Tuesday, May 03, 2005

"Kalki" Krishnamurthy in English....

The name "Kalki" Krishnamurthy (Tamil nationalist-writer and journalist beyond compare) is mentioned with admiration by my grandmom, and my parents. To them, he was the greatest Tamil writer of the 20th century. He wrote strongly on social reform, superstition, caste barriers and was a strong critic of British rule (both as editor of "Ananda Vikatan" and later founder-editor of "Kalki", both of which are still extremely popular magazines). His short-stories too were infused with his strong beliefs. His forte however was in writing epic historical fiction, and his novels like "Parthiban kanavu" (Parthiban's dream), "Sivakamiyin Sapadam" (Sivakami's oath) and Ponniyin Selvan were unparalleled classics. The grandeur of the ancient Chola and Pallava empires shone through, while tales of romance, valor and high culture mesmerized millions of Tamil readers. At least, these were my grandma's words.

Unfortunately, I never really worked hard to learn how to read and write (Classical) Tamil. I can barely read the signs on PTC transport buses in Chennai, so reading an epic like Sivakamiyin Sapadam really is not in my league. But my grandma's words always haunted me, and I was enthralled by the magnificence of even black and white celluloid efforts of these novels. Here, clearly, was a writer of stupendous ability, who had carved out masterpieces of literature. And here I was, unable to read any of his works. I wondered if there were any worthwhile translations of his works.

Just over a month ago, while browsing throught the shelves of Landmark (in Bangalore) I found a book staring at me. It was titled "Kalki: selected stories", and was a collection of twelve short stories by the legend himself, translated by his granddaughter Gowri Ramnarayan. Overjoyed, I immediately bought the book, and am now digging into the stories.

His stories are not as tightly constructed as those of some short-story writers (I find Roald Dahl's short stories extremely well constructed), but sometimes ramble on (in a nice way, not unlike R.K. Narayan). Some of his stories seem to finish in a hurry. His descriptive abilities however (even in translation) are magnificent, and images of little village houses on the banks of the Cauvery, surrounded by rice paddies float in. There are pointed references to superstition, caste oppression, freedom for women and of course, the freedom movement, and the strong characters in the stories always bring out these themes. Short story readers however desire a twist in the tale. They expect the unexpected. Here, Kalki scores very well. Some times I could guess the end correctly, but more often than not, the little red herrings threw me off. In other stories I just wanted to know what happens to the protagonist in the end, and couldn't wait to flip the page. O'henry would have loved these tales.

Amazon link.

Can Gowri translate "Prathiban Kanavu" and the other Kalki epics please?? Pretty please?????

ps: Amit Varma in his earlier blog had lamented the lack of good translations of Indian writing, but found that upon searching there were splendid translations available. True, very true.


Soultan of Swing said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


Like Soultan of Swing said Ponniyin Selvan is available in English! I'm sure your Landmark will have copies of it.

Kalki's novels (in tamil) are also available on the interenet at

Sunil said...

Thanks Karthik for the link!

Ravages/CC said...

Sivagmiyin Sabadham is being translated, as we speak, by a fellow blogger.


Plus, Ponniyin Selvan is a magnificient book, and ought to be read in its classical Tamil, though translations are available.

I don't agree with one statement you made in this post - you mentioned black & white celluloid scenes in Kalki's books.
I think, with his descriptions and the way he draws out his characters, it is anything but black and white.

Sunil said...

This link is absolutely wonderful........will spend many happy hours there.

By celluloid....i only ment movies, motion pictures....like parthiban kanavu (Gemini G and Vijayanthimala)....
The books allow you to dream in the colors of the rainbow!

One day i'll read these books in tamil.....till then, its translations, and passages being read out to me (by my ma or grandma)

Kingsley Joseph said...

Kalki's short stories are quite tightly constructed, in an Edgar Allen Poe sense. I haven't come across any collections of them though, leave alone translations. I read them in ancient copies of Kalki magazine I found at a neighbors'.

Anonymous said...

it is true that translations of better known Tamil authors are available but they are very hard to come by - publishers just don not market them enough... Kalki is a wonderful writer - even though Ponniyin Selvan is a loooong novel, it keeps the writer absorbed thru - my personal favourite though is Sivagamiyin Sabadam

Anonymous said...

and es, you should read these books in tamil to get the flavour of the land he writes about :)

oddan said...

Your frustration of not being able to read kalki's work is shared by me. I have been hearing my mother rave about him and narrate the stories to me. In fact this time when she comes from chennai to gurgaon (where i live) she has promised that she would bring all his epics and read and explain them to me everyday. I am realy looking forward to it

Pavithra Srinivasan said...

Hello, this is Pavithra. I was googling Kalki's works, and a link sent me here -glad you like Kalki's works so much. :) . I agree that the works are best read in Tamil...but a translation can work wonders when you aren't fluent with the language. Parthiban kanavu has been done twice, and there's Karthik Narayan's translation of Ponniyin Selvan too, if you're interested.

Sunil said...

Here's a link to Ponniyin Selvan's english translations:

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog. I landed here from a review of Anniyan. Kalki is a class apart. I learnt to read Tamizh just to read his novels. My grandfather used to rave about his stories when I was a kid. And although I had to choose Hindi as my second language and Tamizh as third language, I progressed quite well to be able to read Kalki's novels. I also love reading Thevan (Thuppariyum Sambu pughaz), Jayakanthan, Sujatha and a few others. (That I cannot speak or write a sentence in Hindi today is a different issue :-) )

Kalki should be read in Tamizh - the descriptions of "chozha naadu", the myriad poems, kurunthogai, thiruvasagam, etc that are sprinkled all over the 5 parts, the extensive historical information that form the basis for the plot, etc do not translate well into any other language. The idiom is in Tamizh and that is lost in any translation.

Anonymous said...

More To add up..
I have heard so much about these novels..Especially Ponniyin selvan..I read in a magazine tat,when the author describes a scene you physically feel all tat in you..and wondered hw could some one's letters can cause such a impact!!
But for my surprise..It happened in me...Especially the scene where "Senthean Amudhan" prepares for for his impaired mom!!!! and more such things
Visual Media can create tat impact on us..But Kalki's Letters creates them even more..
Sivakami in "Sivakamiyin sabhdham" for her elegance and "Kundhavai " in "Ponniyin Selvan" for her Most intellectual thoughts can never be beaten up..

Dont Miss to read them...
Don miss them In tamil!!!!
Words are even more Powerful!!!

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