Two books I’ve taken from my Longoio shelves to read in the South Indian tropics are ‘Shilappadikaram’ (the ankle bracelet) by Prince Ilango Adigal and ‘Last man in Tower’ by Aravind Adiga. Almost two thousand years separate the two works, yet they are both recognizably by Tamil writers.
Shilappadikaram is a third century verse romance which is attributed to a Jain prince. The story deals with the miraculous and the tragic, the often wrought relationship between gods and men and the cruelty arising from karma where actions committed in past lives always return to bear fruit.
Apart from the hapless love tale between Kovalan and Kannaki the romantic epic offers precious insights into Tamil culture of the third century AD and, frankly, not much has changed. The religious rituals performed in present-day hindu temples follow identical formulas and caste customs have changed not very much. Fishing and agriculture still adhere to the same patterns and village life is still recognisably the same.
The Shilappadikaram contains wonderful descriptions of music, drama and dance including detailed technical data on the art formd (eg on tuning vinas and mrindagams – south indian lutes snd drums). These are used today in the renaissance of Bharat natyam dance and carnatic music so characteristic of Tamilnadu.
The other book I have brought with me, ‘Last man in tower’ is another engrossing and encompassing novel by Man-booker prize winner Adiga who was born in Chennai, (formerly Madras). The rapid and often uproarous changes which India is now undergoing are vividly described in a story involving a group of inhabitants of an old housing estate in Mumbai who have to face speculative forces from real estate agents. As always the plot gives the author every chance to employ his prodigious descriptive powers. The colours, smells and noises of the semi-organised chaos of an Indian megalopolis are truly felt on one’s pulse.
Two books by Tamil authors which entrap and enrapture the reader with their magic prose – it’s little wonder that some of the best writing comes out of the multifarious, multicultured world inhabiting the sub-continent.