Love Stands Alone, M.L. Thangappa’s marvellous collection of translations of 2000-year old Tamil poetry, is a striking addition to the volumes of academic and creative work that the ancient anthologies have inspired. It is supported by a long introduction by its editor A.R.Venkatachalapathy (who also translated a smaller number of its poems) which contextualizes the work both for an audience that might be new to Sangam poetry and to those who may approach this text as a palimpsest.

The notion of poetry as palimpsest is important here: firstly, all translations of canonical literature necessarily build on earlier scholarship. In this obvious regard, Venkatachalapathy’s introduction is illuminating, concisely explaining the prosody and traditions of the texts, providing historical perspective on the 20th century renaissance of Sangam poetry and locating this set of translations within this milieu.

Secondly, there is something about the particular cosmos of Sangam poetry that also has this palimpsest effect – taken in small doses, a piece may have its own glitter, but set among many gems, the effect is overwhelming. The ethos that is evoked, certain common motifs (such as the loosening bangles of pining women, or the likening of beautiful teeth to jasmine buds) and the nature-centrism of the work all contribute to a mindblowing majesty, as poem accrues upon poem, creating something far greater than the sum of its parts.

Sangam poetry falls into two categories: akam and puram – essentially, within and without. The first deals mostly with the interior landscape of romance in its many facets, while the second revolves around king and country. The book excels particularly when it comes to the puram poems – the latter segment carries the full force and beauty that has kept these poems as relevant today as they were at the time of their writing. Considering that the majority of these poems are description-based, praising and detailing the various attributes of royalty, the translator and editor have been especially masterful in avoiding the natural tendency for such grandiose verse to become overwrought. Take for example Purananuru 8, in which the poet addresses the sun and speaks of his king: “How can you compare with him,/ fast-moving orb of heaven?/ Your realm is limited./ You back away when the moon comes up./ Your hide behind the hills./ And for all your glory/ spread across the sky,/ you can only hold sway/ during the day”.

This is not to say there are not fits and starts. In the akam poems of private longing, from time to time there is a detectable hesitance, perhaps best explained as an absence of the erotic undertone. Compare for instance two renderings of Kuruntokai 131. Here is Venkatachalapathy’s:

A great distance separates me

from the village of my girl,

with large lovable eyes,

and shoulders

shaped like the swaying bamboo.

My heart is desperate

like a peasant

with a single plough

and a field

just wet enough.

O what can I do!

And here is A.K. Ramanujan’s:

Her arms have the beauty

of a gently moving bamboo.

Her eyes are full of peace.

She is faraway,

her place is not easy to reach.

My heart is frantic

with haste,

a plowman with a single ox

on land all wet

and ready for seed.

Ironically, the first stanza of Venkatachalapathy’s translation is the lovelier of the two – but the erotic urgency and imagery of Ramanujan’s second stanza instantly elevates it. This element is lacking throughout the akam section of Love Stands Alone. The voices in which the Sangam bards wrote these poems are passionate, pained (and mostly women’s) voices – and while dismay at a husband’s infidelity, pining for a distant lover, and jealousy toward concubines and co-lovers are all wonderfully evoked, desire is an aspect which seems to have been underplayed. Kuruntokai 185, for example, is titled insipidly by its first line, “Your sweetheart’s forehead”, instead of focusing on the poem’s closing image, “Why don’t you tell this/ to my lover from the mountains/ where the kanthal stalks/ with bright red blossoms/ beaten up by rain/ lie battered and wan on a rock/ like a cobra with his shrunken hood/ lying limp/ and bring home to him/ the run-down state of my body?”. The cobra’s head is a traditional motif for the female genitals, and this image beautifully evokes her sexual longing and frustration – but not to a reader who has no prior knowledge of the metaphor, or in this case, a reason to contemplate it.

All this said, however, there was a point while reading Love Stands Alone, somewhere near the closing of the akam section, when the profound internal logic – and magic – of the work intoxicated me so much that I read it through to its last page and found myself utterly wordless. Gone were the comparisons to other translators, the notes taken during the reading, the critic’s distance: in that light-bleached moment of afterglow, none of them had prepared me to begin commenting on this book.

The book ends on a particularly radiant note, which almost anticipates the impact of Sangam poetry on the whole. “If you weigh/ worldly life/ against the life of the spirit,/ it is not worth a single seed of mustard”, reads part of Purananuru 358. Life is impermanent, most art sinks without a trace, even the true names of these bards are lost, but something elemental endures in this literature. Only that which is timeless remains. What Thangappa, one of many torchbearers, passes down in Love Stands Alone is a triumph.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.