Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Rapids of a Great River

It all started with a message in twitter about this article in Mint about a collection of translated Tamil poems.

The friend wanted to know what the columnist was referring to when she said "The title, taken from A.K. Ramanujan’s Poems of Love and War, is a clear reference to the great river that is Tamil poetry, connecting its source—Sangam literature—with the currents of modern writing."

First I tried to re translate The Rapids of a Great River into Tamil and came up with பெருநதிப் பிரவாகத்தின் சுழல்கள். But this phrase didn't belong to any Sangam poetry and as the friend said, wasn't poetic at all.

A little bit of googling and I found the source. I was embarassed to find that it was from the famous யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் of கணியன் பூங்குன்றனார். As with most of the famous poems, I knew only the first and last lines.

யாதும் ஊரே ; யாவரும் கேளிர் ;
தீதும் நன்றும் பிறர்தர வாரா ;
நோதலும் தணிதலும் அவற்றோ ரன்ன ;
சாதலும் புதுவது அன்றே ; வாழ்தல்
இனிதுஎன மகிழ்ந்தன்றும் இலமே; முனிவின்,
இன்னா தென்றலும் இலமே; ‘மின்னொடு
வானம் தண்துளி தலைஇ, ஆனாது
கல்பொருது இரங்கும் மல்லற் பேர்யாற்று
நீர்வழிப் படூஉம் புணைபோல, ஆருயிர்
முறைவழிப் படூஉம்’
என்பது திறவோர்
காட்சியின் தெளிந்தனம் ஆகலின், மாட்சியின்
பெரியோரை வியத்தலும் இலமே;
சிறியோரை இகழ்தல் அதனினும் இலமே.

AK Ramanujam's translation

Every town our home town
every man, a kinsman
Good and evil do not come from others
Pain and relief of pain come of themselves
Dying is nothing new
We do not rejoice that life is sweet
nor in anger
call it bitter
Our lives, however dear,
follow their own course,
rafts drifting
in the rapids of a great river
sounding and dashing over rocks
after a down pour
from skies slashed by lightnings -

We know this from the vision
of men who see,
We are not amazed by the great
and we do not scorn the little.

Reading the translation I was struck by the undercurrent of fatalism prevalent in Indian Literature.


Ramnath said...


hmmm. you mean they were realistic, practical?

Anonymous said...

A translation of the same poem by G.U Pope can be found here.


- M S

Chenthil said...

Ramz, welcome back. I will stick with fatalism - what has to happen, will happen seems to be the undercurrent, from Gita to Sangam Poetry.

M - knew about that, Pope's translation makes for hard reading. I prefer AKR's.

Anonymous said...

there is no "has to happen" in this poem, and the worldview of sangam poetry is extremely different from that of gita.

actually, when my teacher (a sangam scholar) talked about the interpretation of this poem, it reminded me of dmx more than of the gita -- the yaathum ure is about being unimpressed rather than an expression of brotherhood.

Chenthil said...

Anon - a confession first. I know very little of Sangam Poetry beyond the oft quoted ones and even less of Gita. My observation was just off the cuff, superficial.

I used to think of Yaathum Uure as a universal brotherhood kind of poem (based on the first line), but only when I read it fully did I understand Kanian Poonkunranar meant some thing entirely different. I understood it as explaining the futility of life - hence I used the word fatalism. Life is like a raft bouncing over the rapids of the great river, which will flow irrespective of whether you want to stop or not. May be I am wrong.

lazygeek said...

yes, reading through the original and AKR's translation it sounds very fatalistic. Not a fantasy as interpretted in the ninaithaaley inikkum song.

Anonymous said...

where is the "futility of life"? he doesn't say the vanity of human wishes makes life futile, he says it makes him not overawed by the powerful or disdainful of the weak.

you're projecting your own hinduism (thalaivithi, mayam) onto a (pre-saivite-revival, pre-gita, pre-what-we-think-of-as-hinduism) poem which is actually talking about how our social differences are meaningless (see opening and closing lives) in the face of life's destructive power (middle).

Bala said...


my 12th tamil master dissed kanian poongundran as a "vendhadha thinuttu vidhi vandha saaavu" case. (12th had yaadum oore yavarum kelir in syllabus). i was pleasantly surprised to read the Same criticism is in jeyamohan's sanga kala chithirangal (his tamil master said the same thing)

Ela said...

I agree with the Anon's view... but with the views that we had been brought up with and the conditioning we had been put through to view and live life... this poem will sound like fatalism to us... becoz we associate life always with materialistic things... I personally think that this guy KP rose above everyone and everything to give such a view point.. let's say he must have been the 'cool dude' of those times!

Chenthil said...

Anon - after your comment, I googled for the உரை நூல் in Tamil and found it in Tamilvu.org. ஆருயிர் முறைவழிப் படூஉம் - The life that you hold dear will be tossed around by fate. Hence I stick to my stand that it is about futility of life.

Bala - I don't remember reading this in my 12th std. All I remember is குற்றாலக் குறவஞ்சி :-).

Ela - KP must have been a cool dude. Auvai DuraiSami Pillai in his explanation to this song writes on how this came about. When some of his contemporaries asked KP why he isn't writing poems in praise of the ruler or the rich, he said some thing like ashes to ashes, dust to dust and wrote this poem. The story might be a made up one, but never the less interesting.

sridhar said...


a minor digression from what you said. Rather than fatalism, I took it as "indifference".

Would request you to read my blog on this here.




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