Book Review | Lurid and bloated historical epic does not stand test of time

The Asian Age.

The story serves as a mirror to the careful reader, offering insights into how people act under pressure, and what makes the difference.

Cover photo of 'Sivakami’s Vow: Vol.1 Paranjyothi’s Journey' by Kalki Krishnamurti. (Photo by arrangement)

Each of the four volumes of Sivakami’s Vow deserves an independent review because each tells a story of its own besides being part of a larger story. However, there are a few outstanding characteristics that they have in common. There is, of course, is the level of historical research and detail. These stories were serialized in Ramaswamy (Kalki) Krishnamurthy’s magazine, Kalki, in the 1940s, the book being released in the late 1940s. For a period without internet and search engines, when libraries and universities were few and far between, the detail is fantastic. One might cavil at the possible distortion of some bits of history: Pulikesi II (Pulikesi I was his grandfather), one of the main characters in the story, comes across as a barbarian and a despot with a penchant for sneaky tactics, but given his tremendous achievements, that seems require a deeper look. For all its weaknesses, though, the story serves as a mirror to the careful reader, offering insights into how people act under pressure, and what makes the difference. Besides, it demonstrates very well the strength of the feminine character.

Kalki wrote this book – as he wrote the much better known Ponniyin Selvan, which led to the hugely successful movie of the same name – much in the style of Indian epics, long-drawn-out sagas loaded with complex wars and royal vengeance, spies and skulduggery, secret tunnels and kings masquerading as commoners, coincidences and unlikely rescues, and, in this case, the pangs of unrequited love. The movie industry was in its infancy and readers appreciated descriptions vivid enough to make rich scenes come alive in their minds. Kalki’s Tamil was excellent: good enough, in fact, to capture the public imagination to the extent that the government “nationalized” his works.

The setting for a parade of memorable characters and events is a war between two major kingdoms – or empires – of seventh-century south India. As the story begins, Pulikesi II, ruler of the Chalukya empire, advances upon Kanchipuram, capital of the Pallavas, ruled then by Mahendra Varma. The attack ends in a siege of Kanchi, at which Pulikesi fails to make much progress, and calls for a truce. Mahendra Varma agrees to it, against the advice of his son and Crown Prince, Narasimha Varma.

At a function after the truce is agreed, at which Sivakami, an accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer, performs, Mahendra Varma abandons the tenets of diplomacy, and commits two blunders. First, he reveals some of the ruses by which he held off some of Pulikesi’s attacks. Second, he points out Pulikesi’s apparent indifference to and perhaps ignorance of the performing arts, implying that the latter is without culture. An incensed Pulikesi abandons the truce, and, mostly due to the advice of his brother, ravages the Pallava kingdom and eventually kidnaps and carries off Sivakami to his capital, Vatapi. Naganandi shows up, offering her safe passage back home, Sivakami, humiliated, vows not to leave Vatapi until is laid waste, even sending back Narasimha Varma – her lover – when he attempts a rescue mission.

There are minor wars on throughout this period in both restive kingdoms, and both capitals become hotbeds of intrigue, with many spy services vying to gain intelligence or create confusion. Some seven years after the beginning of the tale, though, the Pallavas go to war with the Chalukyas and defeat them. Mahendra Varma and Pulikesi both die as a result of wounds sustained in battle at different stages of the conflict.

Sivakami and Narasimha Varma are never destined to be together. She is the daughter of a renowned but poor sculptor, Aayanar, who is himself obsessed with finding the secrets behind some dyes. Varma is a prince, and, at the end of the tale, King of the Pallavas. Their affair is doomed from the beginning of the story, for with the war coming up, and Mahendra Varma orders his son to plan and prepare the defence of Kanchipuram.

The years of conflict become the setting for a parade of other memorable events and characters. There are, of course, Mahendra Varma and his son, Sivakami and her father, Aayanar, and Pulikesi. There is also Naganandi, a Buddhist monk, a bikshu, who happens to be Pulikesi’s brother and a spy who loses no opportunity to stir trouble between the Chalukyas and the Pallavas, besides impersonating his brother occasionally to serve his own ends. There is Paranjyothi, a talented and lucky commoner who happens to reach Kanchi as the narration begins, hoping to study under the illustrious Aayanar, in Naganandi’s company. He arrives at just the right time and save Sivakami and her father from an elephant’s charge. Mahendra Varma, curious about the hero who saved these lives, has Paranjyothi imprisoned, but Paranjyothi escapes through a secret tunnel.

Paranjyothi never does study under Aayanar, as he wanted to, but after a series of adventures, he instead becomes a trusted commander of soldiers in Mahendra Varma’s army, this course of events being led by Paranjyothi’s encounter with Vajrabahu, who is actually the King himself in disguise! By the end of the story, though, he gives up his soldierly life and becomes a holy man of sorts.

The plot itself is too complex to summarise meaningfully in less than a few thousand words, but a serviceable synopsis is available on Wikipedia. There are a few questions about motivations, though. Why, for instance, does Mahendra Varma imprison Paranjyothi, Sivakami’s saviour, instead of honouring him? Why does Mahendra Varma forget both the value of his secrets and of courtesy in his meeting with Pulikesi while they watch Sivakami dance in Kanchi? Besides, the story might have been appropriate for the day in which it was written, but by today’s standards, it’s perhaps too long, and the settings overblown.

The translation, by Nandini Vijayaraghavan, is just about competent. Her attention to detail shows in the spellings of the names – Pulikesi, for instance, is spelt variously as Pulakeshin or Pulakesin elsewhere – and the titles of the four volumes. She has also stuck to the way words are pronounced in Tamil: bikshu, her word for Buddhist monk, is spelt bhikshu elsewhere. She stays simple where necessary, and focuses on the story and its requirements rather than exactitude in translation, though there are a few glitches (including some in the excerpt) that seem to have escaped the copy editor. The result is quite readable if you happen to like what would be, by modern standards, a rather bloated narrative.

Sivakami’s Vow:

Vol.1 Paranjyothi’s Journey

Vol. 2 The Siege of Kanchi

Vol. 3 The Bikshu’s Love

Vol. 4 Shattered Dream

By Kalki Krishnamurti 

Translated by

Nandini Vijayaraghavan

Penguin Ebury

Rs 299