna, Kalki criss-crosses between the cover of Vandhiyathevan’s feverish thought process and the open space of the narrow courtyard beneath him whose occupants are discussing the fate of an Empire he has sworn to guard with his life.

Now burdened with the twin tasks of delivering his letters as well as alerting the Emperor about the dastardly plot being hatched by high-ranking officers of his Empire, Vandhiyathevan resumes his journey to Thanjavur. While crossing the Kaveri, he chances upon a fellow traveller, a Vaishnavite devotee going by the name of Azhwaarkadiyaan, whom he had previously met during his journey to Kadambu. Azhwaarkadiyaan narrates the sorry tale of how his adopted sister Nandhini was captured by Periya Pazhuvettarayar after being caught red-handed tending to the fatally-injured Pandiya king, Veerapandiyan, during the Sozha-Pandiya war. Veerapandiyan’s head is chopped off at her house, but Nandhini, who catches the fancy of Periya Pazhuvettarayar is taken away and eventually forced to marry the latter and becomes the Pazhuvoor Queen, trapped in a splendid isolation that prevented her from contacting any member of her adopted family. Moved by his plight but unable to offer any assistance, Vandhiyathevan parts with Azhwaarkadiyaan at the opposite river bank.

A salient point to note here is Kalki’s introduction of Nandhini. The character has no basis in history, having its roots only in the fertile imagination of the author. But it speaks volumes about Kalki’s ability to spin a tale when we see that not only is she seamlessly integrated into the re-imagining of what was a recorded event in history, she is also given an intriguing, multi-hued and minutely chiseled persona that elevates her to an inseparable part of the story’s soul.

Coming back to the narration, from here on, it is a complete roller-coaster for the rest of the first part. Suffice to say, Vandhiyathevan, employing all the ingenuity and wit at his disposal, and we find that he is blessed with considerable quantities of both, eventually delivers both of his letters successfully and gives the slip to the notoriously astute and all-powerful Chinna Pazhuvettarayar, but not before being branded an enemy spy and a bounty set on his head. However, his journey is far from over as he sets off on another errand, this time at the bidding of Princess Kundhavai who wishes to summon her brother in Sri Lanka home to discuss the disturbing news she is receiving about plots against the ruling family.

In a parallel track that occasionally references the main one, Azhwaarkadiyaan uncovers wheels within wheels in the form of an underground Pandiya revivalist cabal that aims to subvert the Pazhuvettarayar plans to their own ends, using the erstwhile Nandhini to poison the elder Pazhuvettarayar’s dulling intellect and to siphon off much-needed funds from the Treasury of the very enemy they are fighting.

The first part ends with a brief interlude on the shores of Mahabalipuram, where Adithya Karikaalan, beset by inner demons, reveals to his close friend, Parthibendra Pallavan of his early childhood romance with Nandhini, and how, years later, it all ended abruptly when he himself had come across Nandhini tending to the wounded Pandiyan, and in a fit of rage, ignoring her remonstrances, he had hacked off Veerapandiyan’s head.

The first part is also significant in that it is here that the first tell-tale signs of love appear between Vandhiyathevan and Kundhavai. And it would be remiss on my part to leave out Kalki’s fantastic portrayal of Nandhini, who stands as one of the finest and most impenetrable femme fatales ever encountered in world literature, whose magical beauty laid bare the hearts of all men who were (un)fortunate enough to look upon it, and whose tears had the power to transform lion-hearted men having won many a great war and bearing a hundred wounds as souvenirs into cowering weaklings. None were and none would prove to be immune to her bewitching countenance and silken voice save one man: Vandhiyathevan.

Kalki comes up with a nuanced analysis of the two beauties, Nandhini and Kundhavai Devi, concluding in this sparkling quip from Vandhiyathevan that sums it up in a nutshell.

“Oruvan naragathil vizhappogiravanaai irundhaal, avanaith thaduthu niruthi Kundhavai Devi Swargathukku avanai kondu poi serthu viduvaar. Adhu oru vidha Sakthi. Nandhini enna seivaal theriyuma? Avaludaiya sakthi innum orupadi maelaanadhu endrae solla vendum. Naragathaiyae Swargam endru solli saadhithu, adhai nabumbadiyum seidhu, naragathil santhoshamaaga kudhikkumpadi seidhu viduvaal !!!”

For those who aren’t familiar with Tamil, Vandhiyathevan comments that while Kundhavai’s pleasant beauty wields the power to stop a man who is condemned to hell and send him to heaven, Nandhini, with her ethereal beauty, possesses the far deadlier power to convince the poor man that hell is actually heaven, and make him leap in joy.

