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70 Years On, Ponniyin Selvan is Still a Benchmark for Writing Women Characters

Written by Jayasri Sridhar,

October 31st, 2020,

During the lockdown, my mother and I picked up a six-part historical drama novel in Tamizh, Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy. What began as an attempt to pass the time became strongly reminiscent of a warm childhood full of bedtime stories. Set in the tenth-century Chola empire, the series follows Arulmozhi Varman (Rajaraja Chola I) and his rise to power. As Amma read the hard-bound volumes out, Kalki’s well-paced, rich writing made me spin vivid images in my mind. Written in lyrical Tamizh prose, the books are full of spies, warriors, princesses, epic voyages, of comets that portend a royal death, of songs, and poetry. From fortune-tellers to flower-sellers and blacksmiths to bikshus, he weaves an elaborate world with layered characters, making the reader fall in love with the spaces and an era that comes alive.

What struck me the most, looking back on the journey, was the female characters, who were pivotal to the plot without being the buff, sword-wielding, machismo-glorifying caricatures we often find in modern retellings of historical and mythological epics by contemporary Indian authors. I found it extraordinary that despite having been written by a man in the 1950s, characters like Kunthavai Devi  (the Chola princess), Nandini (a rival queen), Poonkuzhali (a boatwoman) and Vaanathi (the princess’s maiden-friend), are not one-dimensional dames looking for men to save them. They pull all the strings throughout the plot; they utilize their charm, guile, wit and intelligence. They are politically active, independent thinkers, and do not need brawn  to achieve things. Strangely, this same attention seems to be absent fromthe women we find in Amish Tripathi’s series. 

Be it the Shiva Trilogy or the Ramchandra Series, female protagonists seem to be continuously validated by the men around them for the way they “fight like  a man.” They are repeatedly ‘rewarded’ with such gracious compliments as, “You don’t wield your sword too badly for a woman,” and get ogled at by male protagonists: Anandmayi’s movements were so flawless that Parvateshwar did not even see the target. He stood there admiring her action. His mouth open in awe. Then he heard Uttanka and Bhagirath applauding. He turned towards the board. Every knife had hit dead centre. Perfect. 

These men often challenge the women to duels, who politely decline, claiming that they did not have to prove anything to anyone. As these persistent requests are nothing but a thinly-veiled effort at courting, if not an excuse to boost their male egos, it is relieving to see them refuse these advances. 

A Woman’s Place

One of my favourite moments from Ponniyin Selvan is when Poonkuzhali and Seynthanamudan, a flower-seller, travel on a mission to Tanjai city. As they walk along the highway, she tutors the latter on how to use a sword, upon his request. They are the same age, in case you are wondering about the unlikely hierarchy. The author does not focus on Poonkuzhali’s sinewy arms or confident movements; he details out the relevance of the journey instead. The dynamics between the sexes ride not on typified roles, but on skill and individual persona. Strength in Ponniyin Selvan’s women is incidental; it does not exist merely to charge all male libido within a  ten-metre radius. 

Picture this other scene: Poonkuzhali, who is also addressed by the prince as Samudrakumari (“Daughter/ Princess of the Ocean”), takes her tiny boat out into the storm-washed waters between Lanka and the Indian peninsula, and chances upon Arulmozhivarman, the prince, and Vanthiyathevan, his aide, adrift, clinging onto a floating plank for dear life. The shipwrecked duo catches a strain of her singing, and the aide cries, “It’s her! We’re saved!”  

There are no long-drawn professions of gratitude and life-long indebtedness, the sort that we find in The Shiva Trilogy; in fact, the second volume ends with them catching the young boat-woman’s eye. It is a matter-of-fact detail that Poonkuzhali saves the two men, as anyone in her place would have. She is not deified, nor is she immediately made the object of anyone’s infatuation.

If Poonkuzhali is the feisty girl who romances the rough seas and amuses herself by getting drenched atop domes amidst thunderbolts and cyclones, Kunthavai is the keen stateswoman and diplomat, quick with her tongue and wise in her tactical decisions. Nandini, the ‘villainess,’ earns the reader’s awe with her impeccable scheming, double-crossing and shrewdly manipulating people (not just men) into doing her bidding. Mandakini Devi takes a dagger for her past lover, the ageing Emperor. Manimekalai covers for her murder-accused love-interest, Vandiyathevan by accepting the blame. One loses count of the times women ‘save’ the men in this series without being paraded about as ‘being manly’ or ‘heroes.’ Kalki masterfully avoids the popular trope of celebrating ‘female sacrifice as the ultimate virtue’: these women know whom they’re saving, and why. Their decisions are entirely their own, and their self-sacrifice stems more often from rationality than an innate sense of altruism, which popular media has venerated as the principal attribute of all womankind (refer Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana).

