A. Anupama contributes five poems translated from the anthology of classical Tamil poems known as the Kuruntokai (pro-nounced Kurundohay), gorgeously symbolic love poems that work within a strict formal structure. Strange and beautiful they are, a revelation of an ancient culture and tradition to which we have as a guide, also, a lovely essay by the translator who uses, yes, Ludwig Wittgenstein as an entry point into her own considerable cultural heritage. The essay is a delight, not the least because it lays bare some of the structures of the poems and thus does what good criticism should always do–help us read more deeply.
On Translating from Kuruntokai
Wittgenstein wrote “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This wasn’t exactly the reason I set about learning and translating Tamil, the language of my south Indian heritage, but I admit that I liked the idea of pushing back the limits. In my work of distilling English in my poetry, I had begun to notice my many refusals to use foreign words and syntactic differences, which often correspond to my thoughts stemming from Indian philosophy. I turned to learning my mother tongue and attempting translations with the hope of finding a door through which I might reconcile these two movements in my own writing.
I didn’t have to look hard to find a compelling doorway. A.K. Ramanujan’s translations of Kuruntokai, an anthology of love poems from the Cankam era of Tamil poetry, illuminate the beauty of both languages. Reading this work was not only an opportunity for me to walk into Tamil with a brilliant guide, it represented a chance to roam in the genius of a community of poets and scholars in ancient India.
Cankam (pronounced “Sangam”) means community, and the poems in Kuruntokai are a formal genre called akam written by many different poets based on a common poetic language of five landscapes, with corresponding symbolism in the specific plants, animals, bodies of water, occupations, seasons, and more in each. These poems revolve around a love affair with a cast of five speakers: the heroine (in Tamil, talaivi) and hero (talaivan), her friend, her mother, and his mistress. Each poem is a short monologue or half of a dialogue, part of an unfolding drama, but is self-contained, a glistening snapshot of a particular moment.
The simplicity of the verses in the translations is deceptive. I was amazed to find allusions and symmetry working together to create a trapdoor in each poem. As I worked on my own translations from the original Tamil, I found poetic devices like parallel feet in symmetric opposition representing the dichotomy of the senses and the mind. An example of this is verse 237, where the hero speaks about his heart setting out boldly to embrace his lover at the start of the second line of the poem and then speaks of his mind as hardly daring to think at the end of line 7. These are set symmetrically around the center of the poem: the image of the dark ocean and the words referring to the obstacle between the two lovers. Symmetry presents a different meaning from the literal sense of the hero’s monologue, in which it is the distance and the forests that are the obstacles. The symmetry suggests more than the literal sense of the words, creating a superimposition of meanings so that the reader’s understanding can shift away from the expected storyline, the bold heart and distracted mind, and see something more. Another set of parallels occurs even closer to the center of this poem, amplifying the effect: the image of arms clasping is set opposite the word for circling or echoing. In both cases, the references are ambiguous. The first one suggests that the heart, lacking arms, can’t embrace his lover. The other one could refer to the waves of the ocean or to the deadly tigers. The effect demonstrates the futility of trying to comprehend this sort of circling inward with one’s head-on logic. (I’m grateful, or I might have spent a lot more time trying to figure out the Tamil metrics looking for more clues.)
Sometimes the image or word in the geometric center of the poem is a hinge point or a clue. In verse 36, the central foot of the poem is about the inseparable intimacy of the two lovers. Interestingly, this word is a partial rhyme for mÀõai and for the usual Tamil word for elephant, which is not used in this poem. The effect here is that the conscious statement of the heroine is contradicted by the very way she is making her statement. The elephant is in the room, even though she denies it by her words. On another level, the deeper intelligence, sleeping under the surface, is the point here.
