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Ponniyin Selvan Part I (48 – 49)

January 5, 2015

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 translations / notes in keeping up with the plot. Translations of this novel are available online.

48. A Maelstrom in the Water and in her Eyes

The first man that god created lived on the slope of a mountain. The cave there gave him sanctuary protecting him from rain and wind. What he needed for food the forest trees gave him in their variety of fruits. The wild animals trembled at the sight of him. Like the birds of the sky he lived in a freedom that was complete. Yet, there was something missing, an unknown thirst in his soul. Something as powerful as a magnet tugged at him. His heart searched for a rare something, a happiness that he was yet to experience. At day he imagined about it; at night he dreamt about it. ‘This miraculous object that was created especially for me, this divine fruit, this beauty that attracts me, when will I see it? where will I see it?’ his heart lamented in its longing. The same time that god created the first man, he also created the first woman. She lived on the slope on another side of the mountain. She had food for her hunger, water from the reservoir for her thirst, a mountain cave for shelter. On the outside there was nothing lacking. But in her heart a fire burned flames leaping and darting that consumed her being. There was an energy that attracted her, that pulled her. From where is this force pulling her, in which direction it is pulling her, it was not known. Between the first man and first woman stood the towering mountain that prevented them from meeting one another.

In the summer, one day, by the laws of nature a fire started and spread in all four directions. The fire spread very fast around the mountain. The man and woman realizing that they would perish if they went into the forest climbed the mountain. They saw each other on the top of the mountain. They remained staring at each other not moving even an eyelid. They forgot the forest fire. They also forgot why they climbed the mountain. They forgot about hunger and thirst. Intuitively they knew that their life until that moment had been geared toward this meeting. They also knew that this was the unknown energy that had been pulling them. They realized that together they could make a whole, filling out each other’s deficiencies. They also knew finally that there was no power in the world that could separate those who have joined in this manner.

Brammah Thevan, the god of creation, upon witnessing this miraculous sight, was completely satisfied that his work was off to a good beginning.

At that moment our Vandhiyathevan and Kundavai were like this first man and first woman. Their intuition told them that their birth and life in this world had been for this moment, for this meeting. But unlike the first man and first woman weren’t they the genteel folk? Therefore they could not forget the difference in their respective status. They did not completely give themselves over to emotion. They looked at each other, their eyes beholding each other for a second and then only to avert their glances the next second to look at their surrounding, the flower, the tree, the butterfly and the canal that lay nearby.

Only after Eesana Pattar cleared his throat they reminded themselves that they were meeting here over an important matter. “Is it true that as you told Eesana Pattar that you wanted to see me?” the young princess made herself ask in a stern voice.

The authoritative tone of her voice caused Vandhiyathevan to pull himself together. “Shouldn’t one know who is addressing him in order to answer one’s question? I am beginning to doubt that Eesana Pattar had brought me to the right place,” said the brave young man.

“I am also having that same doubt. Whom did you want to see?”

“I informed Eesana Pattar that I wanted to see the unfaltering beacon of the Chola dynasty, the precious and beautiful daughter of Sundara Cholar, the sister who was born after Athitha Karikalar, Arulmozhivarmar’s older sister, the young princess Kundavai Devi …”

Princess Kundavai smiled and said, ” It is I who is trying to live up to all of this proud sentiment.”

“In that case you are not the lady whom I saw at Kudanthai astrologer’s house and at the shore of Arisilaru?” said Vallavaraiyan.

“Yes, yes! I am also the one who behaved disrespectfully toward you at both of these places. You won’t have expected to meet that uncivilized lady so soon again!”

“It is not correct to say ‘meeting again’, Devi!”

“Why?”

“If we never separated how can we meet again? You have not left my mind for even a moment …”

“I didn’t expect such wittiness from Thondai Mandala folks”

“It’s as if you would grant all the glory to Chola Nadu alone. You would not grant any to the other territories.”

“Yes. I am indeed guilty of that. It turns out that you don’t like our Chola Nadu!”

“Why not? I like it very much. But Chola Nadu is facing two great dangers. The thought of it frightens me …!”

“Indeed the sword and spear of Chola warriors are frightful weapons! Foreigners ought to be careful here. Especially those who come to spy …”

“Princess! I didn’t mean those two dangers. I too carry a sword and spear. I know very well how to use them.”

“Didn’t I witness your expertise with the spear the other day at Arisilatankarai? How forcefully your spear struck the fake crocodile? Didn’t you bring all the cotton out with one throw?”

