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Notes on Ponniyin Selvan

December 5, 2014

Ponniyin Selvan was written by the late Kalki Krishnamoorthy. It first appeared serialized in the weekly Kalki. Beginning in 1950 it appeared as weekly installments for three and a half years. It is now again being serialized in Kalki. These are my notes in keeping up with the plot. Translations of this novel are available online.

21. The Curtain Flutters

Vandhiyathevan proceeded with his mission to reach Thanjavur and deliver Athithakarikalar’s message to his father and sister. On the way along the shore of Kaveri he saw the carriage with the Palmyrah sign. He suspected that it was Mathuranthakar again. In wishing to make his acquaintance as well as out of curiosity he followed at a distance. Even after crossing four rivers the carriage kept moving. Now Vandhiyathevan was certain that the carriage was also headed to the palace in Thanjavur. As they drew closer to the palace gates one of the men in the entourage asked Vandhiyathevan who was now close behind, if he was following them for a reason. Vandhiyathevan replies that he was on his way to see his uncle, but his horse was tired so he could not overtake them. He now wanted to make use of this opportunity to enter the palace. He leaned forward kicking the horse on its belly while yanking the rein around its neck. The horse sprang forward in a leap that knocked the guards behind the carriage to the ground as the carriage entered the palace gates.

22. Security Force

The men carrying the carriage halt immediately. As Vandhiyathevan protested that the carriage rammed into the horse, the curtain opened. Vandhiyathevan began addressing the prince inside, Mathuranthakar, but was taken aback when he saw that it was a woman inside, a rather beautiful woman. He immediately changed his address, now addressing the queen. The woman asked the guards to step back and asked Vandhiyathevan why he let the horse collide with the carriage. Vandhiyathevan tells the woman that he had a message for her from Azhvarkadiyan. She looked at him keenly and tells him that this is not the place, but to come into the palace to see her. She then gives him a ring with her seal that would gain him admission to the palace. She then summoned the guards to move the carriage. Vandhiyathevan saw that the ring had the seal of the palmyrah. He heads to the main entrance of the palace. At the entrance people are lining the streets awaiting for the gates to open. He finds out that the King’s personal security force will be now marching out in parade after paying their respects to the king. These men were held in high regard. They have all taken the vow to kill themselves if at any time they fail to protect the life of the king. Vandhiyathevan sees that their flag had under the tiger, a crown and below a sword and a head. More than a thousand soldiers proceeded to march chanting praises for the king.

23. Amuthan’s Mother

As the procession proceeds, Vandhiyathevan sees that the soldiers at the very end start playing pranks with shopkeepers along the way sometimes amounting to nothin but looting. He also observes that the people take this with good nature, hardly taking offense. He learns that once this security force leaves, the palace gates will not open again that day. He decides to stay the night somewhere and return in the morning. He makes friends with Chenthan Amuthan, a young man delivering flowers to a temple. The boy invites him to spend the night at his house. Vandhiyathevan meets his mother, who can neither hear nor speak. She is able on all other accounts. After a hearty meal of stringhoppers, followed by rice and curd, he is given a bed to sleep.

24. Crow and the Cuckoo Bird

In the morning Vandhiyathevan leaves the house with Chenthan Amuthan leaving the horse behind. Amuthan tells him that the king is paralysed from the waist down and is bed ridden. He learns that it was the Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers who have control in Thanjavur. Amuthan tells him that his mother has a brother whose daughter is Poonkuzhali. Unlike his mother his cousin can sing very well. It is clear that Amuthan was very fond of her. At the palace gate, Amuthan takes his leave.

25. Inside the Fortress

Kanji is the capital of the old Pallava kingdom. Athithakarikalar has now renovated it admirably. Still, it is no comparison to the Thanjavur fortress that Vandhiyathevan is now looking at. After showing the ring Nandhini had given him, he had no problems entering through the gates. Inside was a very vibrant city filled with people, shops and offices. Vandhiyathevan did not want to appear as if he was new. He set his eyes on the tallest building with the largest tiger flag. He guessed it to be the king’s palace. He did not want to see Pazhuvertaraiyar. His inquiry showed that he has not returned. He will in any case have to see his brother, the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar who was the king’s chief general in order to gain entry to the king. Nandhini’s ring once again let him in. Behind him he saw a group of poets who were also visiting. He saw that they were also being directed to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar.

