I have never loved a book with so many flaws before.
Like most readers, I’ve gotten used to reading books with uninspiring and unreal women characters. I have even read a book that has zero women. So naturally, I get excited when I see even a small hint of a personality in a female character. Especially when that character is not the protagonist. That’s why Hermione Granger blew me away when I first read Harry Potter. She is smart, helpful and resourceful, and sometimes more of a hero than Harry. But she is also an annoying know-it-all who follows rules to a fault. Even with a wand in her hand, in an imaginary world, she felt very real to me.
I felt the same delight when I read Ponniyin Selvan.
Just to clarify — all of Kalki’s characters, male and female, are brilliant. I could tell that he was a huge believer in the good of humanity and that he was a romantic. The men are handsome and the women are goddesses walking on earth. They are too good to be true but I liked Ponniyin Selvan in spite of that. It’s partly because of the gripping narration and humor in his storytelling. But the key reason is that I was completely taken in after I met the first formidable female in the book. This kind of equality in the attention given to male and female characters is what, I thought, the world was moving towards. But never did I realize that it was done and dusted sixty years ago.
Note — Though Ponniyin Selvan (PS) is based on real events, for the purposes of this article, I am treating it as complete fiction. So what you’ll call history, I call spoiler. Though I have tried to steer clear of the must-never-know spoilers, you will get some nice-to-not-know spoilers by reading this. You’ve been warned. Now, let’s meet the women.
Kundhavai, the patriot
Princess Kundhavai does not wait around for her prince to arrive on a white horse. In fact, she hopes that such a prince never arrives because marrying him would mean she’d have to leave her beloved Chola Nadu. She’s a patriot through and through.
To the Chola citizens, she is a benevolent benefactor who uses her wealth to build hospitals all over the country. But she is so much more than that: Her father, the king, is bed-ridden. Her elder brother and the crown prince, Aditha Karikalan, is busy battling his inner demons. Her younger brother, the eponymous Arulmozhi Varman, is disinterested in politics. So at a young age, she takes up the responsibility of navigating the kingdom through dangerous times. She is ready to risk anything to save her land and her people.
But every day, she meets men who ask her to keep her nose out of politics because she is a woman and she hasn’t fought wars, unlike them. She knows how to expertly deal with them and get her way without hurting their ego. But words can get to even the strongest among us. When her plans go wrong, she wonders if they are right. Whether she, as a woman, is not fit to handle matters of state.
What I like about the way Kundhavai is written is that Kalki doesn’t go all out and make her sword-wielding, kick-ass warrior. Nor is she a saint. She has plenty of flaws. She wants to control the lives of the people she is close to and this leads to some disastrous consequences. She strong-arms her brother in the name of love and wishes for him to be the king when he doesn’t want to. She is even called out for being casteist and hypocritical at one point. And that makes her as real as real women get.
Kalki describes her by invoking flowers, stars, and celestial beings, but what you will end up admiring is not her beauty but her brains and benevolence.
Mandhakini/Oomai Rani, the lifesaver
When prince Arulmozhi is born, astrologers predict that many dangers will befall him but he will be saved from each and every one of them, and go on to do great things. The predictions come true. He does get into many life-threatening situations and a strange forty-year-old deaf and mute woman saves him from most of them. In fact, the name of this series comes from an incident in which she saves the five-year-old Arulmozhi from drowning in the river Ponni.
She is nameless when she is introduced to the readers. In the beginning, she feels like a deus ex machina — a guardian angel who goes around pulling the prince out of tricky situations.
As the story progresses, Kalki decides to call her Oomai Rani for the time being and she reveals a few things about herself to the prince. This makes her less of a plot device but more of a mystery. She cannot understand what people are saying but she can sense dangers before anyone else can. She is scared of people but she can tame exotic horses and ride them. She is always around to save the prince, but no one knows where she lives. She looks fragile, but she is like the wind and cannot be captured by force.
When Kalki gives us her real name and a flashback, we understand Mandhakini, her motives and how she is a force of all that is good. Throughout the series, Kalki explores different kinds of love. At one point, Kundhavai’s suffocative, self-serving love meets Mandhakini’s selfless, protective love for the same person and it changes Kundhavai for good.
Vaanathi, the damsel
When Vaanathi is introduced, I struggled to understand why she is given such importance. I did not know if I was supposed to like her. She is the very personification of every cliche about princesses. She is a ditzy damsel in distress. She faints at literally everything.
