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Ponniyin Selvan Part I (54 – 55)

January 24, 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.

54. Her Venom Deadlier Than Poison

That night the three warriors stayed at one of the old Pallava emperors’ palaces in Mamallpuram. After dinner king Malaiamman hearing about an aravan storytelling event near the five chariots monument went to listen to it. Athitha Karikalan and Parthipenthiran were on the balcony.

From the palace’s balcony Athitha Karikalan took in the city’s skyline for a while. Here and there lights flickered. The streets were mostly quiet. Temple doors were being shut following the midnight sacrifice. The ocean sounded sad in its relentless turning over. While the bard of the hunters songs and his group conducted the aravan storytelling next to the five chariots the audience surrounding them cast dark shadows in the light of the flame torches.

“At this old age the old man had gone for the story telling, see! Whatever is said, the old folks are the real men! Who in this day has their strength of body and fortitude?” said Athitha Karikalan.

“Prince! Have you also begun to talk of the glory of the old days? What haven’t we achieved in our time that the old folks did in theirs? Do we ever come across young warriors in classical literature and poetry who have performed as well as you?” replied Parthipenthran.

“Parthipah! You are an honest man. I know that you speak from the heart. Otherwise I would doubt if you were a friend and not an enemy. Because you flatter me to that extent. There is nothing like empty praise to take one down!”

“Sir! The praise would be empty amounting to flattery if one were to exaggerate for selfish reasons. If I said to Mathuranthakan, the slave of the Thanjavur Pazhuvertaraiyars, ‘you are a great warrior’, that would constitute flattery. If you ever hear that I did that please kill me at once with your own sword. There is not a word that is excessive in what I said about you! Who in ancient times at a young age has achieved as much? One might compare you to your great uncle, Rajathithiar who died fighting on the elephant, and call him your equal; but even he is not greater than you…”

“Stop, Parthipah, stop! Where is Rajathithar? Where am I? We are not fit to talk about Rajathithiar who went to heaven after destroying the large garrison of the Rashdira Kudars that rose like an ocean with his small army of soldiers. Can we compare us to him? Let the Chola tribe be; what great men were present in the old days of your own Pallava heritage! Would we ever have another Mahendravarmar and Mamallar in this country? Where is the Narasimmar who destroyed Vathabi and conquered Pulikesi who ruled from Thungapathirai in the south to Narmathai in the north under one umbrella? Where are you and I? Can anyone in our time or after us create a dreamland like this Mamallapuram?… Adada! Look around in all four directions, I tremble when I think of what a spectacular show it must have presented! Don’t you feel this way? Don’t your shoulders straighten up when you think of your ancestors?”

“Prince! A while ago you said that I was praising you. You forgot that sometimes I also criticize. You too have been inflicted with the craze of wasting one’s life with sculpture – art – culture. Because of this craze all the triumphs of our ancestors were wasted. After planting his scepter in Vathabi what did Mamallar do? He sat carving the rocks and sculpting the caves. What was the result? For a while the Salukars prospered. They came with a big battalion for revenge. They destroyed Kanji and Uraiyoor. They went up to Madurai. If Nedumara Pandiyan did not defeat the Salukar army at Nelveli, today won’t this south country be under the rule of the Salukars?”

“No, Parthipah, no! We don’t know of any ruling tribe in the world that lasted forever. Even Ramar’s Ishvahu tribe came to an end. Irattai Mandalam rose to defeat the Salukars. Ups and downs are a natural part of governance. Some kingdoms reach their pinnacle for a certain period and then disappear without a trace. Take a look at my ancestors! Chola kings like Karikalvalavan and Killivalavan were famous. What do we know about them now? We know their names because poets have sung their praise. We don’t know if they were singing the truth or if they were drunk and simply got carried away in their composition. But Mahendra Pallavar and Mamallar created this sculpture enclave, which would tell their story to the world for thousands of years. Compared to it what have you and I achieved? We have killed thousands of men in war; we let the blood run. What else is our legacy?”

Hearing this Parthpenthiran stood in astonishment wondering if it was really Athitha Karikalan that was speaking. After a long sigh he said, “Prince! What can I say if you are going to speak in this manner about war and martial valor? You are not in a proper state of mind today. That is why you are speaking in this way! Sir! Couldn’t you tell me what is troubling your mind? Couldn’t you open that heart made of iron and show what’s inside?”

