Avvaiyar’s Elegy




Let day, let night, come no more

Let all my days come to nothing

We have put peacock feathers

on his headstone

and poured bark-wine

in little bowls for him:

will he accept them,

who didnt accept a whole country

of mountain peaks?

(A.K.Ramanujan’s translation)

On the first level, you can directly see this poem for the what the title says, an elegy. Avvai is upset and angry by the fact that Neduman Anji is dead. Anji was the king who was beloved to Avvai and who has passed away. She feels no ritual is of any use now that Anji isnt there and fumes against these rituals. This meaning is quite direct and easy to make out.

A deeper perspective now. Jeyamohan, in Sanga Chitirangal, says, ‘The elder son of time is death, a more powerful younger son is loss of memory’. (Jeyamohan says ‘kala devan’ I translated it as ‘time’. The tamil word could literally be translated as ‘lord of time’. The second one is ‘maradi’. It can be translated as forgetfullness. I translated it as time. Literally it would mean ‘Lord of time’). Yes, the second son is powerful indeed. If you look at the poem keeping this in mind you can the question:  Is Avvai raging against this second son of time? Read the first two lines and you see that she wants to stop time. On one level it is anger. She doesn’t want this world anymore after the person she like has departed. She wants the world to end. This can be interpreted as classic expression of grief when a lvoed one is lost. The sense of purposelessness for life, unable to understand why the person had to die and the inability to comprehend a world which is now without this person. Hence this anger.

At another level, is Avvai raging against the loss of memory? Has she, in her foresightedness already seen not just the death of Anji but the slow eradication of Anji’s memory from the collective consciousness? Slowly and steadily, all that the great king did will be forgotten and his memory lost forever. Is this the thought that kindles Avvai’s anger? She seems to know that ‘kaala devan’ is someone who is always hungry and keeps devouring without limits, not letting even a single bone behind as evidence. There are very few who have escaped his hunger and still survive. She also seems to realize that all these rituals are nothing but man’s way of trying to preserve that memory against time’s relentless march. The only way that the memory of Anji can be retained is by stopping time.

Human beings at a very deep level seek immortality. In Godard classic New Wave movie, ‘Breathless’ a director mentions: “I want to become immortal and then die”. Many a times I feel that need for children is not as much a need for propagating a lineage but rather a need for limited immortality. It is probably a desire that resides very deep in us which makes us think that we will continue living in the hearts of our children and grand children. Most of lead a life which is dictated by how we want to remain etched in other people’s memory. That is the reason why we build our image, why we behave differently with different people. Our impluse to leave a lasting memory of ourselves in some other person drives us a lot. This need to imprint your memory on some other person’s mind is a desire which we cannot ignore because that is what gives us a sense of immortality. A sort of pathetic fight against time. If this is the state of a normal person, we can understand this burning need in people who are in public life and who have a large following. Be it political leaders, artits or sportsman. Everywhere you will see this need to somehow perform acts which will ensure that their fame is at the same level even after they pass away or even after their skills fade. It could come in form of drastic decisions like going to war, it could come in form of desire for grand prizes or it could be in form of sporting records. Immortality is the key desire which drives a lot of people, knowingly or unknowingly.

The second part of the poem raises an even more interesting question: who lives in our memory. Is it the man who died or is it our image of the man who died? A curator of a museum in England made a statement in a BBC program called “Gateway to India” : “History depends on the questions we ask”. This is a very pertinent observation for the past depends a lot on the present. Memory morphs itself based on the current realities and the actual person who lived or an event which occurred now start having symbolic value and based on our needs the characteristics we associate with these symbols keep changing.

I once attended a ‘katha kalakshepam’ where a speaker was reciting Ramayana. During the discourse he told that in Valmiki Ramyana, Rama tells Lakshmana that while they are suffering in the forest, having to sleep on mud floor, their father, who is the cause for all this, would be happily sleeping on a soft mattress. When I told this to a friend of mine, he remarked, “How is it possible? Rama cannot make a statement like that.” So what Rama was in Valmiki’s Ramayana doesn’t matter to people as much as what Rama has come to mean. This is true starting from the Gods we pray to all the way to the political figures of the present.  While the figures of Gods and Kings may be sculpted in stone and their physical features immutable, the attributes we impose on them keep changing.

How our memory changes has a lot to do with how society changes and what questions are being asked now.  We can trace the way society has evolved by looking at how some of the key persons and symbols of our past have changed. For example, by examining how Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru have been treated while they were alive and how their memory is present in us now would give us an idea of the way our society has evolved from the pre-Independence days to the present. It will also give us an idea of what issues have become important and various points in time and how these personalities became heroes or villains based on the issues of that time. Each of these historical figure is a loved  or hated based on the present condition and how we perceive the past to have affected us.

Is it this change in perspective that Avvai is raging about in the second half of the poem, where a king who has rejected kingdoms is given some wine? Will Anji’s memory also get morphed? (I am reminded of Ramana Maharishi. He was a person who asked people to think and was a great proponent of Gnana Marga. Without any irony, we sing bhajans in praise of him, he who rejected that path!!!)  So has Avvai with great foresight seen that more than the loss Anji’s memory, it will be painful if his memory stands for something which he never wanted to be!!

Anji today lives through the poems of Avvai. I am sure both Anji and Avvai would be happy with this development.

2 thoughts on “Avvaiyar’s Elegy

  1. I have no clue who Avvai or Anji are. But as I went about reading, I was drawn into some very interesting points and questions. I agree with your thoughts on humans seeking immortality. It indeed is the key desire. And quite rightly, you have steered towards “memory”. Memory is the key element that binds humans (relationships). That humans often link ‘heart’ to relationships is quite a paradox, I feel, for it is memory that writes the graph of every relationship.

    Enjoyed reading the whole article actually…. for it triggered so many thoughts (and philosphies I have read) in my mind. Felt good to read something like this today.

  2. Thanks Kamal.

    Memory is an area which is explored by many writers. Sometimes you can say that a person is his/her memory !!

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