The second part sees a shift in backdrop to the coastal settlement of Kodikkarai, where Vandhiyathevan plans to enlist the services of boat-men to cross over to northern Sri Lanka. Little does he expect to be bowled over on his arrival in Kodikkarai by a feisty, volatile and doe-eyed lass named Poonguzhali, who saves his life not once but thrice, first when he finds himself waist-deep in quick-sand while trying to chase her in vain and again when Pazhuvettarayar’s men come hunting for him, and finally when Vandhiyathevan jumps into the sea foolishly after finding, to much indignation, that, unbeknownst to him, she had read the letter he was carrying to Prince Arunmozhi Varman and only then agreed to row her boat for him. After landing in Nagatheevu, one of the islands on the northern part of Lanka, Vandhiyathevan travels to Mathottam, which is under the occupation of the Sozha Army. In Mathottam, he pairs up with an old friend acquaintance Azhwaarkadiyaan (who is revealed to be working under the sagacious Prime Minister of the Sozha Empire, Aniruddha Brahmaraayar) and together they head for the rugged terrain of the Lankan hills in search of the Prince.

One of the alluring aspects of Ponniyin Selvan is the intimate familiarity Kalki brings to all his locations, be it the vibrant streets of Thanjavur, the derelict palaces of Pazhayaarai, the sands and sculptures of Mahabalipuram, the sea-breeze wafting on the tranquil Kodikkarai shores, or the eerie jungles of Sri Lanka. At each of these places, the authenticity of the depictions draw you in, and it is moments like these that linger for a long time and make you want to return, again and again, to read this timeless work.

Take, for example, his richly-colored portrait of a serene evening in Kodikkarai:

Andhi neram amaidhi petru vilangiyadhu. Kodikkaraiyin orathil kadal alai adangi oindhirundhadhu. Kattu marangalum padagugalum  karaiyai nerungi kondirundhana. Kadalil irai thaedachendra
paravaigal thirumbi vandhu kondirundhana. karaiyil siridhu dhooram ven manal parandhirundhadhu. Adharku appaal vegu dhoorathukku vegudhooram kaadu padarndhirundhadhu. Kaattu marangalin kilaigal aadavillai ; Ilaigal asaiyavillai ; Naala pakkamum nisaptham nilaviyadhu. Sengadhir Devan kadalum vaanum kalakkum idathai nokki viraindhu irangik kondirundhan. Maegathiralgal sila sengadhirgalai maraikkap paarthu thaangalum oli petru vilangina

The above passage finely details the shores of Kodikkarai in the evening, with the huge expanse of forest looming behind, all of whose trees and their leaves stand still as the golden-rayed Sun descends to the point where the sky dissolves into the sea. Prey-seeking birds are shown to return to the shores after a long day’s work. What a terrific allegory!!! To the idle reader it is just another description, but venture deeper and you find the hidden reference to the fishermen who are also making their way home after fishing in the sea. And then the final flourish, as Kalki calls to mind the incandescent glow of the clouds as they try to smother the fiery ball in the horizon.

Returning to the story, Vandhiyathevan and Azhwaarkkadiyan are successful in their quest, but events soon take a mysterious turn when they find that the younger Prince is in ever-present danger from unlikely quarters but is saved at each turn by a deaf-mute old woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Nandhini (whom he had met in Thanjavur) who treats the prince like an own son. In another momentous decision, the head of the largest buddhist sect of the island offers to crown Arunmozhi as the King of Lanka, an honor seldom granted to outsiders, but Arunmozhi gracefully declines citing his desire not to go against his father’s wishes . Amidst these strange happenings, Parthibendra Pallavan arrives, seeking Ponniyin Selvan’s immediate return to Kanchipuram, so that the two Sozha Princes can march unitedly towards Thanjavur to demolish the machinations of the Pazhuvettarayars. But before Arunmozhi can decide, Poonguzhali, who accompanies Parthibendran, conveys more ill tidings regarding two ships sent by the Emperor with orders to arrest and bring the Prince back to Thanjavur for allegedly plotting to crown himself the King of Lanka. Faced with contradicting advice regarding his course of action,  Arunmozhi Varman decides to obey his father’s command and makes for the ships on an elephant with only Poonguzhali by his side, leaving the others behind lest they try to delay him. But as fate would have it, many in the ship desert it upon finding its true purpose, and the remaining dozen sailors find themselves utterly unprepared as they are ambushed by a party of marauding Arab sailors and killed in battle.

Ponniyin Selvan takes place in an era when the Sozha Empire is at the cusp of a trade (and conquest) revolution. It is, therefore,only natural, that only a few references to the outside world are present in the story. One of them is the Arabs, and Kalki comments on the differences between the mild-mannered, cultured Arab traders of pre-Islamic times and “a new breed of barbaric, cruel Arabs” with the single-point agenda of imposing their will on other races and destroying other cultures. Interestingly Vandhiyathevan is also shown to be amazed at the consideration these Arabs show for their horses by ensuring that all their horses are shod to protect their hooves.  Through this and other instances later on, Kalki takes us through the cultural exchanges of those times, as seen through the eyes of an ordinary traveller.