“Parthipah! If I bared my heart what would be inside, – whom do you think is in it?”

“That is what I want to find out, my Lord!”

‘My mother and father who gave birth to me, won’t be in it. My sweeter than life sister and brother won’t be in it. My best friends Vandhiyathevan and you won’t be in it. A woman, the personification of deceitfulness will be there. Pazhuvur Illaiyarani, the embodiment of evil will be there. Until today I haven’t opened my mouth to tell anyone what Nandhini who is in my heart who is deadlier than poison puts me through. Today I have told you!” There was fire in Athitha Karikalan’s speech.

“Prince! I somehow guessed it. Whenever there was talk of Pazhuvur Illaiyarani your dark face and reddened eyes spoke of the inordinate amount of heartache it caused. But how did this unsavory desire took possession of your soul? You came from the tribe that considers all outside women as mothers. Pazhuvertaraiyar is a longtime relative of your tribe. An elderly person. Today they may be our enemies but they weren’t that way before. How much did your father and grandfather respect him? A woman that someone like him married with fire as witness… however bad she may be… should you think of her in this way?”

“I should not, Parthipah! I should not! Do you think I don’t know that? This agony is because I know. She didn’t take over my heart after her marriage to Pazhuvertaraiyar. The poisonous desire for her took hold of my heart long before that. However much I try I cannot weed it out. I speak as though she is to be blamed entirely. God knows who is to be blamed. If we consider, all blame should fall on the head of the God who created us. Or the fate that made us meet and later  parted us, should be blamed!”

“Prince! Have you met Nandhini before she became Pazhuvur Illaiyarani? Where and when did you meet?”

“It is a long story. Do you want to hear it today?”

“Certainly I want to. If I don’t hear it I won’t have peace of mind. You are asking me to go to Ilankai tomorrow? I will not be able to function properly there. Only if I know the situation and comfort you my mind will have peace!”

“My friend! You are going to comfort me? I have no solace in this birth. It is doubtful that I will have any in my next birth. I will relate this for your peace of mind. You should not go to Ilankai thinking that I am hiding something from you!”

Athitha Karikalan paused for a while. Then with a long sigh he began.

55. Nandhini’s Lover

“I met Nandhini first in my twelfth year. One day in the canal behind the Pazhaiarai palace my sister and I and my brother were playing on the boat. Afterwards we climbed out of the boat and made our way to the palace through the garden. On the way we heard our great aunt Chempian Mathevi’s voice. The three of us were very fond of her. Wishing to tell her about our boat ride we went in the arbor from where we had heard her voice. Besides our great aunt there were three others present. One of them was a small girl of our age. We found out that the other two were her parents. They were telling our great aunt something about the girl. Once we entered the arbor everyone looked at us. But my eyes saw only the little girl’s long eyes made wider with surprise. When I think of it that scene is even today in  front of my eyes…”

Karikalan remained silent staring up at the sky. Perhaps he saw the little girl’s face among the thin clouds moving in the sky.

“Sir! What happened then?” Hearing Parthipenthiran, Karikalan came back to earth and continued the story.

“My sister Kundavai told our great aunt about our boating session. After listening to her, Mathevadikal said, “My darling! Did you see this girl? Isn’t she clever? They have come to our Eesana Pattar’s house from Pandiya Nadu. They will be here for a few days. This child’s name is Nandhini. Somtime do include her in your play. She will be a good friend to you!” But I knew that my sister didn’t like this. After we went from there to the palace Kundavai said, “Brother! There was a girl, there! Did you see how ugly she was? Why was her face like that of an owl? Grandmother says we have to play with her? I can’t help laughing when I look at her face! What to do?” When I heard this I had an important realization. Which is that women are born jealous. However much a woman may be beautiful; she still cannot bear the sight of another beautiful woman.

