Readers Write In #496: A book review of Ponniyin Selvan – Gnanozhi

Posted on October 2, 2022

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Sudharshan Garg

This serialised novel was first published in October of 1950 and it took Tamil Nadu by storm. It is said to have singlehandedly pushed the magazine, Kalki to the top 3 position in most circulated magazines in India back then. Speak with anyone who grew up back then, and one of their fondest memories of that era would be waiting for the weekly Kalki to drop and they would all rush to their corners or in some cases share the magazine, crack it open to the novel, and join in on the exciting journey, battles, adventures, backstabbings and the tender romance of Vandiyathevan. Ponniyin Selvan was more than just a serialised novel, it marks an epoch in Tamil and Indian fiction writing, and it holds its age very well indeed, and is just as gripping and fascinating a read in 2018 as it was in 1950. After all, a novel that had parents name their children from characters in it wasn’t just ink on pulp, it was way beyond, it was a love affair that the Tamil people haven’t still gotten out of.

Our novel starts on the idyllic banks of the Veeranam lake (one really built by the Cholas and still in use today), it starts on a peaceful note, belying the violence, action, and intrigue that would grip you from the first paragraph in. Now, I read the translated version, but Kalki’s words if not spirit has been captured brilliantly by the translator. Kalki’s descriptions of Tamil country from the Chola era are very descriptive and creates brilliant mental pictures for the reader to savour. The strength though of the writing does not come from this, it instead comes from the deep historical research and a brilliant, whatif? interpretation of history as it happened. What we know of that period comes from limited edicts and primary sources, we know the key events and key people, so what do we know? We know that Sundara Cholan was a pacifist ruler, he had two brilliant sons, the eldest and heir was Adita Karikalan and the younger was Prince Arulmozhivarman aka Raja Raja Cholan. We know that Adita Karikalan is murdered, a mystery that is unsolved to this days, the Cholas launched an invasion of Sri Lanka chasing after the last (For the time) Pandyan king and it is not Karikalan but Arul, who becomes the emperor.

Kalki fills in the gaps for us with a blend of real history and his own imagination and expands these 3 lines into a 2,400 word magnum opus.

The protagonist of our tale is young Vandiyatevan, he is given a simple task, deliver a message from his master, Adita Karikalan, who heads the Northern Command of the Chola armies and is based in Kanchi to the King and Adita’s powerful sister. Now from this, we meet a whole host of interesting characters from the beautiful and dark Nandini, to the head of a clan that had forever been Chola feudatories, and maybe, just maybe he might have his own ambitions? We meet the brave, noble and clever Arulmozhivarman in the jungles of Sri Lanka and I would be amiss if I didn’t mention my second most favourite character, Anirudha Brahamarayar, the spymaster and the man of whispers and secrets (he was a real character and powerful court noble but we don’t know much about him in real life) and his eternal devotee and aid, the combination of Mr Bean and a medieval James Bond, Azhwarkadiyan Nambi.

The main plot, and I definitely won’t reveal it, so no spoilers at all, revolves around a Pandyan conspiracy to regain the throne. They are militarily weak, and so resort to covert warfare and assassinations to get their way. In between this, Kalki also weaves in a lot of personality clashes, past histories between characters that drive their present motivations and links it to the main plot without a single thread sticking out in the rich tapestry that is Ponniyin Selvan.

If you always wanted to understand Chola history, but found textbooks boring? Give this a shot, but be warned, it truly is unputdownable, every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, and putting the book down becomes a tough ask (books, as it is a 5 part series).

You could be a fan of historical fiction, just plain fiction, epic war / love thrillers or a combination of any, and this magnum opus will scratch all those itches and more, so what are you waiting for? Get started on the travails of Vandiyathevan.