Vaanathi is privileged but without agency. She lets things happen to her. She is supposed to marry the prince by virtue of her family’s close ties to the Chola kingdom. She dreams about him and falls in love with him without giving a thought to who he is as a person. She is even ready to kill herself on receiving the news of his death.
It’s hard to side with her or even empathize with someone like her. But she made it to this list because she taught me something valuable: There’s depth to every person, however vapid they might seem at first glance if you care enough to find out.
As the story goes, we see Vaanathi grow into someone stronger and take her life into her own hands. We learn why she is the way she is. There is a backstory to what seemed like a love of convenience in the beginning that makes it more organic. When she attempts suicide, it looks like it’s because she is dependent on a guy who she has barely spoken to. But later, we see her ready to sacrifice herself to protect the living prince from danger out of love, not dependency.
When she realizes that she is pitted against another woman, a commoner, in her efforts to gain the prince’s affection, instead of pulling that woman down, she lifts herself up. She is even ready to give up the throne just to prove that her love is not shallow. I never really warmed up to her, but I got to a place where I could understand her.
Poonguzhali, the rebel
Poonguzhali is the definition of a strong, fiercely independent woman. As a boat woman, her favorite thing to do is rowing her boat to Sri Lanka and back, braving the high tides, alone. She does what she likes, says what she wants, and doesn’t take shit from anybody. I loved her spunk and I loved how she was the exact opposite of Vaanathi.
She is a misanthrope. She especially hates royalty and not without reason. Her aunt, she learns, was wronged by the king and cheated out of the throne she deserves. Poonguzhali’s hate increases when the only man she’s ever liked, the prince, doesn’t like her back. Even saving him from drowning in the hurricane-stricken seas is not enough to bridge the gap between a commoner and a prince, she realizes. This makes her spew venom at Vaanathi, the princess Arulmozhi is supposed to marry. She belittles her love and mocks her fragility. She bullies her incessantly and she inadvertently ends up making Vaanathi stronger.
The opposite of what happened with Vaanathi happens with Poonguzhali. You love the character in the beginning for her uncouth, wild ways. But the vindictiveness she develops, though understandable, makes you like her lesser and lesser.
Nandhini, the siren
Nandhini, the mysterious, seductive, femme fatale, is the single most important character in Ponniyin Selvan. A woman like her, in any Tamil movie now, is usually killed or tamed by the hero in the end. What happens here is refreshingly modern.
She lights up a scandal by marrying a sexagenarian strongman of the Chola Empire. But her eyes are set on the crown prince Aditha Karikalan, with whom she has a love-hate relationship. Meaning, she loves him but also wants to kill him. She thinks she is haunted by the ghost of a man who was killed by Adithan while under her protection. Was that the only reason she goes after the Cholas, though? We are never really sure.
She patiently plans the downfall of the empire. She is single-handedly responsible for the rise of Pandiya nationalists.
Here, we again see Kalki dig deeper into her motives and make her less of a caricature. Though it seems like she is power-hungry and vengeful, we understand that she is a product of her circumstance. Repeatedly wronged by the Cholas since her childhood, she turns the very thing that held her back into something that could destroy them from within — her looks. Every man who meets her wants her and is ready to do anything to get her. And she uses that power to get closer and closer to her goal. She goes from being an outsider and a nobody to someone who can influence policy and incite wars in a short amount of time.
Men who are ensnared by her say that her beauty is her biggest weapon. But what they overlook and eventually pay for, is a sharper weapon that she is constantly honing — her mind. Just like Kundhavai, while her beauty was what she was known for, it’s her mind that gets her where she is.
Nandhini, I must say, does much better than the hype surrounding her character.
In stories with male protagonists, rarely do you see women who set plots or even sub-plots in motion. They only have moments of awesomeness. Even in Harry Potter, all the powerful women are sidekicks. Hermione is Harry’s. McGonagall is Dumbledore’s. Even Bellatrix Lestrange is Voldemort’s. There’s nothing wrong with that. These characters are still awesome. But it is very unlike real life where women make decisions for themselves and move their own lives forward.
Whereas in Ponniyin Selvan, it looks like all of these women think and talk about men all the time. The series might even fail the Bechdel test. But by the end, it’s hard to shake the feeling that sometimes, all the male characters are just pawns in a giant chess game that Nandhini and Kundavai are playing.
As for the men in this story, there are plenty and they are amazing too. I will write about them someday.
Many thanks to Shruthi Venkatesh for turning Kalki’s imagination into beautiful illustrations. He’d be proud! Follow her art on Instagram at shruthi_artgram to add more colour to your day 🙂