After being sacked from Ananda Vikadan, nationalist R. Krishnamurthy started a magazine named after one of his ten pseudonyms. Kalki proved to be a forum that lit the literary flairs of its editor. Living in Gandhi Nagar on the banks of the Adyar River, he visualised a mega novel based on river Cauvery — Ponniyin Selvan (The Son of Cauvery) based on early years of Rajaraja Chola.
Kalki’ previous novel Sivagamiyin Sabatham during Pallava times was depressing and more suited to the violent years of the freedom struggle and had scenes with mountains of dismembered corpses. British had just left and Kalki blossomed the idea of a feel-good novel to reflect the newfound positivity.
Ponniyin Selvan was serialised in Kalki and no novel had as much reception while being written. For a period of three and a half years, starting May 16, 1954, fans stood in queues in railway stations to lay their hands on a copy of the Kalki magazine.
Even Alexander Dumas’ novels were initially serialised in magazines. And there were shades of Dumas in many places as well. Beautiful Nandini was based on Milady de Winter of Three Musketeers. Even Vanthiyathevan was much like D’artagnan. Reaching the crescendo of suspense in the last lines of every installment aroused interest in viewers who debated on it till the next installment. But serialisation had its problems too. Kalki made factual errors that he could not go back and edit. For instance, a boatman character introduced as dumb would utter dialogues later in the novel.
Ponniyin Selvan had as many commoners in it and Kalki sketched routine citizen life in the Chola days, something nobody had done before. Stunning pictures by Maniam helped the audience visualise the story and it found a resounding acceptance. Kalki magazine sales reached epic heights putting its challengers like Ananda Vikadan in panic.
The storyline was supplemented by excellent historical details that were recently unearthed. But Kalki cleverly chose a hero who was mentioned only twice in the mile-long edicts of the Tanjore big temple. Rajaraja was too big a character to be messed with. He couldn’t prance around trees romancing. Vanthiyathevan was a ‘boy next door’ character who was just a messenger from the heir apparent.
On his way to Tanjore, Vanthiyathevan happens to stay overnight in the rambling Kadambur fortress. He overhears the chieftains of the Chola land conspiring on whose head the Chola crown would adorn next (the king Parantaka having become disabled and infirm). Conspiracy and death had come suddenly to stalk the Cholas and an outraged Vanthiyathevan helps them hold onto their ground. In the background among the conspiracies, there were a plethora of gentle romances and Kalki ends the book with a flower plucking boy as the emperor-to-be and a boat girl as his empress — a reminder to the readers that democracy was here to stay.
Ponniyin Selvan is not a true history in all respects, but the storyteller surely has a license to follow whatever is most suitable to him. In 1954, Kalki did the unthinkable. He concluded the novel without a convincing finish. The main couple wasn’t married and the name giver to the novel wasn’t crowned.
Fans were outraged and angry. Thousands of letters forced Kalki to react and he did. “It’s good I stopped when people were asking why I haven’t stopped.” And surprisingly, Kalki succumbed to ill health in six months leading people to wonder if he had a premonition of his death.
Ponniyin Selvan, after 65 years in a book form, is still a best-seller. MGR got the rights for the movie and he as well as Kamal Haasan and Mani Ratnam tried but failed. The characters were well-etched in the minds of the readers by then. At least three sequels have come in half a century (this columnist has written one — Kaviri Maindan).
Kalki had kindled the spirit of Tamil pride and the interest in Tamil history among the readers through the novel. Ponniyin Selvan redefined Tamil literature thereafter and the morose 20th-century literature of Tamil was broken by a gilding ray of sunshine. Tamil prose now had a yardstick to measure up to.
— The writer is a historian and an author