by SI Blog reader Racer44
Note: Visitors are advised to read Ponniyin Selvan – A Masterpiece from a Master Raconteur (Parts 1-3) before proceeding further.
The fourth part of the mammoth saga begins with the Crown Prince Adithya Karikaalan reaching the borders of Kadambur with Parthibendra Pallavan and Kandhamaran in tow after having accepted Nandhini’s invitation to see her there. His maternal grandfather Thirukkovalur Malaiyamaan also accompanies Karikaalan but takes his leave outside Kadambur with a final warning to Karikaalan not be gulled by false tears and deceitful ways of women. But Karikaalan is deaf to his grandfather’s wise counsel. His metamorphosis is complete. Torn by insecurity and ever-increasing paranoia as he draws closer and closer to Kadambur, Karikaalan has been reduced, mentally, to little more than a long-suffering wraith, haunted at all times by memories of his final meeting with Nandhini, and even half-believing that executing Veerapandiyan was a monumental folly. Prone to delusions and wild mood swings, Karikaalan constantly keeps his companions on tenterhooks with his stinging barbs and mordant wit.
A trademark of all of Kalki’s novels is a penchant to clearly carve out each of his characters as living breathing human beings who have underlying motives for all their actions. Not for him are the ersatz emotions and sketchy character development. A classic example here is that of Malaiyamaan. He is not just Adithya Karikaalan’s maternal grandfather, but has his roots deep in history. His family had traditionally been bitter enemies of the Kadambur Sambuvarayars, before coming under the common umbrella of the Sozha empire. This clannish rivalry, further fueled by reports of Sambuvarayar offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to Karikaalan, impels him at a basic level to at least try to stop Karikaalan. Thus, piece by piece, we are familiarised with the manifold reasons behind Malaiyamaan’s failed bid to prevent Karikaalan from embarking on his journey. Malaiyamaan also suspects that the marriage “deal” will just be one of the baits to divide the kingdom. To this too he is firmly opposed, as his grandson would be deprived of half the empire and the resulting smaller kingdom would be untenable to defend against their northern foes. And, last but not least, Malaiyamaan acutely fears for Karikaalan’s life, only knowing too well his susceptibility to Nandhini’s charms and sensing that some deeper conspiracy is afoot at the palace, whose ends he cannot foretell.
Meanwhile, at a temple near the outskirts of Kadambur, Vandhiyathevan and Azhwaarkadiyaan come across a band of Pandiya cabal members climbing out of a subterranean secret passage way and, on an impulse, Vandhiyathevan jumps into the same tunnel to track it to its end. His hunch proves right as the secret tunnel leads him to one of the rooms in the Kadambur palace. After a couple of perilously close encounters with the Pandiya plotters at the palace, Vandhiyathevan once again escapes and joins Azhwaarkadiyaan near the palace perimeter. Stealing a couple of horses from soldiers of the battalion announcing the entry of Periya Pazhuvettarayar and Nandhini, both of them set off to meet Karikaalan along the route to Kadambur. They meet his company along the way, but apart from Karikaalan himself who greets them with much bonhomie, there is a distinctly cold welcome to their out-of-the-blue appearance as accusations and recriminations are traded back and forth between Kandhamaran (who claims he was stabbed in the back by Vandhiyathevan inside the dungeons of the Thanjavur treasury) and Parthibendran (who is keen to know how Vandhiyathevan made it alive out of Sri Lanka and what happened to Prince Arunmozhi Varman who had gone to rescue him) on one side and Vandhiyathevan on the other. Peace is enforced by Karikaalan who promises to look into each ones’ grievances and deliver justice. Azhwaarkadiyaan departs for Thanjavur after delivering Prime Minister Brahmmarayar’s warning to Karikaalan on his stay at Kadambur.
The band reaches the Kadambur palace, but on seeing Periya Pazhuvettarayar and Nandhini, Karikaalan’s behavior takes a turn for the worse, as poison-tipped words fly out of his mouth with alarming frequency. Indeed, Kalki marks Karikaalan’s entry into the fort with this particularly pungent inquiry from Karikaalan when he finds that the fort gates have been closed and his accompanying troops left outside.
“Yen ivvalavu avasaramaaga kadhavai saathugiraargal? Thanjai koattaiyil en thandhaiyai sirai vaithiruppadhu pol ennaiyum ingae sirai vaikkap pogirirgalaa, enna? ennudan vandha parivaarangal enna aavadhu?”
(Why are you in such a hurry to shut the doors? Do you plan to jail me here like you have jailed the emperor in Thanjavur? What will happen to my troops?)
