‘Only thing you read to your lover in bed’—Meena Kandasamy’s modern book on ancient Tamil text

New Delhi: In a day and age where brands and marketing strategists commercialise love around 14 February, Indian poet Meena Kandasamy gave it a feminist reverberation at Delhi’s India International Centre. The poet read aloud to a crowd of 60 people her translations of an ancient Tamil text. Tirukkural, which, for aeons, has been heavily censored and misunderstood. Called The Book of Desire, it has been published by Penguin Random House India.

The question on everyone’s minds was: Why do we need an archaic, 2,000-year-old text on love and desire today? “This is the only thing you can actually read to your lover in bed. Is there anything else today worthy of that?” Meena said, highlighting the relevance and progressive outlook of Tirukkural, authored by celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar.

Calling the ancient text the “heartbeat of Tamil civilisation”, Meena laments the various misinterpretations of love and womanhood offered by translators over the centuries. She suggests that interpreters have continuously sanitised the ideas of love and expression of desire in this section of Tirukkural. That’s what she has attempted to cut through in The Book of Desire which features 250 translations.

Ideas of chastity and ‘pristine’ womanhood have influenced how scholars have interpreted the text. Meena says that Thiruvalluvar wrote Tirukkural with a forward-looking stance and that it actually talks heavily about female desire.

“This book is more than just [the] The love between [a] Husband and wife. It can be heterosexual or familial. It only has words like ‘him’ and ‘her’, which could be men talking to men or women talking to women,” she expresses.

As the second woman scholar to have translated this part of Tirukkural, Meena’s version brings a new angle, dismissing earlier masculinist readings of the text. Niṟai, The word chastity, which is a frequent term in the text, has been translated to mean “fullness”. But Meena says that the word means ‘fullness’ or the self-contained quality of womanhood.

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‘The woman constantly asserts herself’

The IIC room fell quiet as the award-winning poet began reciting from her new book, narrating a woman’s sexual prowess. Smiling throughout, her eyes told the larger story of her passion to bring out Tirukkural’s truth.

She discusses the ways in which she dupatta is a cultural signifier in India — women who don’t wear it are often looked down upon as ‘disrespectful’ even today. But Thiruvalluvar was far ahead of his time, and in one poem (Meena’s translation), he says:

“This fine garment

Not touching this woman’s breast

Ornamental, as the blindfold  over a male elephant raging in mast.”

Meena talks about the many phases of a relationship from both a man’s and woman’s perspectives. Sex scandals, anger, rumours, gossip, and loss — Tirukkural It can be just as current as a modern book. You can find more verses about female sensuality here:

“Just his gaze would fill me with such pleasure

Now, the fear of a looming separation taints even sex with sorrow.”

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The myths about society 

One audience member asked Meena whether Thiruvalluvar was referring to his wife, Vasuki. And the translator responded in the negative – Vasuki, a product of her times, was known to be a meek and chaste wife who did not express her sensuality.

“The Tirukural This feminist text is impossible to have written about Vasuki. Stories around Vasuki have often made her seem like a meek and chaste wife. Such myths float around in society to ‘regulate’ us, and that is the interpretation people want to hear. Valluvar wasn’t like that. Moreover, this text does not really deal with marriage,” she emphasised.

Love is a political revolution

Without politics, love cannot be discussed. Both are heavily intertwined, and on Valentine’s evening, the IIC audience was interested in more than just another session on erotic poetry. They were eager to dive into the politics of it too.

“It takes enormous courage to be in love,” said Meena. “But it is the entry point into a better world, into the quest for social justice. The definition of love is to view things with beauty and then to give back, which can be a major political statement. [itself].”

Love as a revolutionary act, political dialogue, eroticism, and assertion of a woman’s self-fulfilment — summed up Meena’s thoughts. The audience ran to Meena for autographs and pictures, but they also took home more than one meaning.

“Thank you for today; it feels as if you transported me right to my partner’s bedroom,” said Reeti, a law student and fan of Tamil literature, to Meena.

(Edited By Humra Laeeq

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