“Madam! I didn’t know that the royal women of Chola Nadu can also be the brave ladies who are dead scared of a fake crocodile. I also wasn’t aware that the Chola warriors are the supreme kind that attack a dead crocodile. I threw my spear thinking that it was a live crocodile. It is not my mistake, neither is it my spear’s! …”

“It is the fault of that foolish crocodile! Didn’t it die without waiting for the brave Vandhiyathevan of Vaanar tribe fame to come along with his spear? It deserves all the insult …! Which of the two dangers were you talking about?”

“The maelstroms generated when Chola Nadu rivers flood are dangerous! One should not treat it lightly. They had me struggling for my life.”

“How did you get caught in a maelstrom? You look as if you won’t even step into water.”

“Is it possible to be married to the spirit and refuse to climb the Murungai tree? Because I came to Chola Nadu I have had to jump into the river and get caught in its currents. Because of this foolish child who accompanied me it happened! Listen, Devi! That boy refused to tell a small lie. Because of that … this trouble …”

“I don’t understand. Please explain!”

“I will. Thanjai fortress general, the younger Pazhuvertaraiyar, called me – a messanger bearing a letter from your dear brother – a spy, setting his men after me to arrest me. I did not want to go to prison before I completed my mission. Therefore I set out with the young boy, whose house I was staying in Thanjai, as my guide. …”

“Whose house were you staying at in Thanjai Nagar?”

“I stayed at the house of a florist outside the fortress. The lady cannot speak …”

“Oho! Her name …?”

“I don’t know her name. I only know her son’s name. His name is Senthan Amuthan.”

“What I thought was correct. Go on!”

“With the boy on the horse with me I was coming toward Pazhaiyarai town. But Pazhuvertaraiyr’s men were closing in on us. I didn’t want to get caught to them before I finished my task. Once we reached Kudamuruttu river I told the boy, ‘I will get down here, Brother! You just continue on the horse! They will chase you thinking it is me. They will be fooled when they catch you! Tell them that I drowned in the river when they ask you about me!’ That boy acted as if he had come from Harichandran’s family. ‘When you haven’t drowned how can I tell that you drowned?’ he asked. I tied him to the horse. Then I jumped into the river and went under so that he didn’t have to tell a lie. Ammamah! Those Chola Nadu rivers especially along the banks, how many rip currents? I got caught into those and I was lost. In the end I got hold of a root by the water’s edge and was able to climb out. Devi! What do you think went on in my mind when I was getting caught in those vortexes, gasping for breath and nearly drowning …?”

“How will I know? Perhaps you were thinking of heaven …”

“No, no! I saw some carp that were also having a difficult time in the whirlpool. Those fish reminded me of the Chola women’s eyes. One can come out of the river’s maelstrom; but not out of the maelstrom that is the Chola woman’s glance! …”

“Some people take great pride in finding fault with women, blaming the women like this; it is the tradition of men to blame women for their own mistakes. …”

“I too followed that tradition. What is wrong with that?” asked Vandhiyathevan.

At that time they heard the sweet music of flute from inside the palace. With it followed the jingle of ankle-rings and the sound of drums. Later, a chorus of women sang in their sweet voices. They sang from the Shepherd Folk-dance section of the classic Cilapathikaram. Kundavai and Vandhiyathevan gave themselves up to its beauty forgetting their surroundings. Again the sound of ankle-rings indicated that dancing with musical accompaniment was taking place.

“It sounds like folk dance at the palace. At kadampoor there was folk dance. It was completely different.” said Vandhiyathevan.

“Yes; my friends are learning folk dance. They will soon be looking for me. What was the reason for your visit?” asked Princess Kundavai Devi.

“Here is my mission; your brother’s letter; surviving many dangers, saved from maelstroms in water as well as women’s eyes, I brought this!” said Vallavaraiyan handing the letter.

49. Wonder of all wonders

Madam Kundavai read the letter that Vandhiyathevan presented. Her face which was serious with creased eye brows now brightened up.

Raising her head to look at Vandhiyathevan, she asked, “You have brought the letter. Now what do you propose to do?”

“My work is over now. I will have to return to my place now,” he answered.

“Your work is not over. It just began.”

“I don’t understand, Madam!”

The prince has written that you can be trusted with any kind of secret mission. Aren’t you going to act accordingly?”

“I did agree with the prince about that. But don’t entrust me with anything important. I beg of you.”

“I don’t understand. Is it the custom of the Vaanar tribe to retreat from an agreement?”

“Vaanar tribe is not in the habit of touting their past glory. Neither do they go back on their word.”

“Then, why hesitate? Is it dislike of the feminine race? Or, don’t you like to see me?” smiled the princess.

