Transcreating Thirukural

Banyan & Margosa are good for teeth
Nalatiyar & Thirukkural are good for tongue
Tamil Proverb

As I showed in my last lecture, one of the most interesting avenues a poet may scribble along is the process of recreating creation – transcreation – that arduous rewording of the great works of ancient masters. This method was the core of the 16th century Renaissance, where lore-caskets of Arabian, Greek & Latin wisdom were studied, assimilated & regurgitated by European writers. A century later came the Georgian translations of Homer’s epics, while in more recent times we have seen Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. It is in a similar capacity that I have been engaged on a version of the Kural of Thiruvalluvar, or as it is more commonly known, Thirukkural. This 2000-year-old treatise on the art of living is ranked as the first book of the Tamils – an ancient, heroic, dark-skinned race that dwells in both Tamil Nadu & Sri Lanka. As I.A. Richards noted, ‘great cultures start in poetry,’ & it is with the Tamils that this is particularly notable. Literature is held in their national esteem far greater than any other land upon the globe, whose writers are elevated to the level of saints. Foremost among them is Thiruvalluvar, the creator of Thirukkural, a timeless text that, as the giant of Tamil studies GU Pope observed; ‘outweighs the whole of remaining Tamil literature, & is one of the select number of great works, which have entered into the very soul of a whole people & which can never die.’

Over the past few decades, Humanity has slowly become obsessed with books on self-improvement written by an assorted collection of lifestyle gurus. I believe the Kural to be the ultimate self-help book, a treatise on the unchanging realities of human existence, tracing in its pages the outline of an ideal life. The thing is, despite its universal brilliance, hardly anyone outside of Tamil Nadu knows about this book. Perhaps it is the quite unwieldy, clumberous translations into English that formed the problem; dense & wordy phrases that lose the beauty & immediacy of the original. As a poet, & the poet who rediscovered the poem in the post-imperial world, it was a challenge worth rising to.

As we are striding through the twentieth century, a new culture awaits mankind; that of a unified global village, needing its own international literature, where the non-sectarian, anti-nationalistic Thirukkural fits the bill astonishingly well. It is a book to live by; a code of moral conduct to which all creeds, castes & colors can pay fealty, whose lofty idealism has been acclaimed by all the religions of the world. ‘The Holy Kural,’ claims EV Daniel, ‘may well be the meeting ground, the common ground, of all religions.’

In every way conceivable
Practice virtue incessantly

What are the Kural? In Tamil, the word means ‘dwarfish,’ & has been applied to the shortest measure in Tamil poetry, the Kural Venba. This is a couplet of only seven words; four in the first line & three in the second. Such uniform curtness insists on an epigrammatical nature of composition, such as that of the English proverb, ‘a stitch in time, saves nine.’ This means that the Kural seem simple, similar to the Japanese Haiku where ideas & sensations are expressed with a modicum of words. In the hands of Valluvar, however, through the act of ellipsis, he condenses his world-view into phenomenal couplets which have become sharpened knives to unstitch the fabric of mortal existence & expose it to the world. The Kural are no less than a blueprint for life; & these neat, ordered rows of words have stamped an indelible order onto the chaos of human existence. As Reverend P Percival once wrote, ‘nothing in the whole compass of human language can equal the force and terseness of the couplets in which the author of the Kural conveys the lessons of wisdom.’

The legend says that roundabout the year 100 BC, Valluvar submitted the palm-leaf manuscript of his Kural to the 49 Pandits of the second Sangam, the high-browed judges of the Tamil literary establishment. He found the Pandits sat on a raft which floated on the serene waters of the Golden Lily tank, the fabulous centre-piece of the great Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple of Madurai. At first these judges scoffed at Valluvar, throwing scorn on the work of an unlearned man from the lower castes. Valluvar remained unphased by their mockery, & according to the set custom simply placed the manuscript on the raft. Much to the Pandit’s astonishment, the raft immediately shrank, ducking these conceited men into the water & leaving just enough room on the boards for the manuscript. Once on dry land, the sodden scholars recognized through this miracle that the Kural were indeed divine, an opinion which has remained unchanged for two millennia.