And, in a previous instance, when Kandhamaaran had alleged that Vandhiyathevan had stabbed him, Karikaalan had arbitered with this dismissive innuendo:
“Kandhamara! Vandhiyathevan un mudhugil kuthi vittaan endra solgiraai? Nee ennathirkaaga avanukku un mudhugai kaattinaai?”
(Kandhamara! You keep telling Vandhiyathevan stabbed you in the back. But why did you show him your back in the first place?(instead of fighting like a man))
To those near him, it seems like a particularly malevolent cat had been set loose among the hapless pigeons.
At this point, the scene shifts to Kodikkarai, where Poonguzhali and Sendhan Amudhan espy the deaf-mute woman (who is also Poonguzhali’s aunt) previously seen in Sri Lanka. Before they can talk to her, however, she is kidnapped by soldiers who head towards Thanjavur. In an effort to rescue her aunt, Poonguzhali and Sendhan Amudhan also set off to Thanjavur, enquiring about the soldiers along the way. They eventually come across a group of men bearing what appears to be Nandhini’s palanquin. A rain-break offers them a much-needed opportunity to make their case to Nandhini, but in a bizarre twist, Poonguzhali’s aunt climbs out of the palanquin instead, and persuades Poonguzhali to mount the veiled palanquin under cover of the rain and darkness while she herself goes with Sendhan Amudhan to his hut in Thanjavur.
It is soon learnt that the palanquin-bearers were working at the behest of Aniruddha Brahmmaraayar who wishes to unravel the mystery behind the deaf-mute woman’s unexplained resemblance to Nandhini and also placate the ailing Emperor with news that his long-lost lover was still alive. While discussing the woman’s whereabouts with the now-amenable Poonguzhali, Kundhavai arrives with news of Nagappatinam’s submergence under the sea after the storm from Kodikkarai reaches the town. With the waters getting murkier by the minute, Poonguzhali is ordered to bring back her aunt (whose name is revealed to be Mandhaakini) from Sendhan Amudhan’s hut. But as she is being escorted to the palace, Mandhaakini escapes, her intuition telling her to follow a Pandiya plotter trying to blend with the crowd entering the palace. In a fitting climax, Mandhaakini’s path, through palace gardens and secret underground passages, leads her to the Emperor’s own bedroom. But alas, when the Emperor does see her, his heart has been embittered by several years of sleepless nights, and he now looks upon her as an evil presence who brings ruin to his family and hurls much vitriol and ire at her, ignoring the pleas of his own wife and daughter, who wish to see the Emperor reunited with Mandhaakini, feeling that only could afford solace to his suffering heart.
Back in Kadambur, Adithya Karikaalan continues to torment his hosts with hints of his knowledge about their conspiracy. When Pazhuvettarayar wonders how he will ever break the issue of the inheritance, Karikaalan himself takes the initiative and offers to give up the throne in favour of his uncle Madhuranthankan. Confounded somewhat by this new development and wondering whether it is a ruse, Pazhuvettarayer decides to go to Thanjavur to confer with his younger brother and return to Kadambur, if necessary with a large battalion of soldiers behind him. Meanwhile, Karikaalan goes on a hunting expedition off the forests near Kadambur along with Vandhiyathevan, Kandhamaran and other hunters, becoming more aggressive and irascible with each passing hour, and ceaselessly speculating aloud over whether the arrows of his fellow riders were aimed at wild prey or himself. During his stay at Kadambur, Karikaalan had been informed by Vandhiyathevan on Kundhavai’s suspicion that Nandhini may be his half-sister but Karikaalan finds himself unable to pluck up enough courage to confront Nandhini with the facts. However, events shape up at the hunting trip that allow him to have a tete-a-tete with Nandhini and discuss this new revelation. Strangely, Nandhini remains skeptical of his claims and hints that she may be in possession of a more accurate knowledge of her obscure past. On this enigmatic note ends the penultimate part of the epic.
Much needs to be said of Kalki’s portrayal of Nandhini, for it is many-layered, hardly all of them black. Nandhini’s raison d’etre is indeed revenge, but the factors that steeled her heart at such a young age are multifarious. An orphan at birth, she is raised by a Vaishnavite family with close ties to the aristocracy, many of whose girls (most prominently Kundhavai) treat her with scorn and contempt, for even though she is off common stock, her beauty even at that age is unmatched by these royal princesses. To compound her perception of a cruel world, all those who ill-treat her go on to achieve high status and privileges while those on whom she showers her love(like Karikaalan and Veerapandiyan) either turn their backs on her or get killed. And thus, the seeds of hatred are sown in her heart at a tender age in the absence of any love and affection.
