When I was on holiday in USA I received a letter and a book, a Penguin India Classic with a request, asking if I would like to write a review on their recently launched ‘Blog aPenguin India Classic’ site. On my return home, I thought it such an honour that I set about the task after my Borders book launch. It is a book that Iam familiar with but writing a review for such an ancient text that is revered and held in great esteem made me feel quite nervous. Well, I ‘ve had a go. Here it is:
The first rhyming words one hears as a child, a mere play on words to infant ears, steep into one’s conscience and are never forgotten. The first couplet of the Kural by Tiruvalluvar, translated by P.S. Sundaram is ingrained in the DNA of most Tamil children:
“A begins the alphabet
And God, primordial, the world.”
The cadences, inflections and richness of the mother tongue become part of our heritage, of who we are. As a child I remember the joy of reciting this couplet and feeling proud to have mastered the tongue-twisting beauty of these words. Rereading this Penguin Classic ‘Tiruvalluvar The Kural ‘translated by Professor P.S Sundaram was a wonderful task, reliving those moments of childhood etched in my mind.Scholars debate that the date of the ‘Kural’ could be anything from the second century BC to the Eighth century AD. As Professor Sundaram has explained in his excellent introduction, translations of the Kural have been in existence since 1700’s, first in Latin by the missionaries and then in English by various authors. So what is unique about this edition by Penguin India as part of their Penguin Classics Project? The author’s introduction clearly illustrates both his erudition in Tamil and English as well as his vast research on the classical texts. He has read extensively on the Kural, starting with the ‘terse and obscure’ work of the thirteenth century commentator Parimeelazhahar.
The Kural itself is unique. It is comprised of 1330 couplets written in a “metrical line of two feet, or a distich or couplet of short lines, the first of four and the second of three feet.” The work is also divided into the three themes of Virtue, Wealth and Love. Such clear and concise explanations by Professor Sundaram assist a layman like me in understanding the layers of this ancient text which has survived for centuries and continues to be read in Tamil, a “living language” unlike Sanskrit.
The book is set out in a simple format. Here is an example from page 15:“Valluvar knew the value of words and didn’t waste any. He took delight in rhyme, repetition, pun and alliteration and exploited them to the full to drive home a point“Cling to the One who clings to nothingAnd so clinging cease to cling.”is typical in its English of much of the brevity and wordplay of the Kural.”The author has translated the couplets in language that has not diminished the beauty of its rhyme. The copious notes at the end (pages 157-168) would help all readers to understand the nuances of the text. He has often compared them to Western literature: for example Stanza 5 is compared to Milton’s Lycidas, stanza 702 to Hamlet, stanza 716 to The Pilgrim’s progress by Bunyan. He also makes references to the Manusamhita, the Bhagavad-Gita and Arthasastra.
I would highly recommend this Penguin Classic as a great ‘dip-in’ book for one to keep by one’s bedside. This is a book that one will never tire of, a book that one could revisit for the sheer universality of its messages. Its words, scribed on palm leaves, can be read and marveled as they resonate with life in the twenty first century. The Kural would be a valuable addition to everyone’s collection of well-loved books.
To paraphrase the Kural Stanza 783:
“Good books are like good friends – A perpetual delight.”