Following the prince via boat, Vandhiyathevan and the others come across the Sozha ship that has been stolen by the Arabs. Under the impression that it is carrying the prince back to Thanjavur, Vandhiyathevan swims over to the ship and is promptly captured by the Arabs, who also happen to have with them members of the Pandiya cabal travelling alongside. His spirits undampened, Vandhiyathevan does some quick thinking to free himself of his bonds, and overcomes his Arab captors, only to find that he is stranded in the middle of the ocean as the Pandiyan plotters escape on boats, leaving him alone to steer the ship with a storm approaching in the distance. As if to confirm that his fate is sealed, lightning strikes the ship, setting it ablaze. Just when all appears lost, a ship appears carrying Arunmozhi varman, Parthibendran and Bhoodhi Vikrama Kesari, one of the commanders at the Lankan front. The prince, along with two soldiers, rescues Vandhiyathevan from the burning ship, but soon, their own boat capsizes leaving both of them holding on to their dear life on a log of wood. This way they remain until the next morning, when, by a stroke of good fortune, they are spotted and rescued by Poonguzhali on her boat. On the other side, observing the sinking ship and boat and not seeing any survivors in the dark, Parthibendran and the others bemoan the loss of the Prince in the turbulent ocean. And thus draws to a close, the second episode of this epic.

The second part too, like the first, contains a parallel narrative that describes Princess Kundhavai’s trip to Thanjavur to visit her ailing father and the Emperor’s confession of the dark truth in his past concerning his relationship with the deaf-mute woman who is earlier seen helping Arunmozhi Varman in Lanka. Her stay at the Thanjavur Fort is livened by the subtle tension and wordplay between the Princess and Nandhini, who is also residing at the Fort. Meanwhile, Nandhini sets her own agenda into motion with a carefully worded letter to Adithya Karikaalan, inviting him to meet her at the Kadambur palace, claiming the need to discuss the rumours abounding about conspiracies against the empire and her plans to resolve them.

When seen in the light of Kalki’s other works, Parthiban Kanavu and Sivagaamiyin Sabadham, Ponniyin Selvan is equally well-researched (the author clearly attributes events occuring within the story such as land allotment for injured soldiers, granting of funds from the exchequer for hospital construction etc to corresponding archaeological discoveries like inscriptions on copper plates, foundation stones and such) but much grander in scope, dealing with a plethora of characters, each having a crucial role to play in the unfolding of the narrative. And though Kalki’s crisp narrative style largely remains invariant, the sheer wonderment we experience at witnessing such a prodigious opus seems to reduce his other equally well-written works to hors d’oeuvres.

The third installment begins with Periya Pazhuvettarayar and Nandhini arriving at the Kodikkarai coast to personally escort the arrested Prince to Thanjavur, unaware of the happenings at sea. But soon, the storm that had originated off the Lankan coast makes its way to Kodikkarai, wreaking havoc all around. Soon after, Parthibendra Pallavan’s ship anchors off the coast, and news is received of the Prince’s untimely rescue effort and the fear that he may have drowned. This prompts Pazhuvettarayar to leave for Thanjavur, taking along Parthibendran to convey the course of events to the Emperor.

Meanwhile, Poonguzhali steers the boat close to the Nagappatinam coast, away from the prying eyes of watch-guards at Kodikkarai, and, with help from Vandhiyathevan and a distant cousin, Sendhan Amudhan (who serves at a temple in Thanjavur where he had previously helped Vandhiyathevan), admits the Prince, who is now suffering from a fever he contracted from his long travails at sea, into the Nagappattinam Chudamani Buddhist Viharam for treatment. Vandhiyathevan takes his leave to return to Pazhayaarai and report to Kundhavai on the successful completion of his duties. But as luck would have it, he is waylaid by acquaintances from the Pandiya clique who take him to Nandhini who then tries to elicit Arunmozhi’s whereabouts from him. On his refusal to yield any information, Nandhini sets him free, with plans to use him at a later date. Upon reaching Pazhayaarai, Vandhiyathevan tells all to Kundhavai, including the unexplained resemblance between Nandhini and the deaf-mute woman in Sri Lanka. Piecing together the myriad links, Kundhavai concludes that Nandhini is her half-sister and, having learnt of her plans to meet Adithya Karikaalan in Kadambur via the omniscient Prime Minister Aniruddha Brahmmarayar, fears that untoward incidents may befall Karikaalan at Kadambur. And so it falls on Vandhiyathevan once more to warn Karikaalan and stop him from being lured into a trap, and if that should fail, stick close and shield him from any harm.

This journey, like others, proves anything but straightforward. First, he walks into a decrepit, crumbling old Mandapam in the middle of a forest, only to find a beguiling, handsome little boy of obviously aristocratic lineage. The child engages Vandhiyathevan in idle talk that the latter finds precocious yet disquieting. The pitch is further queered when they are surrounded by members of the Pandiyan cabal who greet the infant as “Emperor”. Both the boy and Vandhiyathevan are taken to the desolate forests of Thiruppurambiyam where the Pandiyas were once defeated by the combined might of the Kangars, the Pallavas and the Sozhas in a war that would be the first in a series that would eventually establish the primacy of the Sozhas over the entire Tamil-speaking lands. Here they are joined by Nandhini and a bizarre ritual ensues, at the end of which Nandhini is chosen as the one who would kill Karikaalan. Inexplicably to the others and Vandhiyathevan himself, Nandhini once again decides to lets him go unharmed. With the premonition of evil things preying upon his mind, Vandhiyathevan departs. He soon meets Azhwaarkadiyaan and the two set off to meet Adithya Karikaalan.