“Aha! What is the question? Doesn’t the ocean like the moon? If it didn’t like then why is it reaching for the full moon with thousands of waves? Who will say that the blue sky does not like the earth-mother? If it didn’t then why is it staring at the earth all night through thousands of starry eyes? Don’t the clouds like lightening? If not why do they embrace the lightening that leaps off and splices them to their bosom? Doesn’t the bee like the flower? If not why does it circle the flower until it collapses in its drunken state? Will anyone believe that the firefly does not like the lamp? In that case why does it die in its light? Devi! You asked a good question! If I don’t like to see you then why does even a sideways glance from you excite me so? Why do I lose my mind over that little smile that hovers over your lips? …” All these thoughts crossed Vandhiyathevan’s mind. But his tongue did not utter them.

“Sir! You didn’t answer my question! Do you feel reluctant at the thought that a brave man born into the Vaanar tribe should do the bidding of a woman? Didn’t the prince reveal its contents when he gave the letter?” the princess asked again.

“Devi! I departed with full understanding of the prince’s intent. But it looks like I didn’t begin my journey at an auspicious moment. Because of it I earned enemies all the way. I made an enemy out of even my best friend. The enemies are rounding up from all four directions. How can I guarantee under these circumstances that I can fulfill your command? This is the reason for hesitation. Your work should not fail because of me!” said Vallavaraiyan.

“Who are these enemies? Can you tell me?” asked Kundavai, her voice laced with fear.

“The Pazhuvertaraiyar brothers have sent their men to hunt for me in all four directions. My lifelong friend Kanthamaran thinks that I stabbed him in the back. A brave Vaishnava actor named Azhvarkadiyan is on my trail. Pazhuvoor Illayarani Nandhinidevi had unleashed a magician after me. I do not know when I will get caught by whom …”

Vandhiyathevan remembered his encounter with the magician on the day that he survived the maelstrom of the river. Considering the dangers of traveling in daylight he spent the day hiding in bamboo forests and plantain groves. At night he walked along the water’s edge. After covering a long distance walking, he ended up tired at about an hour past midnight at a dilapidated old building. Outside the moonlight was as bright as midday. Even inside the hall the moonlight crept half way. Leaving the lit area Vandhiyathevan found a dark place to sleep further inside. As his eyelids were closing he heard nearby an owl’s shrill call. He sat up in shock as he remembered hearing the same call when he was speaking to the Pazhuvoor Illayarani in the gazebo. Two tiny light spots stared at him from the dark interior. He took a couple of steps thinking of going outside. He heard footsteps approaching. Holding on to the rough surface of an old pillar he stood in its cover. The intruder’s face was faintly visible in the moonlight.

He knew it was the magician who had come to see Pazhuvoor Illaiyarani. He came straight at the pillar. Vandhiyathevan thought that the magician was unaware of his presence and would walk past him into the building. But the magician who slowly crept like a cat until he reached the pillar suddenly let out a feral cry as he grabbed and squeezed Vandhiyathevan’s neck. “Get it out! Hand over that palmyrah signature ring! If you don’t I will strangle your neck and kill you!” he shouted. Vandhiyathevan’s neck felt like it would snap. His eyeballs were popping out; his breath was caught. However, he resolved to retaliate. Pressing one hand over the old pillar he raised his leg and kicked with all his strength. The magician fell down howling. At the same time the old pillar collapsed. From the roof a cascade of stones were tumbling down. A bat took off beating its wings, “pada, pada.” Vandhiyathevan followed on its heel. He ran without looking behind, stopping only when he was certain that no one was behind. Even now his body trembled when he thought of that night’s ordeal.

Breaking his frightful reverie, he heard Kundavai ask, “Sir! How long has it been since you started from Kanji?” Her voice gave his soul comfort.

“One week and one day, Devi!” he replied.

“It is a wonder of wonders that you had collected so many enemies within this time. How did you manage to do this?”

“Long story, Devi!”

“Doesn’t matter. You can tell me. I can assign you work only after hearing the details,” saying this the princess beckoned Eesana Pattar to move closer. “How is he, the boatman?” she queried.

“Deaf in both ears; even thunder won’t get through, my Lady!” said Eesana Pattar.

“Great! Come let’s go for a boat ride. I have to hear his entire story!” she said.

Vallavaraiyan was ecstatic. It was an extraordinary turn of events to be going in a boat with the princess. One must have toiled in all previous seven births to earn this! On the boat I will stretch my tale for as long as I can! I should not be brief! What is the hurry? Why be in a hurry to end this rare moment?