Once the Kural had been accepted by the Pandits of Madurai, their influence would penetrate every facet of Tamil society. Common Tamils took this rare blend of vibrant mysticism & pragmatic realism to their hearts, concerning as it does the everyday matters which affected their lives. By 1272, the poet Parimelazhagar had arranged the 1330 kural into the order which the modern world now knows them; divided by 133 chapters of ten Kural each. These were then divided into three sections – the Muppaal – being Virtue, Wealth & Love. The theory goes that if one fully adheres to the three Muppaal, then a fourth, Moksha (salvation), shall be achieved.

The Kural were first brought to the attention of the European mind by a series of missionaries entering Tamil Nadu via Madras (British), Pondicherry (French) & Tranquebar (Danish). The very first translation was conducted in Latin in the early eighteenth century, by an Italian priest, Father Constantius Beschi. The next translator was the German AF Cammera, whose work was published in Leipzig in 1803. Next up was a French Savant, Monsieur Ariel, who released his translation in 1848. It was Ariel who proclaimed the Kural as, “one of the highest & purest expressions of human thought.” Once the world became aware of these compact distiches of quintessential wisdom, their assemblage into the Kural has been translated into over 6o languages across the world, including 13 other Indian languages. The first English translation was published in 1853, by the Reverend Drew, whose work would go on to inspire GU Pope, a gargantuan figure of Kural lore.

History sees George Uglow Pope as the great standard bearer of Tamil, that ‘noble language’ as he called it, immersing & devoting his entire life to its study & translation. His first lesson in the language occurred when he was an eighteen-year-old in England. Later that year he arrived in Madras, where, upon first hearing the true beauty of Tamil on the lips of a humble fisherman, he became determined to learn all about the language & to be able to speak it as fluently as a native. Setting about meeting the greatest Tamil scholars of the day, he had soon unleashed his genius upon its life-long mission. By 1840 he was staying at Mylapore, about which place he would later write, ‘while visiting the villages around here, that enthusiasm for the great Tamil poet was first kindled which has been an important factor in my life.’ After mastering the language, Pope soon set about translating its literary masterpiece, & after almost fifty years, on September 1st, 1886, he completed his noble task, which he declared to be the ‘masterpiece of human thought.’ By February 1893 he would add an excellent, poetic translation of the Nalatiyar to his many achievements in Tamil, which included an unfinished, yet massively comprehensive dictionary of Tamil. For his erudite efforts he was given honorary degrees by Oxford and Lambeth, & was awarded the much-coveted Gold Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1906. After a ‘long and useful’ life of 88 years, he died in 1908, when one of his last requests was to have his tomb decorated with the words, ‘A student of Tamil.’

My personal journey into Thirukkural began in February 2002. Two years previously, to celebrate the Millennium, the Tamils had erected a giant statue of Thiruvalluvar off the coast of Kanyakamari, India’s most southern point. It was this very glorious statue that I first noticed on arriving at an astonishing confluence of three seas; where the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea & Indian Ocean fling their waves at the rocky shore from three different directions. Where the monument is 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of the Kural, the pedestal on which the statue stands is 38 ft high, representing the 38 chapters in the Virtue muppaal of the text. The remaining 95 feet of the statue represent the total number of chapters in the second and third parts of the Kural; Wealth & Love. The three muppaal are also echoed by the statue’s right hand, whose trinity of fingers point to the heavens. As I gazed upon the statue for the first time, all these clever nuances were completely unknown to me. Kanyakamari had seen my first steps into the land of the Tamils, & all I had gleaned from this visit was that the man who towered before me was the, ‘holy poet of Tamil Nadu.’

Several sunny days later I found myself in the fascinating city of Madurai, & it was here that I was first flung into the world of the Kural. In the lanes close to the great temple that forms the city’s heart, I came across one of the Manivasagar Pathippagm bookshops that are scattered across Tamil Nadu. These are both publisher & bookseller, & one of their publications caught me eye. It was a small red book, with the famous image of Thiruvalluvar sitting cross legged in flowing white robes, a pen in his right hand & a scroll in his left. Recognizing the image as identical to that of the statue at Kanyakamari, I immediately bought the book & rushed back to my hotel. Reclining under a fan in my room to avoid the heat, I plunged for the first time into the Kural, a moment which will stay with me forever. I was touched by its beauty & simplicity, & though my young western mind was finding some of the maxims a little difficult to digest, I felt there & then an affinity for the text. The copy I had to hand was the famous co-translation by Reverend Drew & John Lazurus, & on that very first evening I transformed two or three of their translations back into the Kural form. It was a small step on a journey that would take many years, but as I scribbled those first words in my Drew-Lazarus, I knew one day I would like to translate all 1330 Kural.

