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Rarely There

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Ages 8 to 12 were incredibly enriching in its own way for me, now that I have the wisdom to appreciate it.

Among the many things that began to shape my thinking and interests, one stands out distinctly: Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar.

Thirukkural is a Tamil (I prefer Thamizh to Tamil, but, I can compromise a bit) composition by sage Valluvar (aka Thiruvalluvar, prefix 'Thiru' signifies utmost respect) that is probably familiar to kids of my generation and earlier who were fortunate enough to have to learn a second (Thamizh), third (Hindi), and optionally a fourth language (Sanskrit) besides English, which was the first language in my school.

Thirukkural comprises of 1330 couplets, organized into 133 topics with 10 couplets per topic. The 133 topics themselves are categorized into Arathu Paal (good life), Porut Paal (wealth), and Kaamathu Paal (desires). Each couplet is a cryptic message so profound that it can leave you awe-struck when revealed especially due to its crystallized simplicity.

Anyway, more about it later...

What comes to mind now is this fragmented piece of rarefied memory jogged by a book I found in my library downstairs that I had tucked away on the bottom shelf...

It so happened that every year, a local organization used to run a Thirukkural Competition for school kids, usually administered in small groups at various venues about town. Kids prepare in advance, learning a limited number of couplets on pre-selected topics, not just to recite the couplet backwards and forwards, but also to explain the meaning as best as they can.

My Thamizh teacher used to insist I participate each year, not sure why... however, my suspicious mind cannot help but speculate that my mom being a fellow teacher in the same school might have had something to do with it.

The poor hapless souls would be coached exclusively and intensively by our teacher. Quizzed, grilled and then made to recite the kurals (couplets) never-endingly so much so that our heads rang with nothing else for the few days before the competition. I still never felt well-prepared.

I remember at eight or nine learning the couplet that goes:
Thupparkku Thuppaya Thuppaaki Thupparkku Thuppaya Thoo-u Mazhai.

Which, to my uninitiated young mind seemed like gibberish with a lot of spitting :) (See, thuppu in Thamizh, at that time, only meant 'spit' for me, and a little later, it also meant a 'clue' but in the kural above it has a whole wonderful meaning)

Udukkai izhandavan kai polay ange idukkan kalaivathaam natpu: Just as the hand rushes involuntarily to protect one's honor in case of accidental state of undress, so does a friend come to his friend's aid without being asked.

Innaa seithaarai orutthal avar naana nannayam seithu vidal: This is a classic way of saying the best revenge is to offer kindness - if somebody harms you, return the favor by being excessively good to them that they are shamed.

Theeyinal sutta punn ullaarum aarathe naavinal sutta vadu: Another classic version that points out the exact opposite of "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me" - A burn injury will heal but the injury inflicted via cruel words cannot heal.

Moppakkuzhayum anicham muganthirinthu nokkakkuzhayum virunthu: Anicham flower wilts only when smelled, but a misplaced frown is enough to wilt a guest.

Now, I could write a whole little booklet with my favorite kurals that I remember to this day, and I hope I get to do it... but, I am digressing...

One particular competition when I was in fourth grade is etched in my memory: It was held on a second Saturday, which is usually a school holiday (other Saturdays of the month were "half working days" as they were called).

Anyway, after all the preparation and psyching myself up, I promptly fell ill with some sort of sore throat and low grade fever. I was terribly knotted up on the inside: on the one hand, my teachers were expecting me there and would be disappointed if I didn't go, and I have prepared hard for it, but on the other hand, being so darn sick, I probably will be so miserable that I won't do well anyway...

Finally, my dad promised me my favorite butter biscuit and onion bun fresh from our neighborhood bakery on the way home if I went with him to the venue, even if I didn't feel like participating. So, he put me in his bicycle and we arrived a little early. One by one about twenty-five kids filed in hanging on to their mom's sari or dad's pant-legs.

Perhaps it was the anticipation, or perhaps it was the combined adrenalin pumping in that room, I slowly began to perk up; and when they called my name, I went up to the stage and faced the panel of judges and gave it a shot.

I didn't wow anybody that day, understandably.

However, I ended up with what used to be called a "Consolation Prize", which is essentially a prize given when there is a tie for the 3rd position and they can't give two third places :)

This little green book in the picture was the consolation prize I got that day - a little Thirukkural book!

I still treasure it even though I won a few more since then, before I gave up participating at age twelve, at the cusp of puberty, when I became so chronically self-conscious that it hampered my other artistic pursuits as well... (more about it another day)

And I can still taste the fresh warm bun straight from the oven and the melt-in-the-mouth butter biscuit my dad bought me on the way home as promised.

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Blogger Dale said...

Oh, what a lovely post! Thank you for this.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Kay said...

enakkum thirukkal romba pidikkum sheela. I haven't participated in thirukkural competitions but I could recite 100 0r more by 7-8 yrs. Mom bribing me with so many paise per 10 kurals, was the main factor behind it. :) but I developed a fascination for it (and that was mom's plan!) and love it even till this day.

I still have difficulty understanding the thin border between the 'inna seydharai oruthal..' and being a pushover.

6:56 AM  

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