Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Red earth, pouring rain and context

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

- translated by AKRamanujan (Kuruntokai 40)

The identity of the man who wrote the original lines is unknown. He goes by the attributed pseudonym sempulappeyalneerar (quite literally 'the red earth and pouring rain' dude).A few years back I read about AKR's translation making it to the series of international poems in the London subway. I was naturally excited that something I thought intensely local was sufficiently universal in context to make it there. "Well it was deemed universal enough to be translated into English, dummy" I had to remind myself.

Popular culture then took away my baby. The lines made it to film songs... twice.There was an Indianenglish novel with that title. It is a matter of time before newscasters use the expression daily and wring the imagery dry.

The sense of proximity that language gives is illusory. That something written ages back manages to make sense today is amazing in its universality. However I am always riddled with doubt regarding our understanding/appreciation. Time should have rendered it impossible. The changed priorities, change in social structures and other such biggies should have made the emotions and central concepts substantially irrelevant. We may be looking at it upside down and not knowing it at all.We are most certainly looking at it wearing today's glasses.

PuranAnooru praises kings for their 'valour' in being determined in gutting the houses of opponents and being unswerved by the wails of women and children. Of course there are exceptions,but this is the rule. That is too alien to us to have a shot at universality. The 'life' of a work of art is tied to the limited perceptions of 'acceptability' that have evolved over time.

Ajivakas - a sect of wandering religious philosophers who existed in the last few centures of the BCE and preached a kind of determinism. This was so not karma, in that the Ajivika philosophy says "things just happen, don't try and attribute reasons". For want of a religious vehicle (like Jainism and Buddhism) they dwindled in importance in recorded history. And as irony would have it their theory mingled with what grew to be a pan-Indian force: karma. The difference is hardly noticed in today's common understanding.

Oozh (ஊழ் external pre-determination) and vinai (வினை cause-effect based reasoning for events) became jammed together as one word oozhvinai (ஊழ்வினை) ! How's that for reconciliation.

Now coming back to the poem

In today's reading the emphasis of the poem is on the love.The romanticization of the unlikeliness of the mingling of disparate people. But under the Ajivaka lens (it is said that they had much sway back and many of the anonymous Sangam poems may be Ajivakan), the reading of the poem would de-emphasize the love. The emotion, so to speak, would be irrelevant as the moving force in a pre-determined scheme of things. Earth and rain are as willess as one can get.Perhaps I am running it aground by over-reading and making too much out of ti.

But the extent to which, something as free-will-y as possible as literary appreciation, is actually restrained by the movements in history is fascinating. Pre-determination I guess !

PS: Thanks to a interesting article in magazine thamizhini's June edition about oozh vs. vinai by karu.Arumugathamizhan (ஊழிற் பெருவலி யாவுள)


  1. Interesting info on the Ajivakas! I wrote something about Sempulappeyalneeraar in the blog a while bag. Will need to dig.

  2. Read that one. It is indeed a lovely 'universal' poem. I was trying to force a possible alternative read to muse on the improbability of us 'getting' it today.

  3. Of course, this beauty piece of a poem, agree has been overly used because of its seemingly easy translation. As someone who's usually dense with poetry I am tempted to agree that if we can all see the point THIS clearly, maybe the poet meant something else. It for some reason sounds like they had no other choice in the matter.

    Also this whole oozh thing is romba Zen like.

  4. //if we can all see the point THIS clearly, maybe the poet meant something else. //

    Haha. Well put.