Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan has stayed in my mind since I finished re-reading it in January. Those who have read it know how it tends to worm its way into heart and head and settle there, not to be dislodged with ease. And so it is that it continues to colour my reading of other books or even push me towards them, because good books set you off on journeys.
In my case, reading Ponniyin Selvan has led me down two paths: (1) reading more Kalki — I am acquiring (and beginning) the English translation of Sivakamiyin Sabatham, and (2) re-reading Wuthering Heights. Watching the first part of the Ponniyin Selvan movie, where Aditha Karikalan rages against those who have wronged him and separated him from Nandini, reminded me of the doomed love story between Heathcliff and Catherine. I first read an abridged version of Wuthering Heights as a nine-year-old, then followed it up with the full book as a teenager. I fell utterly in love with the moors and England; this was perhaps the first book that had me utterly in the grip of Victorian literature. Since then, I’d made a few attempts to re-read it, but you know that a book finds its way to you usually when the time is right. I had never owned a copy (I read library copies, and the only one I ever bought was promptly borrowed and never returned); so when I found one at a secondhand bookshop late last year, I grabbed it immediately, only to find the first few pages missing — the shop-owner saw my downcast face and asked me to take it, promising to replace it when he had another copy. Therefore, in true hybrid style, I read a few chapters on my Kindle before moving to the paperback.
Re-reading Wuthering Heights at this particular point in time, I found many similarities between the Heathcliff — Catherine and Aditha Karikalan — Nandini pairs. All of them are tempestuous characters, without question, each expressing their ferocity in a different way. They are at the core of passionate stories that end tragically. There is bitterness and desolation in both. But Ponniyin Selvan endows its characters with more heart and empathy than Wuthering Heights; Healthcliff, Catherine, and most of the other characters spread out across the eponymous house and Thrushcross Grange are portrayed as weak, selfish, abusive, downright cruel people with few or no redeeming characteristics.
Heathcliff, an abandoned young boy, is rescued by the siblings Catherine and Hindley Earnshaw’s father. However, he is ill-treated by Hindley, especially after his rescuer’s death. Heathcliff’s rough ways find no favour with most people, but Catherine falls in love with him — and ends up marrying Edgar Linton because Heathcliff has been dragged so low in stature, even as she claims to feel differently about it: “In my soul and in my heart, I’m convinced I’m wrong!” Heartbroken, Heathcliff leaves to return only after a few years, when all hell breaks loose. Heathcliff plots to gain control of the property of the Earnshaws and the Lindleys, wreak havoc in the lives of their children — including his own son, and thus avenge his disgrace.
In Ponniyin Selvan, Nandini is the foundling adopted by a priest’s family. Her sojourn with the royal family sees her taken in affectionately by everyone but Kundavai, sister of Aditha Karikalan, with whom Nandini falls in love. Kundavai mocks her, while Aditha Karikalan feels pained at the treatment meted out to Nandini. Eventually, Nandini disappears and marries a much older man, turning into a conspirator who threatens the future of the Chozha kingdom, hoping to help the Pandyas usurp the throne and destroy the Chozha family. Tragedy ensues when future events bring Nandini face-to-face with Aditha Karikalan.
Both the stories feature a foundling who is resented by one sibling, while falling in love with the other; disappearance as their young love is thwarted, followed by marriage to another; intergenerational pain (or a curse?); property usurpation and plans to tear families asunder as a means of revenge; the inevitable tragic death. There is also an inkling of a supernatural element in both, which is resolved in the Tamil serial through a backstory, but remains a Gothic otherworldly force in the English novel. And this is where my restless brain has paused for breath.
For me, the similarity largely ends here. Ponniyin Selvan builds on its historical context and is essentially an epic of the intrigues faced by a kingdom in trouble, whereas Wuthering Heights explores class relations, abusive relationships, and the status of women.
In his video on Ponniyin Selvan, historian V Sriram refers to Kalki’s biography, Sunda’s Ponniyin Pudalvar, which talks of possible literary influences; Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas are prominently mentioned here. The Brontë sisters were known to have been influenced by Scott and other Victorian writers in their own depiction of the Byronic hero. Even though these writers were so far apart in time and space, their reading seems to have led them on similar paths — as, no doubt, must have happened with other writers. Each character, each sub-plot in the books discussed is worthy of detailed analysis in the light of their possible influences, but that is for another day.
For now, I look forward to reading some Dumas now, because Kalki has put me on what is likely to be a long, interesting, adventurous journey. This may also be a good time to revisit Rob Roy, and think back to the time when Vandiyathevan arrived on the banks of Lake Veeranam on horseback. How fortunate we are to have books and the rabbit-holes they send us scurrying into!
I shall never forget the delightful sensation with which I exchanged the dark, smoky, smothering atmosphere of the Highland hut, in which we had passed the night so uncomfortably, for the refreshing fragrance of the morning air, and the glorious beams of the rising sun, which, from a tabernacle of purple and golden clouds, were darted full on such a scene of natural romance and beauty as had never before greeted my eyes. To the left lay the valley, down which the Forth wandered on its easterly course, surrounding the beautiful detached hill, with all its garland of woods. On the right, amid a profusion of thickets, knolls, and crags, lay the bed of a broad mountain lake, lightly curled into tiny waves by the breath of the morning breeze, each glittering in its course under the influence of the sunbeams. High hills, rocks, and banks, waving with natural forests of birch and oak, formed the borders of this enchanting sheet of water; and, as their leaves rustled to the wind and twinkled in the sun, gave to the depth of solitude a sort of life and vivacity.