Vandhiyathevan was not in a hurry. But once the boat started moving in the canal, and Vandhiyathevan started to relate what took place at Kadampoor Sambuvaraiyar’s palace, Kundavai’s curiosity and eagerness escalated minute by minute. “What then?” “After that?” she kept urging. Vandhiyathevan as was his plan extended the story for as long as he could. However, doesn’t even a long story have an end? When the story ended the boat also returned to its dock.

When they left the boat and entered the garden they could hear the sound of musical instruments and ankle-rings which meant that the folk dance session was continuing. They heard another verse sung from Cilapathikaram. The song questions the use of eyes and a mouth that does not seek Kannan or praise him. Among the many attributes of Kannan that is cataloged is the fear that he instills in the evil minded. Hearing it Vallavaraiyan said, “The villain may be wicked! But yesterday he did me a great favor!”

“What is that? How could Hamsan have helped you?” asked the young princess.

“It was Hamsan who helped me to enter this town,” said Vandhiyathevan. He then related the story. He had guessed that Pazhuvertaraiyar’s men would have arrived in Pazhaiyarai even before him. They would be waiting at all the entrances. They will arrest anyone suspicious. How is he to enter Pazhaiyarai without getting caught to them?

When Vandhiyathevan was waiting at Arisilattankarai, a slight distance away from the main entrance to the city, a drama group arrived. They wore the costumes of Kannan, Palaramn, Hamsan and others. Only Hamsan wore a wooden mask covering his face and head. Vandhiyathevan had an idea. He started a conversation. “This Hamsan is not very good in dancing,” he said. Enraged, Hamsan came for a fight. Would Vallavaraiyan turn away from a fight that so easily presented itself? “I can dance better than you. You want to see?” he asked forcibly snatching the mask from the performer. He placed it on his head and started to dance. All who saw him cheered him on. They agreed that his dance was more in character. The Hamasan performer became angry and left. “Let him go; I would come with you and dance,” offered Vandhiyathevan. The group happily took him along.

At the end of the festivities in the streets of Pazhaiyarai, Vandhiyathevan, following Athitha Karikalar’s instructions, went to Vadamettali temple and spoke to Eesana Pattar, who made him wait in the Jainist mountain cave outside the temple. After sending word to Princess Kundavai, he brought him across the canal.

Upon hearing these deatils the princess raised her eyes in astonishment and said, “Chola dynasty has been blessed by the grace of the Kottavai godddess of victory. That is why the goddess has sent you to me in this difficult time.”

“Your Majesty! You have  not given me any orders yet. The time is now here to prove my worth!” said Vallavaraiyan.

“Don’t worry about it. The dangers you have so far faced would be nothing compared to the assignment I am going to give you now,” she said.

Vandhiyathevan’s heart swelled with pride. He prepared himself to cross the seven seas, confront a thousand lions unarmed, climb Mount Meru and pluck the stars from the sky with his hands in order to carry out her majesty’s orders.

At the center of the palace garden was an edifice open to the gentle south wind. Kundavai walked towards it. Pattar and Vandhiyathevan followed her. From a jeweled alcove there she took a small palmyrah leaflet and a style with a gold handle. She wrote the following on the leaflet: “Ponniyin Selva! Depart as soon as you receive this letter. The bearer of this letter will furnish you with details. He is completely trustworthy.” Below she drew a small figure of an Aathi leaf. Handing the letter to Vandhiyathevan she said, “Without delay please take this letter to Lanka. Give it to Arulmozhivaraman and bring him back with you at once.”

Vandhiyathevan struggled to breathe in the waves of happiness that washed over him. Out of his lifelong dreams one has come true. He had met the Chola dynasty’s beacon, the young princess. Through her his second dream was about to come true. He would be fortunate to meet Arulmozhivarmar.

“Devi! You have given me a delightful task. I will leave now with this letter!” he extended his right hand for the letter. When Kundavai handed the letter her kanthal like fingers touched his. His heart beat as if it would burst. A thousand ten thousand butterflies beat their wings as they took flight in front of him. Thousand ten thousand cuckoo birds joined in a chorus of songs. A potpourri of flowers showered over him scattering their petals in all four directions.

In this state Vandhiyathevan lifted his head and looked up at Kundavai Devi. His heart longed to speak. But mere words were incapable of giving life to what he wanted to say. Instead, his eyes spoke. What more can be said, if even Kalithasan’s poems and the poems of the ancient Tamil poets who composed Muthollaiyiram fell inadeaqute when compared to the composition of his eyes.

From outside the pergola a slight distance away came the crunching sound of dry leaves. Eesana Pattar cleared his throat. Vandhiyathevan returned to earth.

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