One of the many reasons the book is so popular and well-known even today is because of its sharp, witty lines. When, for instance, the mood is foreboding and the outlook daunting at the Pandiya camp in Thiruppurambiyam, we see a refreshing exchange like the one below:

The child:”Amma, ivandhaan ennai iruttil pisaasu vizhungaamal kaappaatriyavan. Ivanai yaen kattip pottirukiradhu?”(He was the one who saved me in the dark from ghosts. Why are you tying him up?)
Vandhiyathevan:”Kuzhandai! Summa iru! Periyavargal pesi kondirukkumpodhu pesakkoodathu. Pesinaal unnai Puli vizhungividum.!”(Shut up, child! Keep interrupting your elders and the Tiger(Sozhas) will gobble you.
Child:”Puliyai naan vizhungividuven” (I’ll swallow the tiger)
Vandhiyathevan(with a mischievous grin creasing his face):”Meenal puliyai vizhangamudiyuma?”(“Can a fish(Pandiya) swallow a Tiger(Sozha)?”; The other Pandiya plotters glare at him)

With such repartees adorning the book is it any surprise that the book has been nationalized by the State government to enable free publication and a wider audience?

The book’s immense popularity to this day is also evident via other means, such as web sites dedicated to discuss the magnum opus (like www.ponniyinselvan.in) and being staged regularly as plays and skits in schools, sabhas and other cultural centres in Tamil Nadu.

True to Kalki’s style, in the third part too we see multiple strands interwoven with the main one. Even as Arunmozhi Varman recovers from his illness in the Chudamani Viharam, news of his demise is spreading like wildfire and we see how bereaved people take to the streets in grief, but unlike present political leaders, the people here are shown to have genuine love and affection for the Prince, with whom they appear to have a direct bond.  Next we are introduced to the naive, but power-hungry Madhuranthakan who reneges against the promises he made years ago to his aging mother not to seek political power and who blindly trusts the might of the Pazhuvettarayars to back his bid to the throne. We are also taken through the ambitions Princess Kundhavai nurses for her younger brother and her wish to see him married to one of her friends, Vanathi. Vanathi herself harbours romantic thoughts for Arunmozhi Varman, fueled by distant memories of the time they spent together before the war in Lanka, and the open encouragement of Kundhavai.

Upon hearing Vandhiyathevan informing Kundhavai of the Prince’s safe passage to Nagappattinam, Vanathi attempts to travel to Nagappattinam under the pretext of converting to Buddhism, but is stopped, in a hilarious encounter, by Aniruddha Brahmmarayar, who pretends to interrogate her and threatens her with torture before Vanathi faints and is handed to the safe custody of Kundhavai Devi, who is also journeying to Nagapattinam.

The third part ends with the duo meeting a convalescing Arunmozhi Varman.

But it wouldn’t be right if I failed to highlight the defining feature of third part, for this is the book where love blooms forth out of all and sundry.

If Kundhavai proposing to Vandhiyathevan across the bars in Pazhayaarai jail didn’t fascinate you for its sheer poeticism, Parthibendran’s head-over-heels capitulation in front of Nandhini didn’t astound you and make you marvel over the power of intoxicating beauty, and Sendhan Amudhan’s far more Sattvic proposal of love to Poonguzhali didn’t move your heart to tears, then you are incapable of love.

The first three parts, as a whole, stand out for their taut and edgy narrative style that strikes a wonderful balance with some vivid and expressive descriptions sprinkled throughout.

For the more discerning and curious reader, the historical explanations provided at some key junctures serve to illustrate and inform the happenings of the present. Not to forget the elegant poems that grace this fine work, each one apt for a different occasion.

All in all, Ponniyin Selvan is a story relevant for all ages that pulls the circumspect reader like a fish on a hook for the adventure of a lifetime. And this holds true for the first three parts as well.

Related Stories:
Ponniyin Selvan Review (Concluding Part) – A Masterpiece from a Master Raconteur

30 Responses to "Ponniyin Selvan – A Masterpiece from a Master Raconteur"

  1. racer44   June 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Oye, didn’t you like my title. Come on, it was far more catchy. This one seems just a little bit tame in comparison.Anyway,, both of us forgot to write the english translation for the child’s second question? It should be “why are you tying him up?”

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    Somehow, we feel reluctant to use the word raconteur to describe a classic work like Ponniyin Selvan.

    Personally, we’d apply the word only for lesser writers. Not many would use the word raconteur to describe Homer or other great writers.

    But since you have a fancy for your title, we’ve changed it now (we may revert back to our title or a different one later). Take a look.

  2. racer44   June 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    And what’s with the ‘tamil’ classic? A classic remains unbounded by lang. You told me this. Just see the title you gave to review of “the secret in their eyes”. Where did lang go then?The title seems to contain muted insinuations. Omit tamil and inform readers, if you think they’re so ignorant, through some other means.

