Book Review: Ponniyin Selvan

Ponniyin Selvan by “Kalki” Krishnamurthy, Macmillan India, ~1800 pages.
Who should be the king? This was the question that members and enemies of the Chozha dynasty were asking each other in 10th century Tamil Nadu and the incidents around this episode forms the plot for R. Krishnamurthy’s (pen name: Kalki) epic novel Ponniyin Selvan. This novel was first published in serial form in the Tamil weekly magazine Kalki from 1950 – 1954. Though Krishnamurthy wrote a large number of short stories, it was as a novelist that he got fame. He was also the first significant historical novelist in Tamil and his other works include Parthiban Kanavu and Sivagamiyin Sabatham.
Parantaka Chozha was succeeded by his second son Kandaraditha as the first son Rajaditha had died in a battle. On the death of Kandaraditha, his son Maduranthaka was a child and hence Kandaraditha’s brother Arinjaya ascended the throne. After Arinjaya’s death, his son Parantaka II, Sundara Choza was coronated. He had two sons, Aditha Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varman and a daughter Kundavai.
When the story starts, the emperor Sundara Chola is ill and bedridden. Aditha Karikalan is the general of the Northen Command and lived in Kanchi and Arulmozhi Varman (who would be famous later as Rajaraja Chola I) is in Sri Lanka in battle and their sister Kundavai Piratti lived in Chola royal household at Pazhayari.
The story is set in motion, when rumor starts that there is a conspiracy against Sundara Chozhar and his sons. One person who gets a glimpse of the Pandya conspirators is a warrior of the Vana clan Vallavarayan Vandiyathevan. Even though the book is titled Ponniyin Selvan, the hero of the book is Vandiyathevan, a friend of Adhitha Karikalan.
It is through Vandiyathevan that we meet most of the characters in the novel such as Arulmozhi Varman, the prince whom all the people loved and Periya Pazhavetturayar, the chancellor who married Nandini when he was sixty. During his youth Aditha Karikalan had fallen in love with Nandini, but she turned vengeful after Aditha Karikalan killed Veerapadyan (who was either Nandini’s father or brother) and vowed to destroy the Chozha dynasty. We also meet Kundavai Devi, who after hearing the news of the conspiracy sends Vandiyathevan to Sri Lanka to give a message to Arulmozhi Varman to come back immediately.

The Chozha dynasty

Besides these, there are other characters like Maduranthaka Thevar, the son of Kandaraditha and the man whom the conspirators want to crown king, and Anirudha Brahmarayar, Sundara Chozhar’s Prime Minister and the man who has eyes and ears everywere. But the most wonderful character in the book is Brahmarayar’s spy Azhwarkadiyan Nambi, a Vaishnavite, who roams around the country challenging Saivaites for debates. He collects information for the Prime Minister and is always around Vandiyathevan, rescuing him during trouble.
There are some lovely women too, like Vanathi, the Kodumbalur princess who is in love with Arulmozhi, Poonkuzhali, the boat woman who rows the future king to Lanka, Mandakini, the deaf and dumb step mother and Rakkammal, the wife of a boatman who supports the Pandya conspirators. Most memorable among these is Nandini, who has the power to make influence any man.
With the help of a boat girl, Vandiyathevan reaches Sri Lanka and meets Ponniyin Selvan and becomes his close friend. In Lanka, Ponniyin Selvan realizes that his father had spent some time in an island near Lanka and had been with a girl born deaf and dumb. He meets her and realizes from her drawing that he had two children. Who are those children and do they have the right to the throne? Later one day in Thirupurambayam forest Vandiyathevan seens Nandini and the Pandya conspirators place a small boy on a throne and take a vow in front of him. Who is this boy and what right does he have to the thone? This is the kind of suspense that is maintained throughout the novel.
While coming back from Lanka, Ponniyin Selvan is caught in a cyclone and goes missing. Rumor spreads that he is dead, but he survives and stays at Choodamani Viharam, a Buddhist monastery in Nagapattinam. Then slowly the dispersed family starts asembling. The conspirators meanwhile choose one day in which both the king and both his sons would be assasinated.
Will the conspirators succeed in killing Sundara Chozha and crowning Madhuranthaka as the king or will Ponniyin Selvan be the king? That is the summary for the story. But then it is not that simple either for all the people in the novel have long histories of interaction with each other and everything is not as black and white as it seems. There are new revelations and relations being established all the time. and even when you think you can predict what is going to happen, new surprises pop up.
Even though this is a work of fiction loosely based on historical facts, some incidents are left without a closure such as the question – who murdered Aditha Karikalan. Various people confess to doing it, but even at the end, a doubt remains.
The three strengths of Kalki are plot, characters and dialogue.There is not even one dull moment in this 1800 page book. Suspense is maintained throughout the novel and when you think you have understood his techniques, the characters themselves reveal that they are not who you think they are. Even the last book is a page turner due to the unexpected turn of events. For a novel of this size, there are many characters like spies, magicians, warriors, soothsayers and Buddhists, and since the novel is this big, we get to know each of them very well. The dialogue between the characters are very poetic which looks odd in English. I am sure would have sounded beautiful in Tamil.
There are couple of points of irritation also. The author for some reason decides to pop into the novel at some places and give some commentary which is sometimes a detail about history, or a rationalization of events. This intervention broke the flow and I felt would have been more appropriate as an appendix or a separate article. In the book, Vandiyathevan goes to Sri Lanka in a boat rowed by the boatwoman Poonkuzhali, but there is very less detail of the type of boat or how they were able to navigate the ocean. In many places such technical details are glossed over.
This was originally published in Tamil, but thanks to the translation by C.V.Karthik Narayanan, non-Tamil reading people like me can enjoy this classic work. People who can read Tamil have certified that this translation is excellent. Though this book is quite lengtly, (6 books, each of about 300 pages), it is a page turner.
This was my first Indian historic novel and it gave a good idea of the Chola dynasty in a non-boring way.
(Crossposted to the history blog: The Palm Leaf)

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Ponniyin Selvan

  1. The trip across the palk strait is quite short and can be swum by determined swimmers. Poonkuzhali rows a “thoNi” which is a small boat like the “kochchu vallam” of Kerala. This is obvious in the original, but should have been mentioned in the translation.
    Kalki originally wrote PS as a series for his magazine, so it contains a fair amount of recouping of past episodes etc. Part of the reason for the pace is the serial format. The genius, however was in retaining the underlying plot and subplots that stretch across the narrative.

  2. Kingsley, the word used in the english translation is “boat”.
    There are lines like, “One day a big ship came to the island”, “The prince looked in the direction she pointed and saw a ship”. These are general descriptions and I was interested in more details.

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