Review: A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s Love Stands Alone

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.

The Venus Flytrap: No Love In This Democracy

At their most basic, our survival needs have at least three components: food, shelter and love. The first and second are physical necessities. The third appears almost as a technical error – in no medical book will you find a prescription for causing or curing love. Yet, we know it is possible to die of heartbreak, even literally. It is the alchemy that makes the distinction between a life lived and one that is merely survived.

If Love is God, as some like to say, then it is equally contentious. Whose business is love? If recent reports are anything to go by, it is strictly under the jurisdiction of state and society. Consider two incidents in Tamil Nadu that made headlines in late May. An eloping couple in their 20s were forcibly separated with no less than the intervention of political parties. Two women, both around 40, committed suicide out of shame over their “unnatural” relationship; in an ironic twist, their families chose to cremate them together, giving them in death what was so mercilessly denied them in life.

This preoccupation with telling people how to conduct their most intimate relationships is deeply unhealthy. To enforce discipline on teenagers is one thing. To persecute adults for following their hearts is another, a malaise that reveals deep prejudices against fundamental freedoms. We live in a version of democracy which allows adults to vote for their leaders, but not for their lovers.

Race, age, gender, religion, caste, location, affluence and incompatible horoscopes have served to keep people apart not for their own good, but for the good of a system that refuses to evolve. What disturbs me is how many people continue to adhere to these codes willingly. I see shades of this mental servility even among the most intelligent people I know.

That onlookers fear love is disheartening and challenging; that those in love fear their own love is downright disillusioning.

Those who raise, erroneously, the flags of tradition and culture should consider this 2000 year old poem by Cempulappeyanirar, brought from the Sangam age to our Anglicized ears by the genius of A.K. Ramanujan. Way back in the glory days of Tamil culture, this is what was seen, sung about, surrendered to:

What could my mother be
to yours? What kin is my father
to yours anyway? And how
Did you and I meet ever?
But in love
our hearts have mingled
as red earth and pouring rain.

There, in a nutshell, is all I think I will ever need to know about life, and love. You love who you love. The end.

The most enduring romance I know of is between a beautiful artist in her 30s and someone twice her age, whose son she had gone to school with. When he dies, she does not know whether she will be permitted to go to his funeral. Theirs is a portmanteau love, patched together between countries and children from other marriages and the steadying force that has kept them together through years. It is a relationship that inspires me, one that shows courage. It is a relationship that sees the daggers, feels the fear, and takes the leap anyway.

Not all of us are so lucky as to find the ones who are made for us, cut from the same cloth of the soul. But those who do, do. It’s as simple as that. You love who you love. And the rest be damned, then? But here’s the thing: there is no rest, not really. No social construct, legal diktat or political enemy that cannot be dismantled. As cheesy as it sounds, love is all there is, and the rest is just window dressing.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.