26. Danger! Danger!

Vandhiyathevan went ahead and presented himself to the younger Pazhuvertariyar. He received the letter that he had carried from Kanji and told him that he would deliver it to the king. Now Vandhiyathevan said to him that Pazhuvertaraiyar had asked him to give the letter to the king in person. After questioning him about his meeting with Pazhuvertaraiyar and Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar and the gathering at Kadampoor, he directs the guard to take Vandhiyathevan to the king. The king is happy to have a letter from the prince. Queen Vanamadevi is seated beside him. He says that he will have a reply by the next day. Vandhiyathevan now tells the king that it is essential that the king leave Thanjavur and go to Kanji. He says that it was dangerous for the king to be here. As he leads the group of poets to the king, the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar picks up the two words that Vandhiyathevan had just uttered, “Danger! Danger!”

27. Visiting Poets

The poets gather around the king and sing his praise. Vandhiyathevan surreptitiously seats himself among the poets. His mission is not over yet. Athithakarikalar had asked him to speak to the king personally. This part of the mission was only half accomplished. When the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar sees Vandhiyathevan there, his mustache begins to twitch as his face tightens in anger. He does not want to make a commotion, so he allows it to go on. One of the poets tells the king that the Buddhists in the north have been touched by the king’s generosity to them and have sung in his praise. The king rejects this saying that he had hardly done anything that warranted of praise. Another poet says that even the sun, and the gods have sung praising the king. The king replies that he cannot believe it and he must hear it. He goes on to recite the poem. Nallan Sahthanar, the head poet rises to explain the meaning of the poem:

There was once a fight between Lord Indra and the savage Viruthirasaran. Lord Indra’s elephant died in this war. He asked the king to give him an elephant. When the king showed him a whole herd of elephants and asked him to choose one Indra was overcome with indecision. The king not only chooses an elephant but also hands him a spear to control the elephant. In the fight between Rahu the savage and the sun, there was no doubt that the sun’s rays would burn the savage. But Rahu had killed the seven horses that steered the sun’s chariot by poisoning them. The sun now had no means of transportation. Seeing the helpless state of the sun, the Chola king gives him the seven horses needed. When Lord Shiva and Parvathi got married at Kaialangiri, the bride’s people came with gifts. They had not brought a carriage. For the procession there was no wagon except the buffalo. Chola king again came for the rescue. He sent his pearl carriage to the wedding.

Such had been the generosity of the king, said Nallan Sahthanar. Upon hearing this the king laughed out loud. His laughter made Malaiamman’s daughter Vanamadevi, her maids and the palace doctor immensely happy. The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar now addressed the king apologizing for keeping the poets away form the king all this while. He realized now that their visit had been good for the king. He was merely listening to the doctor’s advice. King now asks the poets who wrote the last poem. Nallan Sahthanar says that it has been impossible to find that out. King replies that it’s not surprising, because the poem contains so many lies in just four lines the poet will not want to make his name public. The poets did not know how to respond to him. They remain quiet. Vandhiyathevan rose and said, “My Lord, we cannot reject this as a lie. If ordinary people made up a story it is a lie; but if politicians did it, that becomes political strategy; if poets did it, it is called imagination, lyrical beauty and metaphor.” Poets are encouraged by this. They cheer him on. The king tells Vandhiyathevan that it is an intelligent response. He tells the poets that they are looking at the person who wrote the poem. It is not an exaggeration to say that the poets were now speechless and pleasantly surprised.

28. Iron Grip.

The king tells the assembled poets and Vandhiyathevan that on a previous occasion when a group of poets had visited him some years ago his daughter Kundavai had been present by his side. After the poets had left he had told her that he can sing as good as them and had made up this poem. Kundavai then a small child had climbed on his back and given him two slaps one on each side of his face as his reward. The poets now recited one more poem about the Chola kingdom. It included the line that food was brought from Ceylon. The king tells the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar that he knew that this was what he wanted the king to hear. He then asks him to send the poets away. As the poets were leaving with their gifts Vandhiyathevan tried to slip away with them. Because he was now suddenly aware that the letter he was carrying on his person for Kundavai was missing. At the door a hand gripped him most firmly. He knew without turning whose hand it was.

29. Our Guest

Once the poets took their leave, the doctor prepared the king’s medication. Malaiamman’s daughter the reigning queen herself administered the medicine to her husband. Younger Pazhuvertaraiyar who had been patient until then, dragged Vandhiyathevan towards the king. He questioned, “My Lord! Is there any benefit after the new medicine?” “There is benefit, says the doctor. So does my wife. But I have no hope. To tell the truth, General! all of this is useless. My time has come. Yaman has gone to Pallaiyarai in search of me, I think. Once he finds out that I am not there, he will come here looking for me,” the king repled.