Why and how did Kalki understand his pivotal women characters so well? How were their personalities so distinct from each other, as compared to Sita, Sati, Anandmayi and Kali in Amish’s books, who could practically replace one another simply because they are the same kind of women?

Mightier than the Sword

While there is nothing wrong with the idea of physically strong women per se, Amish’s treatment of his characters suggests that men would only respect women who fight well. They remain slotted either into the frail, weak type or the sexy, muscular type. The only ones who are of any consequence to the plot also must be great fighters, and be attractive while they’re at it (throw in a bunch of duels with large men with larger egos, only to have the woman win: hurray for wokeness).  Amish’s  evident male gaze makes him avoid the feminine archetype all-too-conspicuously, and emphasize how ‘non-ladylike’ and against-the-grain these women are. While Sati and Sita might be likeable characters, they are undeniably a man’s conceptualization of a strong woman.  

Pages from “Ponniyin Selvan”

Where are the self-assured, assertive women such as those in Kalki’s novels, who unabashedly and deliberately charm men into doing their bidding? The ones who always stay one step ahead of their adversaries through sheer strategic intelligence and extensive connections? They almost remind me of the Greek war goddess, Athena, the female counterpart of Ares, who embodies rational thought, wisdom, and the art of strategy. One bemoans the absence of these same characteristics in Amish’s women: the decisions are all left to the men. Is there truly a subversion in these reimagined stories, or is it merely a feeble attempt at being politically correct in a world that is increasingly questioning the dynamics of power? It is, after all, easy to fall into the trap of confusing power with physical strength.

Amish’s women have might, but no agency. He might reimagine Sita as the “warrior princess of Mithila,” but is that the only way to make her palatable to today’s audience? The subtext here is the equation of physical prowess with the centrality of the character. Amish’s writing succumbs to the very binary it attempts to break: perhaps a more nuanced treatment would ensure that not all plot-relevant characters are attached to violent displays of machismo. Kalki’s women are courageous without exuding bravado, wilful without being belligerent; they take matters into their own able hands. He understands that sculpting a woman character to be ‘feminine’ is not a disservice to her. She can be a meek Vaanathi, quick to faint, but remain steadfast despite a prime minister’s threats to her life, and keep her silence about an absconding prince’s location. She can be a lovelorn Manimekalai, but not flinch or falter when she takes responsibility for her lover’s unproven crime.  She can be graceful, frail, kind, emotional– all that society traditionally considers ‘womanly’, and yet have an incredibly important presence and significance. 

These juxtapositions of quintessential femininity with fortitude are what appeal to me more than the brash, weapon-swinging ladies of retold myths. It speaks of the everyday courage and perseverance of women who do not need to emulate the aggressive ways of men. They have the slow-burning ambitious streak of the quiet girl who stays up late studying, the poise of the lady who asks for the dinner bill that the waiter handed her male partner, and the fierce endurance of a woman who bides her time and orchestrates a vengeance against the man who wronged her. All this, but magnified to the scale of empires and courtly politics.

Of Retellings and Relevance

If Kalki’s women each have an individuality without being a caricature, so do the men. They offer neither grudging respect nor overt adulation. They have the grace to share the stage with the ladies without incessantly pointing out that they are bestowing a favour upon the latter. How refreshing it is to retrospectively realize the absence of unobvious condescension through men’s appraisals and adorations, how promising the depth and dignity in the women’s backstories and character arcs. 

Ponniyin Selvan, seven decades after Kalki wrote it is still a much-loved, appreciated and relevant work of literature, albeit unfortunately less popular as the contemporary English historical-fictions by Indian authors which are devoured by a growing urban population. Perhaps this obscurity stems from the series not having been popularized in the accessible colonial language that binds us together. Still, I wonder where this epic novel would fit in the context of the current convention of storytelling if translated. Would it begin to conform to the trend of plastering woman empowerment onto thinly written characters who draw all their worth from stereotypical “manly” qualities?

Western Young Adult fiction, where female leads are invariably physically strong and independent (The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments, The Infernal Devices, Divergent, Percy Jackson) has heavily influenced contemporary Indian storytelling.  However, character development and strong motives complement these traits. Meanwhile, Indian authors,  in subverting epic female roles, seem to ‘elevate’ these characters to a warrior standard, rather than levelling the playing ground. 

Will modern Indian authors re-interpreting epics or writing historical fiction remain relevant? Or will they become textbook examples of men telling women stories from a man’s point of view? In an age in which we are consciously and perpetually deconstructing gaze, I am confident of Kalki’s Kunthavai holding her own against the scrutiny, as she did in the face of unknown looming dangers to her beloved empire. Amish’s Sita, I am not so sure of.

Experience Further: Naomi Scott’s powerful voice in ‘Speechless’ conveys the idea of agency beautifully. “Stay in your place/ better seen and not heard;” these lines speak of breaking away from traditional roles of being physically attractive and pleasing to the eyes, and moving towards being vocal and empowered.

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Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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