A Glimpse of the Loved One, 18th century
THE TIRUKKURAL, THE 2,000-year-old Tamil text, is ingrained into Tamil culture like salt into the sea. Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar composed this collection of poems in the kural form, which consists of two lines. The hallmark of this pithy—and demanding form—is that the first line of a kural consists of four feet and the second, three. The Tirukkural is made up of three parts packed with insights about the right way of living, worldly life and desire. Though the Tirukkural has been widely translated (over a hundred English translations exist to date), only one woman has translated it before. Meena Kandasamy’s recent The Book of Desire is the translation of the third part of the Tirukkural. This part, called the Inpattupal, throbs with passion, desire, heartache, love and longing.
In her well-articulated and comprehensive introduction to The Book of Desire, Kandasamy explains how and why she decided to take up this radical, decolonial translation project, “I started translating the love poetry of the Tirukkural…a full decade ago…I came to it again and again, layering up the meaning where it felt necessary, paring it down to the bare bones to reflect the exact Tamil, where brutal brevity worked best.” The introduction lays out the reasons why the Tirukkural has survived for over thousands of years and why it remains a living text. The history of the intergenerational transmission of this text is a fascinating account about translation, publishing, Tamil language and culture as well as the book’s special place in society.
As a feminist, Kandasamy was inspired to translate the third part of the Tirukkural as a stand-alone text because it is a world unto itself. The first two parts adhere to the strictures of family life and domesticity, the roles of husband and wife. The third part of the book lets desire and love run free. The lovers live in their own universe; society does not get in their way and they do not heed its diktats for the most part. Here, “love and sex are acts of equality and democracy—without any inherent hierarchy, they are available to everyone.” Many of the kurals celebrate female desire, sensuality and agency freely without saddling women with the burden of shame unlike texts like the Manusmriti and the Ramayana, which brand a woman’s sexuality as the root of all evil and deserving of punishment. Hence, this modern translation of the age-old text is a significant, laudable work.
Some of the themes the poems in The Book of Desire touch upon include renouncing shame, the signs of attraction, the irresistible allure of physical beauty, praises of beauty and love, the pleasure of sex, the lament of memory and lost self-control, the solace of dreams, the anticipation of a lover’s touch, the sweet sorrow of yearning, the subtleties of sulking, the agony of wasting away, loneliness and absent lovers, melancholy and the drama of lovers’ quarrels.
Sample a few of these verses;
“Sex is sweeter
than anything else—
Mere thought of my lover
and everything else disappears”
“A day passes like a week
to those who yearn the day
of return of a lover
Kandasamy has used four-line free-verse stanzas to translate the two-line kurals into English. This decision, she says (in the introduction) was taken in the interest of remaining true to the spirit of the original verse rather than its visual form. The line breaks help to bring about the denouements of the stanzas’ first and second halves. Though this stylistic choice works for many of the kurals, there are some instances where the four-line stanzas rob the kural of its defining characteristic—pithiness—which ignites the spark of desire in a flash.
About The Author
Vineetha Mokkil is a writer based in Delhi
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