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    You write: A classic remains unbounded by lang.

    True. Who would have heard of Marquez outside of Colombia or Spain otherwise.

    But as any two-bit blogger will tell you, in an age of infinite choice Titles are sometimes decided keeping in mind the worthy goal of drawing in as large an audience as possible to the writing.

    In any case, even before we saw this comment we had changed the title and responded to your previous comment as well.

  3. racer44   June 2, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    You know English better than me. But i did check with oxford. And it had a nice feel. But, as i said, your understanding of english is, i trust, more comprehensive than mine.

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    Let’s go with your title for now although we still feel the word raconteur diminishes a grand-work like Ponniyin Selvan.

  4. racer44   June 2, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Makkal theerpae, Mahesan theerpu, huh?

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    Bad as it sounds, Yes. With the defense that it’s done in pursuit of a lofty goal.

    The enemy of class now is choice.

    • racer44   June 2, 2010 at 1:26 pm

      But honestly, how many people, you think, will even know, without being told, what a raconteur means? How, then, do you trust them to discern the finer shades, if any?

      SearchIndia.com Responds:

      Well, the dickheads can always look up the word in the dictionary. 😉

      As for the nuances in meaning, that’s harder and can come only with extensive reading. Sorry, no short-cuts here.

  5. shadowfax_arbit   June 2, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Superb review except that you could have explained more on the fitting intro of Ponniyin Selvan, and the rift and witty exchanges between Kundavai and Nandhini in second part. Well, that way you will need to quote the whole novel, so I understand 🙂

    Agree, reading this novel was like a roller coaster ride that I had to regret when I completed all the 5 parts, on why I finished it so quickly. I would probably want 20 more parts of it. All characters were riveting and stay in your hearts days and even months after you complete the novel. What a classic!

    • racer44   June 2, 2010 at 1:08 pm

      Thanks, shadowfax. A lot of credit must go to SI. Not only is he a hard task-master, but most important, he knows exactly what he wants which simplifies my job a great deal. In fact, despite that, i fumbled around a good bit(due mainly to a cellphone which is designed to encourage fumbling and bumbling) I hope SI remains as patient and restrained all the time. Hell, one can always hope. 😉

      • முனிAndy   June 2, 2010 at 4:18 pm

        Kudos to SI for spending a rather big chunk of money to review something that has been made freely available at http://www.projectmadurai.org/pmworks.html

        Kudos to racer for grabbing the opportunity (Enjoy!) and writing an epic review of the epic… I don’t have the patience to read the lengthy review.. I’ll try to read through the work itself.. If I succeed, I’ll come back and read the review.

        Out of the many works listed in http://www.projectmadurai.org/pmworks.html, I know a few திருக்குறள்s.. I don’t even remember my ஆத்திசூடி well.. 🙁 they have included some Vairamuthu’s works, but Saandilyan’s works are not there.

        SearchIndia.com Responds:

        1. You write: I don’t have the patience to read the lengthy review.. I’ll try to read through the work itself..

        You don’t have the patience to read a 6.5-page review (A4-size paper) but you are gonna read a 1,100-page book (the first three parts alone, according to Racer).

        Bravo! 😉

        2. While it’s true that the book is available at ProjectMadurai and possibly other sites too, the review and discussion will hopefully pique the interest of visitors here and tempt them to read the original.

        3. Plus, the variety of content adds to the allure of this fine blog. 😉

        Where else but SI would you find such eclectic, Catholic content – Ponniyin Selvan, Somerset Maugham, Singam, The Secret in Their Eyes, Kites, Henry Miller, Cocktail recipes, Chesterfield’s Letters et al. Since modesty is our last name, we won’t go any further. 😉

        • முனிAndy   June 2, 2010 at 5:01 pm

          Yes, it certainly piqued my interest.

          But not sure if it is going to get more comments than what your Singam review got.. an average SI reader is an ignoramus like me, I’d think.

          Of course I won’t be able to finish the 1495 page PDF file.. that’s just my excuse for not reading the review.

          How did you figure out that racer is a good writer.. does he have a blog or something?

          SearchIndia.com Responds:

          1. You write: How did you figure out that racer is a good writer..

          That’s what’s we call Reading between the lines. 😉

          No idea if he has a blog.

          2. You write: But not sure if it is going to get more comments than what your Singam review got..

          We think so too but as we said earlier it adds to the eclectic content on the SI blog.

          Writing/Reading about the Bollywood/Kollywood junk can get tedious without a break.

          • முனிAndy   June 2, 2010 at 5:53 pm

            Found an audio version.. http://www.itsdiff.com/kalkips.html
            I will definitely try this… it is not great, but I shouldn’t complain too much.

            SearchIndia.com Responds:


            Listened for a couple of minutes. Not bad at all.

          • racer44   June 2, 2010 at 11:48 pm

            @ SI and முனிAndy:
            I don’t have one. And actually I really dunno if I have the patience to fill in stuff in the blog every day.