On my return from India in April 2002, I tucked my copy of Thirukkural away in my bookshelf, where it would gather dust while I pursued other projects. For the next six years it would be intermittently looked at, on one of which occasions I even translated about 200 of the Kural. It seems the dedication I had made to translate them in their entirity seemed always to be niggling away at the back of mind. As my literary abilities were strengthening, it felt as if I was waiting for the right moment, some catalyst to trigger off the resolution of my promise. This event came in September 2008, when I was visited by a friend. She had brought with her a young Tamil gentleman, & conversation turned to the subject of the Kural. The fact that a non-Tamil (me) could enjoy his native literature quite amazed him, & during the course of our evening together I resolved to once & for all translate the book for my peers.

Two months later I flew to Mumbai, from which place I traveled overland to Tamil Nadu. My first port of call was Thiruvannamalai, a bustling town nestled beneath the holy red mountain of Aranachala. It was here that the 20th century Sri Ramana Maharishi had spent most of his life in deep contemplation. A famous ashram had developed about his mediations, which still thrives to this day, many decades after his death. One part of the ashram houses a library, & it was to its silent desks that I found myself drawn. To my delight, there were many books on the Kural, whose pages I plundered in order to create as exact & enjoyable a rendition of the Kural as possible. While I sat at the long desks, keeping cool beneath a spinning fan, several hefty tomes spread before me, I was helped many times by the librarian, Ramesh Babu, who would assist me upon awkward points of classical Tamil.

After two weeks in Thiruvannamalai I took to the road, absorbing Tamil culture & its appreciation of the Kural. I came first to the famous beach at Mamallapuram, where under the statue of Thiruvalluvar I reached the half-way point in my translation. Next port of call was chaotic Chidambaram & its famous Annamalai library at the university there. Unfortunately, recent terrorist massacres at Mumbai prevented me from using the facilities. Instead, I found a municipal library in the town which was quite adequate. My further travels would take me through the watery wonders of the Karveri Delta, the whitewashed former Danish colony at Tranquebar, the multi-templed town of Kumbakonam, & the fabulous fortresses of Thanjavur & Trichy. I next found myself on an overnight train heading to Rameshwaram, arriving early on Christmas Eve. By this point I had almost completed my task & was hoping to finish the Kural over the festive season. Predicamently, every hotel on the island was full, & I felt rather like Joseph & Mary as trawling the inns of Bethlehem looking for somewhere to sleep. This exact same scenario was repeated fifty miles away in Ramanathapuram, which was full of Gujuratis who would take a fleet of buses down to Rameshwaram to join in the festivities. Eventually, late on Christmas Eve, after a hard day’s room-searching, I arrived in Madurai once again, & was very much relieved to find a hotel with vacancies.

As I awoke on Christmas Day my spirit was taken aback by the fact that I was to finish my version of the Kural in the same city in which I had first delved into its pages. Finding a small, empty shrine in the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple, I went to work to the bubbling babble of human voices & the jazz-like strains of an Indian trumpet. Six 2-foot-tall, black statues of gods, each sporting a ‘skirt’ & a garland of yellow flowers, sat watching me as I scribbled frantically. They were joined by a giant wall-painting of the green-skinned Siva & potraits of famous Tamil saints. It was a lovely moment to finally lay my pen to rest in such a place, & as I stepped outside into skintingling sunshine, the fact I had just finished the divine Tamil text, in one of the holiest Hindu temples, on the most sacred day in Christendom, was not lost on me at all. In my elation I found the same bookshop where I had originally bought the Thirukural, & there babbled out my story, on the conclusion of which the bookseller brought out another book. It was the Nalatiyar.

Up until this point I had known nothing about its existence, but a brief glance at its introductory proverb, which proclaimed it as an equal to Thirukkural, immediately piqued my interest. The timing was also exceptional. Only a few minutes previously I had completed the Kural, & now its sister text was in my hands! I felt the same sensation springing up as I had had on first looking into the Kural, & resolved once more to translate an ancient Tamil text into English. This activity commenced straightways as I continued my tour of Tamil Nadu; passing through salubrious Kodaikkanal, the plains of Palani & the Mancunianesque Coimbatore, before reaching the gorgeous tea plantations of the Niligris Hills. It was there, in the remarkable town of Coonoor, that I would spend a lovely two weeks editing the Kural & translating the Nalatiyar. Coonoor was to be my last place of residence in Tamil Nadu, & I finally left that wonderful Indian state in January 2009. With me in my luggage was the same red copy of the Kural I had brought seven years previously, but alongside it now was my own completed version, complemented with a rendition of the Nalatiyar!