It is generally known that among the women in my family my sister is the most beautiful. Even she could not bear to see another beautiful woman. Otherwise why should she speak of that girl in that manner? I didn’t let my sister get away so easily. To make her angry I emphatically said that the girl was pretty. We both argued and fought over this often. Our brother Arulmozhi was befuddled unable to figure out the reason for our fight. After some days I went with my father to the war in Pandiya Nadu. We defeated in several places the Pandiya garrison and the one sent by the Ilankai king to aid the Pandiyars. In the end, Veera Pandiyan ran and hid himself. It wasn’t known at that time whether he was hiding or if he died in war. Once Veera Pandiyan disappeared the Ilankai soldiers who had come to help the Pandiya army retreated. Chasing them we went up to Sethukarai. Leaving the dead others got on ships and escaped. My father wanted to teach a lesson to the Ilankai kings who made trouble by frequently sending troops to aid the Pandiyar. He decided to send a big battalion under the command of Kodumbalur siriya Vellar. It took a while to organize the ships and requisites for it. Nevertheless we waited there until we shipped out the soldiers. We returned to Chola Nadu only after knowing that the soldiers had disembarked safely at Mathottam.

“More than two years had passed before I returned to Pazhaiarai. I had forgotten completely the priest’s daughter who had come from the neighborhoods of Madurai. When I returned to Pazhaiarai I saw that my sister and this girl had grown beyond recognition. I also saw that they were being friendly towards each other. Nandhini had not only grown, but was beautiful in her clothes and jewelry. I found out that this was the work of my sister. Unlike before Nandhini felt shy to see me or talk to me. I worked hard to change that. I derived more pleasure in talking to her than in anything else. I cannot describe how shocking this was to me at my young age. Like the monsoon floods of Kaveri there was a new emotion that was flooding my heart. But I found out soon that my folks did not like this. From the time I returned Kindavai began to show her dislike of the girl. One day our grandmother Mathevadikal advised me, “Nandhini is from the priest’s house; you are the son of the emperor; both of you are now of age. Therefore it is not suitable for you to play with Nandhini.” Having until then respected my grandmother as a god I felt anger and disrespect at her words. Ignoring her advise I seeked Nandhini out to get to know her. This did not last for a long time. All of a sudden it became known that Nandhini and her parents have left for their place in Pandiya Nadu. I was devastated with grief; anger was overwhelming. I hid my sadness within me and took my anger out on my sister. Fortunately in a few days I was journeying north. I was to join the Chola garrison that was to drive out the Rashdira Kuda troops that were occupying Thirumunaipadi and Thondai Mandalam. That is when you and I met; we became inseparable friends.

“With the help of king Malaiamman we fought with the Rashdira Kuda troops. We chased them north of Palaru and captured Kanji Nagar. Sad news arrived from Ilankai at that time. Our troops were defeated there with the death of Kodumbalur siriya Vellar. Upon hearing this Veera Pandiyan who was until then hiding in a cave in the desert emerged as a snake from its hole. Once again he gathered the troops and captured Madurai hoisting the flag of piscis. You do remember how furious you and I were when we heard it! We both went to Pazhaiarai at once. My father’s health had begun to deteriorate then. His legs were losing power. Even then the emperor was willing to go to war with Pandiya Nadu. I stopped him. I took a pledge in front of him that I will not return to Chola Nadu without Veera Pandiyan’s head after defeating the Pandiya troops and capturing Madurai. You were with me at that time. My father respecting my pledge sent us to war in Pandiya Nadu. He ordered to serve under Kodumbalur Poothivikrama Kesari who was already the commander there. We agreed and went. On the way we met the elder Pazhuvertaraiyar. We learnt that he was dissatisfied that Kodumabalur king was appointed commander instead of him.

Seeing our fury Kodumbalur Poothivikrama Kesari handed over his war responsibility to us. Friend! There is nothing wrong in being proud that we performed some unbelievable  feats in that war. We beat the Pandiya troops and captured Madurai. We weren’t satisfied with that. We wanted to destroy the Pandiya army to the extent that it would never again raise its head. We ordered our troops chase behind them in all four directions and wipe them out without leaving even one behind. We chased Pandiyan with a strong battalion. The flag with fish raised high showed us in which direction Pandiyan was fleeing. We followed in that direction and caught him. Surrounding him like a wall was his emergency fleet. They are a step above the secret servicemen of Chola Nadu. They have vowed that they would not back down and will risk their own lives to save the Pandiya king. If that was not possible and the Pandiya king was in danger thay have vowed to cut their own heads as sacrifice. We fought with soldiers of that caliber. They performed their duty. We killed them not leaving out one. The dead bodies piled up. But we did not see Veera Pandiyan in the middle. There was an elephant hoisting the flag of the fish. Pandiya king was not to be seen on it or next to it! Isn’t Veera Pandiyan an expert in running and hiding from the battlefield? Suspecting that he had run off, we sent the troops in all four directions.