            An extremely small percentage of people (even smaller if you take Indians), like yourself, have a natural talent with English. You can pretty much do anything with it. For me, my grammar is good but it requires much struggle just to avoid sounding dull and repetitive. Perhaps because it is a long time since I last read an English novel.

            Another point, how many popular blogs are anonymously maintained? Isn’t yours more like an honorable exception?

            And finally, what are the intricacies in establishing a popular blog anyway? How do you attract ads? Is there any other way other than shitty-old paypal by which you can get paid? And how long does it take to start yielding a decent bit of money?

            SearchIndia.com Responds:

            1. Writing, as we often tell people around here, is basically rewriting.

            Simple and hard as that (one of the advantages of being drunk, you can write such stuff as ‘simple and hard’ but it’s true when you stop to think about it). 😉

            2. You write: And finally, what are the intricacies in establishing a popular blog anyway?

            It’s very hard to sustain a blog.

            Most will die or be updated sporadically and slowly lose the few readers they had to begin with. A lot of blogs are written for, and read primarily by, Friends & Family.

            You need sinews of steel and molten iron in lieu of blood to persevere. No kidding.

            Our readers have no idea of the threats to life and limb compounded by attacks on our servers by those who have much to lose. Yes, motha*uckas we know who you are and you will weep more than you now do.

  6. vjcool   June 2, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Remember reading it eons back, when I was in school.

    My mother had collected the pages from ‘Kalki’ and had it bound.. I’ll have to search a little to find the book kept away somewhere. it did make for an interesting read, with all the old advertisements, jokes, some news articles that come with such collection, not to leave out the celebrity gossip.. and of course the original artwork for the series.

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    It looks like Kalki magazine’s heart is still beating although we were more than a little dismayed to see Trisha’s picture on the home page http://www.kalkiweekly.com 🙁

  7. shiva84   June 3, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Thanks racer44 for a wonderful review. You really did a good job.

    • racer44   June 3, 2010 at 12:25 am

      Thanks. Credit also goes to SI persevering with his vision and getting it out of me.

      You seem to be waging underground wars with some hackers while maintaining your outwardly imperturbed posture. Keep fighting and good luck.

      Anyway, that maduraiproject website seems to have only parts 1 and a few chapters of part2. The rest???

      And returning to our raconteur debate, here’s a link which adds weight to my argument and makes the diametrically opposite claim that you made. In other words, it claims that raconteurs refers to only the greatest novelists and storytellers and not ordinary bestselling authors like Dan Brown, or that swedish guy who wrote “Girl and the hornets” or some such thing.


      SearchIndia.com Responds:

      1. Interesting piece (your link) but surely you didn’t miss the fact that Jenny is talking about novelists. Mere mortals, forgotten in a generation, as opposed to the peerless writers of epics whose sway extends across centuries.

      Writers like Homer, Sophocles, Valmiki, Ved Vyas and dare we say Kalki, wrote on a higher plane. They wrote epics, grand tales with a vast cast of characters and spanning time and distance, that by their very survival through the centuries rank several notches higher than novelists. It’s no coincidence that all of these writers borrow liberally from history or blend history with their rich imagination and weave stories that have stood the test of time, the ultimate arbiter of a book’s worth.

      Few would dismiss any of the above (Homer, Valmiki et al) as novelists in the manner we are tempted to do John Grisham, Stephen King, Martin Amis and others of their ilk.

      Bottom line, raconteurs are for lesser writers, not for those who render us majestic epics/tales for the ages.

      2. What a coincidence that the Sydney Morning Herald refers favorably to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, a book we recommended to you this morning.

      • racer44   June 3, 2010 at 12:39 am

        @SI, well, oops. My bad. In the link I gave you, it actually lumps popular authors of each period like Stephen King, Grisham, Chaucer, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte into one list and dry, boring stuff like Rushdie and Patrick White in another. One thing does become clear, raconteur clearly has a wider usage, and not constrained by literary quality.

        SearchIndia.com Responds:

        Responded to the SMH link previously.

      • racer44   June 3, 2010 at 1:33 am

        You have a point, I guess. Then change the raconteurs to a more fitting word, but don’t, for heaven’s sake, revert to your earlier one. Because the “jewel-encrusted” part is mentioned in the review itself and repetition always looks bad. How about “An nonpareil/evergreen classic from a writer par excellence” or something like that?

        SearchIndia.com Responds:

        We’ll keep the current headline for the nonce.

      • முனிAndy   June 3, 2010 at 10:33 am

        @racer: you say: Anyway, that maduraiproject website seems to have only parts 1 and a few chapters of part2. The rest???
        Work #169 in http://www.projectmadurai.org/pmworks.html does seem to have all 5 parts.
        If you talking about http://www.itsdiff.com/kalkips.html yes, it does seem to be incomplete.. but that’s not the madurai project website.. it is some Tamil fanatic (j/k) in the SFO bay area.. probably abandoned because of lack of encouragement.. I sent him a thank you note yesterday.. hopefully he’ll resume the rest of the chapters. but frankly, he doesn’t seem to have the chops to enthrall us.. Maybe we should have Rush Limbaugh (whose voice SI likes) read it for us.