Thirukkural is a wonderful book, but to an English speaker it might as well be written in Gaelic. Despite being among the most widely translated texts in the world, outside of Tamil Nadu it is one of the least read. Even the vast majority of the multi-lingual Indians cannot read a word of it. On top of this, to the English-speaking mind, the translations of the Kural we possess are often too wieldy or fanciful to absorb. The most widely known & respected translations in English are the poetical couplets of GU Pope, & the transliterations of Reverend Drew & John Lazurus. I offer their renditions of Kural 36-9 as an example.

The True ‘support’ who knows – rejects ‘supports’ he sought before
Sorrow that clings all destroys, shall cling to him no more
GU Pope

He, who so lives as to know Him who is the support of all things & abandons all desire, will be freed from the evils which would otherwise cleave to him & destroy (his efforts after absorption)
Drew & Lazurus

A modern rendition of the D&L Kural above, made by a Tamil, Kalaimamani Kalladan, reads; ‘the mind’s nature is to cling to every thing; but that should realize the true thing & cling to it; & that should abandon all desires. If done so, any suffering destined to inflict a person, shall not occur.’ My own rendition of this particular Kural, forced as I was into only seven words, goes as follows;

By choosing true virtue
Bruising ruin debarred

Perhaps it has lost a little in the translation, but the essential essence of Valluvar’s original teaching remains. It has been my intention to create something new from the wellsprings of each kural – not just a vague paraphrase, but a simple maxim for the modern human mind. I felt each Kural needed to be immediately understood & when communicating universal teaching, less is always more, which Thiruvalluvar well understood. One of the chief beauties of the original is the compactness, or as PS Sundram observed, ‘its soul is brevity, & with it least is most.’

The saint’s succinct & subtle style, operating in such a short space, uses many poetic techniques; from rhyme & repetition, through strict rules of consonance called the Ventotas, to those intricate word-play & clever puns which expose the very heart of his philosophies. I have attempted to emulate as much of all this as best as possible, rendering a version that is as close to the original as I could possibly render. The project has been helped by the English language, that most flexible & comprehensive of our modern tongues. On our planet there are about 400 million native English speakers; second only to the Mandarin of the insular Chinese. When you add the billion Indians unified by the English tongue, plus the fact that English is the one true lingua franca of commerce & culture, then it is only right that the ‘global gospel’ of Valluvar should be funneled through the English language into the world at large. ‘It is our bounden duty,’ writes MS Venkatchalam, ‘to make the world realize the richness of Kural & that can be done, only by rendering it into English & thus making it reach all the nook & corners of the world.’ Despite Tamil being a beautifully sonorous language, it is extremely complex – a single word may need two pages of explanation. Comparatively, one of the traditional strengths of the English language is that flexing its inherent linguistic muscles has enabled the easy adoption of foreign lexicon, syntax & grammar. The subtle nuances & inflections of the English language have made it possible to translate the complexities of Tamil, for our words may also be variously expressed & when placed in combination can offer multitudinous shades of meaning.

One bonus of being a fluent speaker of English was having the relative freedom of Tamil Nadu, where my native tongue is widely spoken in the wake of the imperial Raj. I was able to both converse with educated Tamils on the nature of the Kural & make travel arrangements between their widely scattered libraries. Once cloister’d within these dusty halls of academe, stuffed with books in both Tamil & English, I discovered many good translations of the Kural which would assist me in my task; including those of PS Sundaram, VR Ramachandra Dikshitar, FW Ellis, VVS Aiyer, Suddhananda Bharati & Kasthuri Srinivasan. Journeying thro’ the Kural was, on so many levels, the greatest of pleasures I have undertaken. For any future poet, during your period of training it is almost a necessity to travel foreign lands in the manner of Indiana Jones in search of obscure yet beautiful poetical texts. Such adventures shall enrich the spirit of the poet in you, & through a proper transcreation of an exotic text, the literary culture of your own, native land.

May 14th

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