“All of you went swiftly along the two banks of the river Vaikai. I didn’t stay idle. I got in the river, walked on sand and went south. There was the hoof print of a single horse in places on the sand. Along the trail there was also blood on the sand. I followed it. I reached the forest that was like an island in the middle of river Vaikai. In this grove was a Thirumal temple. Next to it were one or two houses for priests. In the grove were many flowering trees suitable for Perumal poojai. A small pond was covered with lotus flowers. Friend! Perhaps you may remember. I had issued strict orders that none of our soldiers should enter this forest even by accident. The reason was not only that I did not want any hindrance to the Perumal temple poojai. It was because in that Pattar’s house was the queen who had taken my heart and made it her temple.”

One day when I went in that grove I had seen Nandhini. Her appearance had now changed a little. Her hair was knotted in front and wrapped in a garland like the statue of Aandahl. She had a garland around her neck also. “What is this costume?” I asked. She said that after she was separated from me she had vowed not to marry anyone human and like Aandahl she would only marry Kannan. It seemed insane to me. Human woman marrying a God? – In any case at that time I didn’t want to argue about it. ‘Let the war end; then we’ll see’ I thought. I asked her if she needed any help. ‘Make certain that your soldiers don’t come here. Only my aged parents are here. They cannot see. I have a brother who is able. Now he had gone on a pilgrimage to Thirupathi!’ she said. I returned after promising as she wanted that I would make sure that none of our soldiers would enter the place. After that I went and saw her two or three times. My old liking for her now burnt ten times more intensely. However I practiced patience. Had to finish first what we came for. Must return with Veera Pandiyan’s head to Pazhaiarai; in return for that I would ask my father’s permission to marry Nandhini, I had decided.

“After haveing made this decision I was both surprised and angry to see the lone horse’s trail leading into the grove. When I proceeded I saw the horse tied in the cover of the trees. Therefore the escapee must be in one of those huts. I went and looked through the rafters in Nandhini’s house. Friend! What I saw there had left an imprint as if a hot iron rod was drawn across my heart. Veera Pandiyan was lying down on an old string bed. Nandhini was giving him water for his thirst. Her face shone with beauty like never before. There were two drops of tear brimming from her eyes. With an anger that was out of my control I kicked the door open and went inside. When she saw me Nandhini who was bandaging the wounds stopped what she was doing and came to me. She fell to the floor and worshiped me. Holding her palms together she said, “Sir! I swear and beg in the name of the love you once had for me. Do not do anything to him! Don’t kill this wounded man by your hand!”

I stuttered, “What is the link between this man and you? Why are you asking me to save his life?”

“He is my lover; he is my God; he is the benefactor who had agreed to marry me!” said Nandhini.

“Even the small degree of kindness that I felt when I saw the wounded Veera Pandiyan left me. This vile cutthroat – how he had avenged me! Even if he took my empire there is no harm; he has stolen the queen of my heart! How can I show him mercy? No way!

Kicking Nandhini aside I leaped across her and sliced Veera Pandiyan’s head with one sweep of my sword. I feel embarrassed even today when I think about that crude and grotesque action. But at that time there was both war frenzy as well as anger that had seized me. In that possessed state I killed Veera Pandiyan and while coming out at the door I turned and looked at Nandhini once. She too looked at me without moving her eyelids. I have never encountered such a look on this earth. There was love, anger, diffidence, lasciviousness, fanaticism, and envy; all the six emotions leaped out as scorching flames in that look. I have tried to understand its meaning many times and even today I cannot fathom it!

“Within that time you and several others had come searching for me. All of you cheered upon seeing Veera Pandiyan’s beheaded torso and the head dripping with blood. But in my heart there was a weight as heavy as the Vind’hya mountain choking it!…”

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