“My Lord! you should not lose faith like this. You should not shatter our hearts like this. Your ancestors …”

“Ah! You are telling me that my ancestors were not afraid of Yaman! I too will not hesitate to face death if it was in the battlefield fighting at the forefront like my ancestors; I will not feel tired. I will welcome it wholeheartedly. My uncle Rajathithiyar died waging war atop an elephant at Thahkolam. He established forever the enduring fame of the Chola tribe’s gallantry in the Thahkolam battlefield. His name lives on as “he who died atop an elephant.” How will I be known? Sundaracholan who died on his deathbed? My other uncle Kandarahthitha Thevar overcame his fear of death through his devotion to Siva. He undertook pilgrimages to temples on the western shore. He died there. He earned the name “he who departed in the west.” I am not a Shaiva devotee like him. I am not even fit to travel. How long can I be lying down like this, a burden to my people? But there is something in my heart that tells me that it is not going to be for long …”

“Emperor! The palace doctor says that you are not in any danger. Astrologers are also saying that you are not in danger. But this young man here was telling you something about danger …”

“Ah! Isn’t he the young man from Kanji? Yes, he did talk about danger; what did you mean, Son? Was it about my condition?

Vallavaraiyan’s mind was re-configuring at lightening speed. If he admits that he was warning about any danger, it was certain to create suspicion and danger for himself. He knew that the only way to get out of the predicament he had placed himself in was to talk his way out of it.

“Great emperor! Who am I to speak about danger (apahyam). With our great general the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar, the palace doctor and the queen who is none other than goddess Savithri herself here, how can there be any danger here? I was saying “Asylum! Asylum!” I am the only one left from the old Vaanar tribe. I have served the Chola state to the satisfaction of your great son. In your kindness, grant me at least a small portion of our ancestral estate. King of kings! asylum! asylum! (apayam) for this ignorant boy!” Vallavaraiyan blirted out in one long breath.

The younger Pazhuvertaraiyar’s face fell upon hearing this. Sundara Cholar’s face lit up again. The queen showed compassion. “When this child was born Saraswathi had written on his tongue. He speaks so well,” said the queen. Vandhiyathevan seizing this moment replied, “Mother! Please say a word on my behalf. I am an orphan without a mother or father. I have no other support. I have to speak for myself. Please speak on my behalf just as Parvathidevi spoke to Parameswaran and Lakshmidevi to Mahavishnu on behalf of their devotee. I will be satisfied with just ten villages out of our ancestral land.” Hearing this exchange had been a very pleasant surprise for Sundara Cholar. He said to the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar, “General! I like this young man very much. The queen is looking as if she is thinking of adopting him as the third child. Can we grant him his wish? Is there going to be a problem? What is your opinion?”

“What merit does my humble opinion have in this matter? Isn’t it prince Kathikalar’s opinion that matters?” answered the general.

“Emperor! The prince had said to ask the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar. The general says to ask the prince. Between the two of them my request …”

“Young man! Don’t you worry! We will ask both of them at the same time,” said the emperor. Then he looked at the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar: “General! This young man brought me a letter from the prince. Again, Athithan has written that I should come to Kanji. It seems that he has built a palace in gold there. I should at least stay there a short time he says.”

“Whatever your wish, it will be done” said the general.

“Ah! You will do what I please. But my legs are refusing. It is impossible to travel to Kanji. I hate to travel in a carriage behind a curtain like the palace women. We have to send Athitha Karikalan a letter asking him to come here.”

“Can the prince now leave Kanji and come here? Our enemies are still strong in the north!”

“Parthipendran and Malaiamman will take care of affairs there. My intuition tells me that the prince should be here with me now at this time. Not only that; we have to ask Illango in Eelam to come here as well. I want to discuss an important matter in their presence. When Arulmozhi is here you can also tell him of your objection about sending food to Eelam …”

“Emperor! Pardon me! I do not object to sending food to Eelam. The minister of agriculture also does not object. Chola people are objecting. Production was less in the last harvest in Chola nadu. When they don’t have enough, they are objecting to sending ship loads of rice to Lanka. Now they are grumbling among themselves. As days go their voices will get louder. Their voices will get louder even inside the fortress to the extent it will hurt your health.”

“Arulmozhi will never agree to do anything that citizens object. For all, let him come and go, once. When Pazhuvertaraiyar is here we will decide about sending someone to Lanka; When is he returning?”

“He will definitely return tonight.”

“To Kanji also we will write the letter and send it tomorrow. We can also send the letter through this young man, can’t we?”

“This young man has traveled from Kanji without a break. Let him rest here for a few days. We will send the letter through someone else.”

“Do that. Until the prince comes he can remain here?”

As Malaiamman’s daughter stood up, the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar said, “I have troubled you for a long time today. Devi has had to warn me!” “General! this young man is our guest. Please make his visit comfortable. If the emperor was in good health, we could have asked him to stay here in the palace,” said the daughter of Malaiamman. “I will take care of it, my lady! You don’t need that worry. I will take care of him well,” said the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar. As if by reflex, his hand rose up to shape his mustache.

 

 

 

 

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