        SearchIndia.com Responds:

        Rush is (mostly) a U.S. phenomenon…the name will draw a blank back home.

        So, here’s a recent Rush Rant on Obama.

        We like that snide bit in the video about the Bay of Rigs.

        • racer44   June 3, 2010 at 11:04 am


          You’re right. My mistake there. I meant the kalkips website. The Maduraiproject one did have all the books, and that too both the original Tamil work(#169) as well as the English translation(#278).

  8. racer44   June 3, 2010 at 2:28 am

    As I start to prepare the second part of the review, I would like to remind you of your promise to see 7G Rainbow Colony within this week. Please, please keep your date with it, instead of lazy doodles on thermos flasks. In terms of no. of comments, I can assure you that 7G will easily be wildly popular. So watch it soon and review it.

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    Will do.

  9. STG   June 5, 2010 at 5:51 am

    12 out of 19 comments were from the writer himself. Page hits for this post convincing? or is this for just self-satisfaction? i know you spent a considerable amount and effort to make this review happen…

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    1. Stop whining…for the most part, Racer’s comments are related to the Ponniyin Selvan post and some of them were actually responses to others’ comments.

    2. We never expected page-views for this to rank as high as for the other posts (movie reviews).

    Our motives here were 1. to add diverse content to SI and 2. to a lesser extent altruistic, to heighten awareness among desis in the U.S. of this classic.

    Right now, the Anamika Veeramani posts are eclipsing even the movie reviews in page views.

  10. chennaiarun2007   June 11, 2010 at 9:03 am

    @ Racer

    Good work!!

    But forgive me, I do not know much of Tamil,even though I am a Tamilian (I studied in an English medium school,so I know only simple,conversational Tamil).

    The novel has a pretty unconventional story and narration style. But there are too many twists and turns which makes the novel pretty harder to read (at least for a simple guy like me). So,I can read and understand your review a bit, but not the original nove l(as it has kaaviya Tamil, meaning classical Tamil).

    A novel like this is a classic because the older generation of Tamil Nadu have appreciated and admired it!! As I am from the younger generation, I have some genuine difficulties in admiring this great piece of work.

    You have a very good taste!! But I have some questions:

    1. Did you refer and compare your writing with the original one? This I am asking because websites are known to be notoriously incorrect with facts!!

    2.Did you ask some one well versed with Tamil epics and discuss this epic?

    @ SI,

    Congratulations for encouraging such an off-beat and unconventional write-up by racer.


  11. racer44   June 11, 2010 at 10:00 am

    “I studied in an English medium school,so I know only simple,conversational Tamil).”

    Now that’s a lame excuse, if ever there was one. I myself, and millions of Tamilians have studied in English medium schools. But that does not deter us from savouring such fine tamil classics. Blame yourself if you did not opt for tamil during your higher studies. EVERYBODY in TN knows that all schools of all streams (CBSE, stateboard, matric etc) are mandated to offer tamil as an optional language (now even compulsory up to 10th, I hear). You, like several other Tamilians, find that professing ignorance of tamil is fashionable thing to do. More is the pity on our Tamil mother that most of her sons and daughters have deserted her in her hour of need.

    “as it has kaaviya Tamil, meaning classical Tamil).”
    Man, you need some serious education. Thirukkural has kaavya tamil, Silappadhigaaram has kaavya tamil. Ponniyin Selvan DOES NOT have kaavya tamil. It has thooya tamil(pure tamil), but of a kind very similar to nadaimurai tamil(spoken tamil). Don’t create imaginary hurdles where there are none.

    “A novel like this is a classic because the older generation of Tamil Nadu have appreciated and admired it!!”
    That is a foolish statement. More accurate would be saying, Ponniyin Selvan is a classic because it is widely admired by everyone who has read it. I know of quite a few young people who have read it, and sing its praises. But I agree the younger generation does not remember most of our glorious literary heritage. But that is not tantamount to saying that, if/when they do come across it, they will not appreciate it.

    “1. Did you refer and compare your writing with the original one? This I am asking because websites are known to be notoriously incorrect with facts!!”

    Pray tell what you mean by that. I am not reviewing a review from any other website here. I am reviewing the Original Tamil Classic Ponniyin Selvan, a copy of which I have at present. Any confusions?

    “2.Did you ask some one well versed with Tamil epics and discuss this epic?”
    As the language of Ponniyin Selvan is extremely lucid, simple and self-explanatory even to one as self-professedly simple as you, at no point does the question of discussing this semi-fictional work even arise. I did clarify a few linguistic distinctions such as the one I mention in the beginning of the review, but those hardly amount to literary discussions.

    • முனிAndy   June 11, 2010 at 11:12 am

      *rofl* :rofl: (not sure how to insert the rofl icon here) .. “English Medium” excuse is lame indeed, especially if he did study Tamil as a second language..

  12. racer44   June 11, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Any more news on the “different-genre” job for me?

