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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Ponniyin Selvan and Tamil

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The five volumes of the epic novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy.
| Photo Credit: SIVA SARAVANAN S.

I was 11 when I read the five parts of Ponniyin Selvan. Nothing extraordinary. Many of my classmates had also read the novel around the same age. My brother, younger by a year, read it the next year when I read it for the second of the several times I did over the next few decades. We were so overwhelmed by the book that our day-to-day conversation was made up of dialogues from the novel.

My brother with his prodigious memory loved to roll off his tongue the sonorous polysyllabic names of Kadambur Sambuvaraiyar, Mazhapaadi Mazavaraiyar, Vanangaamudi Munaiyaraiyar, Thaanthongi Kalingarayar, Devasenapathi Poovaraiyar, Anjaatha Singa Muththaraiyar and so on. His favourite was Rettaikudai Raajaaliar. This was the Harry Potter of our times.

My uncle brought home the volumes one by one from his office recreation club and all the members of the joint family were on each other’s back, urging them to finish soon so that we could return it and get the next volume. My grandfather read through the first volume and declared happily that he needed no other volume, as he could read the first over and over again. He could remember none of the characters.

My brother and I were convinced that Vandhiyathevan was the real hero, against whom the titular hero, Arulmozhi Varman, paled into insignificance.

Looking back, I now marvel at how well we had been taught the Tamil language at school, that we could read, understand and enjoy every word of this voluminous novel at a tender age. My brother began with a handicap as he had started learning the Tamil alphabet only two years prior to that. Our vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds on reading the novel. What we did not realise at that time was the amount of history of the Tamil kings and people that we had picked up effortlessly when our history books dismissed the Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas in two pages flat.

I am dismayed to find that my own children and their age group find themselves unequal to the task of reading the novel, though they had studied Tamil as the second language in school up to the 10th standard. It would give some measure of the proficiency in Tamil among middle and high school students in Tamil Nadu, if a survey is taken to find out how many of them have read the novel fully in the original.

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