Remember the Kannagi post? Wrote this one immediately after and then promptly forgot to publish. So here goes.
The Kannagi post has gotten me thinking of Tamil role models. Hero worship is not exactly unknown in our part of the world and methinks that there is some potential for a series on people (real or fictional) that we choose to put on pedestals. [While I think that hero figures in other parts of the world are also worth looking into, we Tams do seem to have some kind of talent for finding some really interesting(okay, weird) characters.] We could call this series From Kannagi to Rajinikanth or something as inane as that. To kickstart, let me do a post on one of the Tamland's most revered Sangam age poets - Nakeerar.
Every Tamil kid worth her salt is taught early about Nakkerar and his quarrel with Siva. "Netrikkan thirappinum kutram kutrame" (A mistake is a mistake is a mistake. Not really. Its more like even if you open the third eye, a mistake is still a mistake.) has to be one of the most often quoted lines in any Tamil home. Well, at least it was the case in my home where this quote used to make its appearance in every one of my parents' tiffs. The six year old I was, I thought that Nakeerar was this thatha I hadn't met yet who would one day magically appear before me and open his third eye and scorch all my enemies. My parents were very embarrased when they discovered that not only was I reciting this very false story to all and sundry but I was also explaning in great detail how this thatha's third eye story applied to what my parents were fighting about. So they sat me down and proceeded to tell me what I thought for the longest time was the real story of poet Nakeerar.
Nakeerar is the head of the Sangam that judged poetry in Madurai, the capital of Pandya country. One day the Pandya king announces that he would reward any poet who composes a verse that expressed the king's secret thought. Tarumi, a poor brahmin (played to perfection by Nagesh(Ravages tells me) in the movie Thirvilayadal) wants to get married but he doesn't have the money. So he goes and prays to Lord Siva and asks him to compose a poem. Siva, feeling all sorry for the brahmin, composes a poem and gives it to him. Tarumi runs all the way to the Academy and recites the poem. The king hears the verse and is very happy as it beautifully expresses what he had in the inner reaches of his mind. He is about to give Tarumi the reward when Nakeerar stops him and claims that there is a flaw in the verse. Poor Tarumi runs to Siva and shouts at the Lord for giving him a flawed poem. Siva gets all angry, emerges out of the lingam in the form of a poet and puts in an appearance at the Academy. He wants to know about the flaw in his verse. Nakeerar tells him. Siva doesn't agree and gets even more angry. His third eye opens slightly and Nakeerar realizes that the poet is none other than Siva and that if the third eye is fully open, he (Nakeerar) will be scorched to the ground. But he remains firm and tells Siva that "Netrikkan thirappinum kutram kutrame"! By now, the third eye is fully open and Nakeerar has to run to the Theppakulam (The Golden Lotus tank outside the Meenakshi temple apparently) and hide there but what happens after he scorns Siva is all supposedly besides the point. The point is that this poet stood up to the Lord himself and told him that he was dead wrong. This, all Tam parents feel is very much worth emulating and thus we Tam kids get to hear a lot about Nakeerar. We are told that we should be like Nakeerar and should stand up for what we believe, for what is true and just no matter what the consequences. We are shown plays and movies of Nakeerar at every available opportunity. [Aside: Growing up, there was even a popular Tamil magazine called Nakeeran which my Dad used to read diligently. It did a lot of investigative reporting and exposed scandals all over the place. I remember the editor 'Nakeeran' Gopal was in prison for sometime under POTA - this man published in-person interviews with sandalwood smuggler Veerappan and LTTE supremo Prabhakaran among others if I remember correctly. Anyone know if the magazine is still around?]
So anyway, what's wrong with the Nakeerar story? Nothing really. Just that I had always thought that Nakeerar and Siva were fighting about some complicated poetry structure which I wouldn't be able to understand. And then I find out that that is not at the case at all. I find out that while what I have heard about Nakerrar is true, its not the entire story. The real story is actually extremely funny and much more interesting. I did not discover it until a couple of years ago when I happened to find the controversial verses in an after-essay in A Poem at the Right Moment - Remembered Verses from Premodern South India. So what had I missed before?
Remember the thought that the Pandya king had in mind? It apparently came to him while he was in the royal garden smelling flowers. He found the flowers extremely fragrant (really, what I wouldn't give to smell jasmine right now!) and what, he wondered, was more fragrant - the flowers in his garden or his queen's dark hair? Yes, dear readers, this was the thought that plagued the king's mind day and night.
Now, for the verse in question, the one addressed to a bee that Siva supposedly wrote (stolen from the book mentioned above):
You, who spend your life in flight,
seeking a hidden sweetness:
don't tell me what I want to hear,
tell me what you really see.
I love a woman, love everything
about her - the way she walks,
just like a peacock; her teeth,
her long dark hair
more fragrant, I think, than any flower-
but only you can say.
Now, what exactly was the flaw in this verse?
Nakeerar claimed that the flaw was not in the phonology or the morphology but rather, it was a mistake in meaning. And what is the mistake, you ask? No woman has naturally fragrant hair: a woman's hair becomes fragrant only when she adorns it with flowers!
Siva asks Nakeerar whether this is true of the dancing girls of Indra's world and then Goddess he worships. Nakkerar replies in the affirmative and that is when Siva gives up and opens his third eye.
The story doesn't end there, it goes on to talk about Nakeerar's transformation - he comes out of the Golden Lotus tank and relearns the Tamil alphabet from Lord Murugan and goes on to compose some great poetry. Thus the story is not really about Nakeerar standing up to the Lord as I was made to believe, it is about how old Nakeerar, so buried in the conventional structure and forms of poetry could not see the beauty of the verse that was presented to him, it is about how even the greatest of poets needs to be open and show a little more humility, it is about how a great jugde of poetry needs to go back to the alphabets once in a while. One could go on but you see my point. By making the 'netrikkan' one-liner the story, we seem to be missing the whole point and are going into some random tangent about how Nakeerar stood up for what he believed in.
I must say here that yes, I am aware that there's another common way of looking at this story. This has Nakeerar as a stubborn idiot who dared to argue against the Lord and the Lord taught him a lesson. The lesson for us: never go against the Lord's wishes. This is usually how the super religious Tams teach their kids to see the story while my Dad, whose agnosticism I inherited, taught me the exact opposite. Needless to say, this religious view is even worse off than the other - it elevates the God figure and trivializes everything else.
The way I look at it, it does not matter whether Siva wrote it or Tarumi wrote it, it is the verse that's important. It does not matter whether Nakeerar argued against Siva or Tarumi, it is just that he wasn't able to appreciate the beauty of it. It does not matter that the verse was about something as trivial as a woman's koondhal, it is in the trivial that beauty can often be found.