The final part of Ponniyin Selvan commences in the Nagappattinam Chudamani Buddhist Viharam, where Arunmozhi Varman remains incognito, waiting for the go-ahead from his sister so that he can start towards Thanjavur. But events beyond his control force his hand as a severe cyclone hits the Nagappattinam coast, causing huge tidal waves to rise up and destroy much of the coastal city. After ordering foodgrains and gold stocked at a nearby Sozha palace to be distributed among the victims of the heavy storm, Arunmozhi Varman prepares to leave at once for Thanjavur, having in the meantime come to know of Mandhaakini’s abduction. But his identity soon gets disclosed by an undercover Pandiya aide, leading to massive crowds thronging the streets and impeding his progress to Thanjavur. Realizing that the crowd following him will increase with each town he passes through and stall him, and also learning of a Pandiya plot to assassinate him using his elephant’s mahout, Arunmozhi Varman (who can communicate with elephants) quickly mounts the elephant and instructs it to charge wildly across the crowd, prompting the people to flee in terror and allowing him to make haste towards Pazhayaarai, where he wishes to consult his sister before making for Thanjavur.
In a concurrent narrative, Periya Pazhuvettarayar’s boat capsizes in the choppy waters of the Kaveri, whose banks have broken, leading to inundation of many low-lying areas in its proximity. Pazhuvettarayar himself is nearly drowned in the eddies before he finds that they have carried him to the mandapam of an Amman temple in the middle of nowhere.
There are very few coincidences in Ponniyin Selvan, so Kalki may perhaps be excused for including one at this late stage. Call it providence or divine will, Pazhuvettarayar’s tired slumber at the temple mandapam is disturbed when he overhears two Pandiya plotters discussing secret plans for the simultaneous assassination of the Emperor and his two sons by the night of the coming day. The mighty old warrior is left shell-shocked by the nature of their revelations. Nandhini’s treachery delivers a particularly cruel blow to him, even as Kalki expertly shows how, in the depth of his heart, he rejoices that it was not the youthful charms of Adithya Karikaalan or Vandhiyathevan that had won her over but rather her pledge at the death-bed of Veerapandiyan to avenge his death and re-establish Pandiya supremacy. Knowing that his honour is at stake and hoping that he may yet be able to avert the colossal tragedy at hand, Pazhuvettarayar departs for Kadambur. At an astrologer’s hut on the wayside, he meets Kundhavai Devi and Vanathi and recounts his terrible discoveries to them, alerting them about the impending catastrophe and requesting them to somehow save the Emperor and Arunmozhi Varman. Kundhavai warns him not to kill Nandhini as she may be her half-sister. With a heavy heart, Pazhuvettarayar rushes to Kadambur.
Just as Pazhuvettarayar leaves, Azhwaarkadiyaan and Poonguzhali enter the hut, bringing tidings of the imminent siege of the Thanjavur fort by troops under Bhoodhi Vikrama Kesari, the erstwhile commander of the Sozha army at the Lankan front and ruler of the minor kingdom of Kodumbaalur, who, like the majority of Sozha people, wishes to see Arunmozhi Varman crowned heir to the throne and reckons that the Emperor is being held against his will at the Thanjavur fort by the Pazhuvettarayars. Poonguzhali also conveys news of her aunt’s discovery of secret passages near the Emperor’s chamber that are being used by the Pandiya cabal members. However, before they can set off to Thanjavur, the flood water of the Kaveri sweep across the place, carrying Vanathi away with its course while the others are perched safely atop the roof of a nearby mandapam.
Does Vanathi survive? More significantly, does Arunmozhi Varman reach Thanjavur in time to save his father? And in Kadambur, can the ever-resourceful Vandhiyathevan prevent Adithya Karikaalan from meeting his doom? Will Periya Pazhuvettarayar be able to stop what may be a fratricide from taking place in Kadambur? What happens to Nandhini and the tightly-organized cabal she leads? Will we ever know of the dark secrets behind her past? Kalki does not answer all these questions.
But what he does do is provide an engrossing, heart-stopping denouement in which all ends converge into an explosive finish. You would imagine that, in a sprawling saga like this, with some 20-odd principal characters, one or two would inevitably be given short shrift towards the end. But here is where Kalki shines. Not only does he wind up his tale with a pulse-pounding finale, but he also makes sure that all his 20-odd characters figure big-time in the resolution, and that too in such a precisely logical manner that you are left gasping for breath.
On the whole, Ponnyin Selvan is a classic for the ages, and if you can read Tamil, it would be nothing short of a crime not to read this supremely crafted masterpiece.
Ponniyin Selvan – A Masterpiece from a Master Raconteur