Talking in the train

September 30, 2012

It has become almost inevitable that I meet somebody interesting on the train….and almost always, they avail of the senior citizen concession. Not that they never existed before; but I probably never looked or I was travelling in AC coaches.

Two weeks ago, on the way to Madurai, it was an affable old lady, going alone to see her ailing sister. Frequently distracted by a voluble, returning-from-Abudhabi woman, boldly travelling alone to Tirunelveli with a toddler and tonnes of luggage, she told me, her mom-in-law had a principle of not marrying off her sons to anybody from Tirunelveli or Salem (they were roguish – ராங்கிகள் ). Teachers were also ineligible. They never live with their in-laws. She was neither. She said she wasn’t biased and gets along well with her daughter-in-law working in a software firm. Except that she retires to her lonely room at 4pm and stays there chanting and sleeping. For being being a stoic listener, she shared with me a few of the famed Manapparai murukkus and gave me a ride in her hired auto to my destination.

Yesterday, it was an elderly gentleman, sitting opposite to us, next to the window, which had the fire exit. The conversation started in Tamil when he said all windows should be made fire-exits. Then, I heard him speak in a very familiar-but-unfamiliar tongue to his wife. I asked him, which language it was. Sanskrit. He is on a mission to make everybody speak Sanskrit. His 50 odd students can all speak fluently in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, hardly 5% are vedas and other religious material; 95% is knowledge. It has everything from metallurgy to nuclear physics. With dedicated effort, you can master Sanskrit in 1.5 years since it runs in our blood.

He said, the village that just passed by, has a rare Sanskrit name(Virinchipuram…Google threw this up for Virinchi and Tamil lexicon has this from Kamban’s Ramayana : வேதங்கண்ணிய பொருளெல்லாம் விரிஞ்சனே யீந்தான்). The villagers wouldn’t know the significance, ofcourse. Even nowadays, all baby names are in Sanskrit. He had chosen a beautiful Sanskrit name for his daughter, from Lalitha Sahasranamam.

I couldn’t suppress my reply, with my hand caressing our daughter’s head: We have kept a pure Tamil name for her. Mahirl Malar.

There was a nice breeze blowing through the window. The vast stretches of greenery, outside the window, were lovely. He decided to notice their loveliness and started watching them give way to a long range of mountains.

He turned inside when Mahirl offered him a cake. Then, when we talked, it was about the bus route to Perur, where he had to go to.



May 12, 2012

Lakes and rising water
lead to a rich harvest,
in other countries.
In the land of Karikala,
surrounded by Kaveri,
just the paddy left behind,
stuck in the stubbles,
more than suffices.

– An anonymous Tamil poet, 20 centuries ago, in a time when such dreams could be dreamt.


ஏரியும் ஏற்றத்தினாலும் பிறர் நாட்டு

வாரி சுரக்கும் வளன் எல்லாம், தேரின்

அரிகாலின் கீழ் உகூஉம் அந்நெல்லே சாலும்

கரிகாலன் காவிரி சூழ் நாடு

நூல்: பொருநர் ஆற்றுப்படையின் பிற்சேர்க்கையாக உள்ள வெண்பா

Gems and potatoes

April 14, 2012

They are digging for potatoes.
The gems that come their way
they cast aside with their iron bars,
and keep digging for potatoes.

– translated from an obscure Tamil text (திருநாகைக்காரோணப்புராணம்) quoted in U.Ve.Saminatha Iyer’s  autobiography. (உ.வே.சா – என் சரித்திரம்). I am glad I didn’t shove away this gem.

The full poem in original:

புன்மை சால்கிழங் ககழ்ந்திடும் போதெதிர் போதும்
அன்மை தீர்மணி சுரையிரும் பாலகற் றிடுவார்
வன்மை மேவிய தாயினு மாண்பறி யாரேல்
மென்மை மேவிழி பொருளினு மிழிந்ததாய் விடுமே.

The day has dawned

October 11, 2011

The day has dawned

thanks to my penance.

The damned dark moments

have all disappeared.

Spreading its rousing

fresh golden rays,

it’s risen with splendor:

the wisdom, the sun.

– part of a poem by Bharathi, translated by me and posted on Facebook.

Here is a wonderful rendition of the song by Bombay Jayashree (Pozhudu pularndadhu).

Ool (karma) in Thirukkural

September 14, 2011

After translating 370 couplets from Thirukkural, I ran into a translator’s dilemma, when I encountered the chapter on Ool (ஊழ்). Should I translate this chapter, when I dont believe in it (after a superficial skimming), or shall I skip this chapter and move on to the next one? After a lot of deliberation, I decided to give it a deeper reading before coming to a conclusion. And, I am glad I did that. Instead of posting the kurals one by one of Facebook and Twitter, like I’ve done before, I am giving the entire chapter here on my blog;  since, there is a lot of scope of misinterpreting individual kurals, in this chapter, without a holistic perspective.

I am refraining from using the word fate or destiny, since there is a significant difference between ool and fate. [I am writing ool instead of oozh, since I belief zh doesnt serve the purpose for non-Tamils anyway.)  Fate, as per OED, is the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power. Ool or karma, in an Indian context as per Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions, and as rightly put in OED, is the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future.

This belief was at the core of Gandhi’s thoughts.  “I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.”

Swami Vivekananda, also, put it eloquently : “Men generally lay all the blame of life on their fellowmen, or failing that, on God, or they conjure up a ghost, and say it is fate. Where is fate and who is fate? We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. None else has the blame, none has the praise.”

