Any reader of Tamil poetry has to first grapple with the idea of the language itself—one both ancient and modern, whose classical literature has been handed down from at least the 2nd century and which is still read, recited, understood and engaged with. For those who do not read or understand Tamil, this new anthology of Tamil poetry is timely.
What The Rapids of a Great River, edited by Lakshmi Holmström, Subashree Krishnaswamy and K. Srilata, sets out to do is to give the reader an idea of the continuities and registers of Tamil poetry for the last two millennia. It includes selections from the Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, the Kural, Kamban’s Iramavataram and the Kuttrala Kuruvanci.
The title, taken from A.K. Ramanujan’s Poems of Love and War, is a clear reference to the great river that is Tamil poetry, connecting its source—Sangam literature—with the currents of modern writing. This anthology is in two parts; the first section has translations of the classical texts—including the ones mentioned above—up until a selection from Gopalkrishna Bharati’s Nandanar Charitra Kirtthanai. The second section, beginning with poems from Subramaniam Bharati, includes work by poets such as Na. Pichamurti, Su. Vilvaratnam, Yazhan Aathi and Kutti Revathi.
Symbol:The book speaks for women. DINODIA
This deserves special mention because this section includes the works of poets who identify themselves as women, Dalit or Sri Lankan, and is what makes this anthology unique. The poetics of Sangam literature, so specific about the landscapes of akam and puram, so prescriptive of the voices and moods suitable for poetry, nearly always excluded the marginalized. How else does a modern poet who is a Dalit or a woman find herself in her own history except by reclaiming the old tales in her voice?
In R. Meenakshi’s New Goddess, Sita is unafraid of Ravan, does not “summon Arjuna/ nor incite Bhima” like Draupadi does.
She bound up her hair
and tightened her sari.
When hands prepare to break bricks as under
what will become of the molester?
(translation by Lakshmi Holmström).
Many of the poets are in conversation with older poets. In Vilvaratnam’s The Moon’s Echo, the story of the chieftain Pari’s defeat and the wanderings of his daughters more closely echo the original sequence of poems by Kapilar. It is impossible, however, to read it as anything but a lament of exile and displacement of the Sri Lankan Tamil.
How they echo still—
that month and that white moonlight,
that silence of the victory drums, and the tears
of Angavai and Sangavai (now become slaves)
as they came down the Parambu mountain!
How they echo still
through this month and this white moonlight.
(translation by Lakshmi Holmström).
In using a number of different translations, the editors of this anthology have taken the risk of unevenness in the text, which is more apparent in the first section, where the selections have been made from existing translations. To put P.S. Sundaram’s translations of Thiruvalluvar’s Kural against Ramanujan’s of the Sangam poets seems unfair to both Sundaram and to the Kural. This Kural, for instance:
The Rapids of a Great River: Penguin, 260 pages, Rs499
Nothing can equal truthfulness
in getting fame and other virtues.
It does no justice to the brevity and wit of Thiruvalluvar, or to the wordplay and music of the form. In all fairness to Sundaram, not all the translations are unsuccessful; some even achieve the mystery and truthfulness of the well-turned aphorism:
Swift as a hand to slipping clothes
Is a friend in need.
The second section is more consistent, though it is hard to say sometimes if it is consistently good or consistently misses an opportunity to make something great of the poems selected. The translations of Subramaniam Bharati are disappointing, in one instance more like a manual than a poem:
All the parts work and fit precisely.
The ant sleeps, mates, gives birth, runs, seeks, makes war, defends territory.
(from Wind 7, translation by Prema Nandakumar).
Not all translations are so uninspiring. Some, such as Cheran’s I could forget all this, are both deeply felt and skilful, the unforgettable images of war and loss juxtaposed with the repetitive cry of I could forget all this/forget it all, forget everything, and ending with the acknowledgement that some memories cannot be erased.
What this anthology succeeds in doing is bringing together every important work of Tamil poetry in one book, like a kadambam, each work yielding its own fragrance from its place in the whole garland. That, in itself, is quite an achievement.
Sridala Swami is a Hyderabad-based poet. Write to email@example.com