By Mahesan Niranjan –
Thirukkurral is an amazing piece of work in Tamil literature, written by poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar, (one also uses Kurral and Valluvar, with the prefix Thiru adding a touch of holiness to them). He is thought to have lived some two thousand years ago. The work consists of 1330 couplets, arranged in 130 chapters spanning three major themes of virtue, wealth and love. The literary beauty of Thirukkurral is in the packing density of information. An often quoted analogy, by those who do not have competence in calculating the necessary pressure and volume, is to make you imagine drilling a hole in a mustard seed and pumping all the water in the oceans into it. But in terms of information content, I bet if a DNA molecule were to study Thirukkurral , it would hang its head in shame. A second important thing about Thirukkurral is that it is not a holy book that acts as an interface between man and stone. Its verses observe far more than they prescribe. Promises of reward for good behaviour and threats of punishment for trespass are generally kept to a minimum. Yet the demarcation of boundaries between good and bad along each of the three axes of the poet’s interest are communicated with exceptional skill.
That being the case, when the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) organised a day of celebration for Thiruvalluvar, my drinking partner in Bridgetown — the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow by the name Sivapuranam Thevaram — insisted that we travel down to the capital and attend the event. Browsing to register for the event, we discovered that SOAS has had a statue of Thiruvalluar at its entrance for some 20 years. The humble man with amazing thought and command of language would also now think of himself as photogenic, for by now he would have featured in the graduation photographs of hundreds of SOAS students. My own first reaction, I confess, was to take a selfie with him within a few minutes of arriving at the School.
“Would they actually know his work, or of him, machan (buddy),” Thevaram asked me in the train to London, “or would the students just pose for photographs and walk past?”
This question was followed by a few minutes of deadly silence between us contemplating how many of the 1300 couplets we ourselves knew! I pulled out my copy of Thirukkurral from my rucksack and started counting. There were 58 I had come across before and could tell the meaning of in some detail. Of these, I could only recall 26 by heart if prompted with the first word.
“I know 27!” claimed my friend, beating me by one.
We joined the SOAS event with a sense of embarrassment. Of what is hailed as the finest literary work in our language, a language we hold dear in our hearts as one of the oldest among those now living, one in whose name we as a community sent thousands of kids to kill themselves, the two of us knew just about 2%. Shameful. Even if we had learnt one couplet a year, we should have covered over twice that.
The SOAS celebrations consisted of garlanding the poet’s statue, some talks, dance and music, and a panel discussion. Despite the weather forecast, the afternoon was pleasant. In the talks, we were told funding cuts to universities and the recent imposition of fees (£ 9,000 for students in the UK) meant SOAS no longer teaches Tamil. Gone are the days of direct government funding so some disciplines could sustain the luxury of professors outnumbering students, the Faculty Dean said. Some languages like Arabic and Chinese are better resourced due to the economic muscle they wield and the fear they inject. It would appear that Rajendra Chozan’s memory, so eloquently captured in Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, isn’t enough to help Tamils punch at the same level. SOAS was looking to generate endowments and other sources of funding to kick start activity in several minority languages including Tamil, and had ambitions of establishing a chair in Tamil studies. Another speaker said there were efforts to raise the statue and seat him on a pedestal a few feet higher.
The dance performance was sweet. Seeing dance mentioned in the programme, my friend and I were preparing for the usual – the young boy-god Krishna stealing butter from the fridge! But this was creative and adventurous, a special choreography of five couplets in Thirukkurral. Though it took us both some effort to relate the kurrals being depicted to the abinayam (dance gestures) in places, we enjoyed the dance very much. A short recital of some kurrals by children showed the challenges of accurately articulating the phonetic and syllable-stress patterns of Tamil by those whose first language is from the Indo-European family. But the kids did a far better job than Tamil announcements herd in flights of Sri Lankan Airline.
The panel discussion was intriguing. Though the chair seemed to have done her homework probably by watching BBC’s Question Time for tips on how to conduct the show, she struggled a little initially. One of the panellists started by confessing “in Tamil there are commas, but no full stops, so please stop me if I take too long,” and then went on to demonstrate this to be true. The majority of those who asked questions and the panellists in their replies took very long to make simple points. Not only native speakers of Tamil, but those who spent time educating themselves in the language also seemed to have acquired this trait. The poet who “packed the oceans into mustard seed” probably turned in his grave.
But overall she controlled the discussions well. The questions posed were sensible, and ranged from how to preserve the language, how to be effective in educating the next generation, what the role of SOAS and the relevance of its ambition could be, and what is the relevance of Thirukkurral itself in the 21st century. If you learn Tamil from Romanised (Latinised) script you miss a lot of the phonetics, opined a seasoned scholar, citing the last retroflex consonant of the word Tamil itself as an example. A sharp comment from a member in the audience claimed that in writing /Tamil/ instead of /Thamil/, the SOAS organisers had erred.
Of particular note was mention of a regular Tamil reading group, meeting the last Saturday of each month in a London suburban library to discuss Tamil literature. The topic is notified two weeks in advance and participants study the work and come prepared to discuss the content and their own take on the work, the joy embedded in it and its relevance to the modern world.
So what exactly is the relevance of Thirukkurral today? For those competent in the Tamil language, the beauty with which the poet compresses information is a joy to read and appreciate. The semantics he expresses continues to be largely relevant, precisely because he doesn’t try to be overly prescriptive. His thought is so amazingly liberal and beautifully sensitive that disappointment awaits anyone whose wish is to turn Kurral into a holy book or Valluvar into a godly saint. Magic is not the intention of his masterly piece of literature. If we were to live by what he observes as right, we will have to give up many of our societal evils — rituals, social stratifications and hierarchies – which we hold so dear and try to propagate under the banner of “our culture.” There are very few places in his work of two thousand years ago that we could fault by the application of modern standards.
On our way back, I challenged my friend Thevaram on kurral’s relevance. He took a different view to that of mine, claiming that the couplets should be treated with reverence, his suggestions should be treated as instructions and we should aim to live by them. Were we to outside their specifications, we will be punished for our trespasses. For example, he said, “katka, kasadara (learn thoroughly)” says to students they should not just do the assignment set by the lecturer, but go deep into the underlying material by self-study and gain clear insights. “If they don’t do that, machan, I normally fail them,” he said, referring to his day job.
I was now keen to know how he beat me by one in the number of kurrals we knew (his 27 against my 26). “Here is it,” my friend said and took from his bag a beermat upon which he had written that special couplet. He also showed me a picture of himself taken three weeks ago after his visit to the Bridgetown hospital’s Oddakappulam (fracture clinic) section. His handwriting being poor, I have written it out (and provided a translation) in the picture below.
[Author’s note: Just in case readers think I swallowed the story that this is proof of punishment following trespass, let me say I am not easily fooled. The couplet written on the beermat was not from Thirukkurral. My friend had remembered it from the weekly Aanantha Vikadan, sometime in the Seventies. What we can conclude here, in terms of relevance to the modern times my drinking partner lives in, can be best described in the parlance of soccer: Vikadan One, Valluvan Nil. ]