During one of my annual school holidays (probably 8th or 9th) my father got me the full set of 5 books of Ponniyin Selvan. I have heard him talk about it earlier but I never thought I would read them. I started with the first book, first chapter and Kalki’s writing took hold of me till I finished the full set within the holidays even accounting for the fact that I was playing cricket as the main activity.
There is a kind of simplicity along with mild humour always present in his writing like some kind of background music that just keeps you going on and on – all happy and content. This is a historical fiction woven around several real people (Chola Kings) and some real facts. It is a pot pouri of so many things like friendship, anger, revenge, courage, love, flirtations, political intrigue, war, spy thriller, history. But above all it is a story of travel and that is why it stuck a chord with me I guess. You are not restrained in one place for long and every place you travel to is described beautifully and you feel like walking along with the characters, seeing them yourself and feeling the vibe in the air around you.
There are a hoard of characters as well – even the main ones are in double digits, not to mention several others who keep showing up once in a while. I like that Kalki spends so much time with each character that they all have several shades of complexity. Like how everyone has their own unique favourite Ilayaraja song, so could each reader prefer a different character as their favourite and you wouldn’t be surprised at all. Even a regular character like an Astrologer has his own style making him a person that you could understand and relate to. Also, none of them is perfect. Even the main characters which I don’t want to label as ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ have their flaws and they accept them when the time comes. This makes them believable and also shows us that even though we are not perfect we can still strive to be good and make a difference. Another feather on Kalki’s hat is the portrayal of strong independent women as several main characters.
It came as a weekly in the 1930s for five consecutive years and it shows in how the chapters always end with some kind of mystery. If you can read it in its original form in Tamil then it is the most rewarding – the current best is this illustrated set by Sixth sense. Next best would be to listen to in as Audiobook (Amazing work by Sri available in Spotify or iTunes). Nila have converted it into simplified comics (available in paper form or as part of Kindle unlimited too). It is also available for free in Tamil and English as HTML/PDF in Project Madurai page. It is a super hit movie now worth watching but for all old timers like us who have gone over it several times (Personally I have read/listened to it 4 times as on 2022) there can be no movie matching the original books. It is and will probably remain the book that I read the most.