Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy was written in early last century. And to this day, it remains the most popular classic book ever written in Tamil. And you can guess my level of obsession with it, when you know that I ‘learnt’ to read tamil, just so that I can read this book.
They say it is difficult to review books that we really like. And I do believe it is true. I wouldn’t call this a review. This is merely a tribute, to one of the greatest writers of Tamil Literature.
‘Ponniyin Selvan’ is set during last years of King Sundara Chozha’s reign (957–970 CE), the father of the great Chola king, Raja Raja Chozhan. The book is named after Raja Raja Chozhan. ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ was one of the titular names by which he was lovingly called by his subjects. Though the book bears the king’s name, he is not the hero of this epic.
The story begins with the appearance of a young soldier, who rides in with his horse, right into our hearts. Vandiya Devan, is a penniless young soldier, whose antecedents once ruled the Chola empire. The first part of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ chronicles his adventures, derring do’s, narrow escapes, fatal attractions and finally a journey all the way to Sri Lanka.
Vandiya Devan is on his way to the capital Thanjavur, bearing messages from the Crown Prince, Aditya Karikalan to the King and to Princess Kundavai who lives in Pazhaiarai. Enroute to Thanjavur, he stays in his friend’s palace, only to discover a plot against the Crown Prince and he is determined to warn the King about it.
As Vandiya Devan nears the capital, he meets two interesting characters. One is a stick wielding, stout vaishnavaite called Azhwarkadiyan, who engages in witty and vigorous debates about the greatness of Lord Vishnu. Azhwarkadiyan travels everywhere and seems to be dogging Vandiya Devan’s steps.
The second character is Nandini. The younger wife of Pazhuvetar (Treasurer and a powerful chieftain in Thanjavur) whose mysterious origins and mesmerizing beauty is as dangerous as it is addictive. She is the most powerful character in this novel, second only to the heroine, Princess Kundavai.
Hunted as a spy, Vandiya Devan’s adventures begin in Thanjavur, as he manages to elude the hoards of soldiers sent by the Pazhuvetars. One of my favourite chapters in this book is the one where he delivers his message to Princess Kundavai. Kalki excels himself here, as he goes about describing the feelings of his lovers and the beginning of an epic romance.
Kundavai sends Vandiya Devan to Sri Lanka to bring back her brother and he travels all the way to Kodi Karai to cross the sea. This is where Kalki introduces us to yet another character. Poonguzhali, a girl who plies boats for a living. I loved the parts where Vandiya Devan shamelessly flirts with her and ends up revealing his own secrets to her. She is one of the many strong women characters in this novel.
Rich descriptions, poetic yet simple narrative, fantastic characterizations, unforgettable dialogues, I could just go on… Kalki’s powerful words brings the world of Chola kingdom alive, complete with its intrigues, mysteries, love and age-old code of soldier’s honour and duty.
Verdict – It’s a journey that you would never forget