Sometimes the poem seems to flow backwards, with images at the beginning of the poem only making sense at the end. Throwing the reader back to the beginning of the poem seems to be one of the reasons for this device, as in verse 46. The original doesn’t begin with any mention of the lover. Ramanujan reordered this poem in his translation (and I followed him in mine) so that the heroine’s suggestion wouldn’t be lost in the poem in English. The original poem unfolds from the opening image of the wings like faded waterlilies and ends with the statement that her lover has left for another land. When the reader skips back to the beginning, automatically because of the surprise of the revelation at the end, the image of those limp brown wings suggests that no one is really going anywhere. This device superimposes that suggestion over the heroine’s suggestion that her lover will return to her, as the sparrows return to their nests, because he can’t escape the loneliness of life without her. This sort of set up, with no escape through the ends of the poem, forces the reader to circumambulate the center of the poem, where the image of the sparrows playing in the dust of dried cow dung is the trapdoor’s hinge. In traditional Indian villages, dried cow dung is used as fuel.
The mysteriousness of these love poems is even more striking because they were compiled during the legendary gatherings of Tamil poets and scholars roughly a thousand years ago. I wondered, why love poems? Why landscapes and flowers? I went to philosophy texts for those answers. (Thanks Wittgenstein!) The commentary in Edwin F. Bryant’s translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali explains: “The senses can grasp only sense objects, but not vice versa; the mind can perceive the senses, but not vice versa; and the purusa [soul] can perceive the mind, but not vice versa.” So one conclusion is that the love poetry of Kuruntokai and the other akam poems of the Cankam era mean to stand firmly among the sense objects of the world and point absolutely in the direction of the soul, transcending the limits of this world.
A.K. Ramanujan’s books Poems of Love and War and The Interior Landscape offer a fascinating discussion of Tamil akam poetry. I also consulted Robert Butler’s translation, which includes informative footnotes on the language, flora and fauna, and traditional commentaries on the verses. I’m grateful to B. Jeyaganesh and my mother, who offered literal translations and discussion. None of us are scholars on these poems or on ancient Tamil, so I can only claim that these translations are my attempt to make guideposts, in contemporary American poetry-ese, pointing to the sublime trapdoors embedded in these poems. These guideposts have helped me to find my own poems, too, by inspiring a sequence based on the landscapes and poetic devices of akam poetry. Pushing away the limits of my language has expanded my world a bit; thanks, Wittgenstein.
Translations from Kuruntokai, Ancient Indian Love Poetry
Poem from the purple-flowered hills
Talaivi says to her friend—
He swore “my heart is true.
I’ll never leave you.”
My lover from the hills,
where the manai creepers
sometimes mount the shoulders of elephants
asleep among the boulders,
promised this on that day
when he embraced my shoulders, making love to me.
Why cry, my dear friend?
Kuruntokai, verse 36
Poem from the fertile fields and fragrant trees
Don’t you think they have sparrows
wherever he has gone, with wings like faded water lilies,
bathing in the dung dust in the village streets
before pecking grain from the yards
and returning to their chicks in the eaves,
common as evening loneliness?
Kuruntokai, verse 46
Poem from the jasmine-filled woods
The rains have come and gone.
The millet grew and now is stubble
nibbled by stags while jasmine blossoms flourish
alongside, their buds unfolding to show white petals
like a wildcat’s smile.
Evening comes, scented with jasmine
bringing bees to the buds,
but see, he hasn’t come,
he who left for other riches.
Kuruntokai, verse 220
Poem from the blue lotus seashore
Talaivi says to her friend—
My heart aches, my heart aches!
My eyelids burn from holding back these hot tears.
My love, who alone comforts me, is called unworthy
by even the moon. My heart aches.
Kuruntokai, verse 4
Poem from the desert road
Fearlessly, my heart has departed
to embrace my beloved.
If its arms are too slack to hold her
what use is it?
The distances between us stretch long.
Must I think of the many forests
where deadly tigers rise up roaring
like the waves of the dark ocean
standing between us? I don’t dare.
Kuruntokai, verse 237
—Translated by A. Anupama
A. Anupama holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her career has spanned molecular biology, legal publishing, and orthopedic surgery textbooks in her search for beauty, truth, and the marrow of life. Her book Kali Sutra: Poems was a semi-finalist for Tupelo Press’s 2011 First or Second Book of Poetry Award. She lives in Nyack, New York.