The way Thiruvalluvar has dealt with Ool  is very interesting. As in most other kurals, it is more poetic than spiritual. The rationality is probably too rational that it almost sounds irrational for self-professed rationalists like me. While, I definitely still dont subscribe to the idea of previous and future births, I am viewing this as a poet’s liberty to exaggerate, and make his point.

Ool is almost a character in my other favourite Tamil classic, Chilapathikaaram.

So, here is the Chapter 38 from Thirukkural : Ool

Constructive ool causes tireless endeavor leading to prosperity;
destructive ool causes indolence. [371]

Malign ool blunts one’s intelligence;
in its turn, benign ool sharpens it. [372]

Even if knowledge comes through profound books,
one’s innate wisdom remains dominant. [373]

The world is stratified based on two factors:
wealth and wisdom; and, they are not correlated. [374]

While seeking wealth, positive aspects can turn harmful;
and negative aspects beneficial. [375]

Strive hard, we may; but what we don’t deserve doesn’t stay,
and what we deserve, we can’t dispose. [376]

One may amass wealth worth crores, but can consume
only as ordained by the Ordainer (based on ool). [377]

Even those who possess nothing to enjoy will ‘renounce’,
if only one can escape the misery that is to be suffered. [378]

Why bemoan the misery caused by ool,
when one enjoys the good without complaint. [379]

Is there anything mightier than ool? It remains dominant
despite all plans devised to counter it. [380]

It is interesting to note that Valluvar doesn’t say constructive ool causes prosperity; it causes effort. Throughout these 10 kurals, Thiruvalluvar is building up Ool as a very potent character, like in the best works of fiction,  and then deals ool a deadly blow (and answers the question he asked in kural 380), when he says later on,

“Even if god has given up, perseverance will yield positive results. ” [619]

“Those who persevere without ever giving up, will defeat even ool”. [620]

The original couplets in Tamil :

அதிகாரம் 38 : ஊழ்

ஆகூழாற் றோன்று மசைவின்மை கைப்பொருள்
போகூழாற் றோன்று மடி.  [371]

பேதைப் படுக்கு மிழவூ ழறிவகற்று
மாகலூ ழுற்றக் கடை. [372]

நுண்ணிய நூல்பல கற்பினு மற்றுந்தன்
னுண்மை யறிவே மிகும். [373]

இருவே றுலகத் தியற்கை திருவேறு
தெள்ளிய ராதலும் வேறு. [374]

நல்லவை யெல்லாஅந் தீயவாந் தீயவு
நல்லவாஞ் செல்லவஞ் செயற்கு. [375]

பரியினு மாகாவாம் பாலல்ல வுய்த்துச்
சொரியினும் போகா தம. [376]

வகுத்தான் வகுத்த வகையல்லாற் கோடி
தொகுத்தார்க்குந் துய்த்த லரிது. [377]

துறப்பார்மற் றுப்புர வில்லா ருறற்பால
வூட்டா கழியு மெனின். [378]

நன்றாங்கா னல்லவாக் காண்பவ ரன்றாங்கால்
அல்லற் படுவ தெவன். [379]

ஊழிற் பெருவலி யாவுள மற்றொன்று
சூழினுந் தான்முந் துறும். [380]

The Politics of grief : Granta article

September 11, 2011

V.V.Ganeshananthan has written a moving article on dealing with grief on Granta magazine. As an Indian Tamil, who has helplessly watched an unbearable human tragedy unfold to his brethren in Srilanka, I am still struggling to come to terms with what my grief means and whether I am even eligible to grieve.

Ganeshananthan leaves us heavier with unmourned and unshared grief.

You may never have heard of these deaths before, and you may never hear of them again, but in the spring of 2009, tens of thousands of civilians who were ethnically Tamil, as I am ethnically Tamil, were killed in Sri Lanka, the country where my parents were born and I was not.


As I watched what was happening, it seemed to me unbelievable that I could stand knowing about such a large atrocity in such depth. It seemed unbelievable that I had not died from this – that this level of grief was perhaps only a first circle.


It is a way of humiliating people, to say that their dead are not dead, to say that people are not even allowed to mourn. There was little room for the legitimate expression of grief during the war, and after it was over, what little was there dwindled.


I do not want to be defined by disaster. I do not think this would help anyone, and it seems another way of letting disaster win. Still, it is important to me to keep the solidarity I feel not only for the living, but also for the dead, whose deaths were not necessary.


My grief will not destroy me. In some times and places, we are given the space to build our memorials. Perhaps in others, we must learn to become them, even as we go on.

A poem from a forgotten Tamil classic

July 30, 2011

An elephant chases him.
He tumbles down a pit,
swarming with snakes.
He grasps the grass
on the walls of the pit.
he sticks out his tongue
to taste the honey,
dripping from a beehive.
Such is the nature of
human joy.

– translated by me from Soolamani, a 9th century Tamil classic

ஆனை துரப்ப அரவு உறை ஆழ்குழி
நாநவிர் பற்றுபு நாளும் ஒருவன் ஓர்
தேனின் அழிதுளி நக்கும் திறத்தது
மானுடன் இன்பம் மதித்தனை கொள்நீ

Triggered by an article by Naanjil Naadan.

My friend Anurag Chabbra has translated this in Hindi – thank you Anurag:

हाथी पीछे, गड्ढा नीचे
साँपो के ऊपर इंसान
लटका, घांस को खीचे.
जीवन का रस ऐसा –
जिव्हा लपकती है फिर भी
टपकता मधू जो छते से.