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    Yes, will send you an e-mail on the “different-genre” job in a few minutes (no later than 8:30PM IST).

    There are whiners here who get agitated over the back and forth discussions on unrelated topics. We wouldn’t want them upset, do we. 🙁

    • racer44   June 11, 2010 at 11:26 am

      Received your offer. Interesting one. But I really don’t want any more truck with paypal. Creating a bank account in India is no joke with all the red tape around and my paypal experience so far, especially their customer support structure in India, in nothing short of a hellish nightmare. There surely must be other viable alternatives to sending money. Please consider my request in earnest.

      I’ll also have to consider a couple of other details to go over before I can give you a firm thumbs-up, but as of now, I confess your offer is truly appealing.

      SearchIndia.com Responds:

      How about check or Western Union?

  13. racer44   June 11, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Both cheque as well as western union or similar services would be much nicer and more transparent options, I expect, though I am not aware of the modalities of either. Perhaps you would know a bit better and enlighten me with the details. Or shall I make inquiries on my own?

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    PayPal is transparent too…just that there are some issues with India.

    Why don’t you find out from one the Western Union offices/centers in your area how the system works, hours of operation….

    A few seconds back we called a center here and were told it’d take about 15-min. But the bad part is the 5% fee. 🙁

    • racer44   June 12, 2010 at 2:49 am

      Called a couple of Western Union offices out here. From what they told me, it seems you have to send the money via one of the centers there, naming the recipient as mentioned in the recipient’s proof of identity(like ration card, institution’s id card, driving license, passport or something which can be produced by the recipient). When you make the wire transfer, you’ll be given the amount that’ll actually get sent(after conversion to rupees) along with a 10 digit code which you’ll then have to communicate to me via e-mail. And then, I’ll have to produce my id proof and that 10-digit code at a center in Chennai to collect the funds. Is that fine with you? Shall I send you the details?

      SearchIndia.com Responds:

      Let’s wait for a while. As we’ve said earlier, we intend to wait for a couple of weeks to see what PayPal does. We’re also planning to write to them today asking WTF is happening. You really MUST change your e-mail address. It’s fine and dandy to use it with friends and family but you can’t use such junk in a business transaction.

      Just thought of another alternative, International Money Order.

  14. racer44   June 12, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Off topic:

    “We’re also planning to write to them today asking WTF is happening.”

    That would be quite futile, I imagine, as the problem is at my account. From what Paypal is telling me, there is only one way(that too not sure-fire) that I can lift the limited access restrictions on my account, and that is by providing an id proof/credit card/bank account no. and here is the deal-breaker. When I registered with paypal, it was after you sent me the money for the first review I did, and I admit I rushed into it without knowing a whole deal about it. Only after registering with Paypal did I come to know of their rule that the name on the paypal account must match the name on the bank account. This complicated things a good bit, as the procedure for changing your name once again requires submitting my id proof, along with a utility bill with my name on it and what-not, all of which will then undergo an extensive review, after which they may/may not change the name on the account. After I change the name on the account(if it does happen), I’ll have to then submit an id proof again for their consideration(in order for them to allow full access to my account).

    In case you wonder, I had so far circumvented the lousy restrictions by opening another paypal account under the name given in my bank account and transferred money from one account to the other. Worked smoothly until the present ip-address crisis, when both got jammed.

    Bottom-line: You talking to them won’t matter in the least, because ultimately, the fault lies in my lack of foresight at the beginning, which coupled with some bad fortune with the ip addresses and paypal’s extensive “regulations”, has lead to this mess.

    In fact, forget the 70$. I’ll try my best to get them back, but it will be a long and hard struggle. Let that not delay the present work to be done.

    “Just thought of another alternative, International Money Order.”
    Let’s stick with Western Union for now, shall we? I am not too sure about the others’ operations in Chennai.

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    1. As long as the money doesn’t come back to us, you should get it. Be patient a while. Worst case scenario, we’ve already said we’ll make sure you don’t lose out.

    We recommend you follow the procedures PayPal recommends (submit the ID, et al) so that you don’t encounter these issues again. Try to open a Business Account.

    We’ve used PayPal to pay people who originally used to live here in the U.S. but returned to India a few years back and they never had a problem. Not once. Hey, we’ve used them to pay for other reviews.

    2. You write: Let that not delay the present work to be done.

    By the above, should we assume you’re interested in the ‘different genre’ work?

    • racer44   June 13, 2010 at 1:36 am


      SearchIndia.com Responds:

      We got your lengthy comment yesterday and responded immediately via a lengthy e-mail.

      The reason we did not publish the comment was because it was not relevant to any of the posts and did not want others to whine about unrelated stuff distracting them from the posts and comments.

      Please see your e-mail and respond via e-mail to the points. BTW, Western Union may be closed today i.e. Sunday.

  15. racer44   June 13, 2010 at 7:39 am

    Mailed you back, but no reply so far. Please reply soon.

    SearchIndia.com Responds:

    Yes, aware that you sent a note. Haven’t had a chance to see it yet. Will do it now.

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