Swords, Strength and Subversion: A Comparative Analysis of the Women Written by Kalki and Amish
This personal essay delves into the treatment of female characters in Ponniyin Selvan (Tamil historical fiction series from the 1950s) by Kalki Krishnamurthy and The Shiva Trilogy, and Ram Chandra Series by Amish Tripathi. I seek to analyze the contrasting gaze employed in the above texts, and how Kalki’s female characters are pivotal to the plot without being the buff, sword-wielding, machismo-glorifying caricatures who populate modern English retellings of historical-mythological epics by contemporary Indian authors.
During the lockdown, my mother and I picked up a five-part historical drama novel in Tamil: Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy(1). What began as an attempt to pass the time became strongly reminiscent of a warm childhood full of bedtime stories. Set in the tenth-century Chola empire(2), the series follows Arulmozhi Varman (Rajaraja Chola I)2 and his rise to power. As Amma read out the hard-bound volumes, Kalki’s well-paced, richly descriptive writing made me spin vivid images in my mind. Written in lyrical Tamizh prose, the books are full of spies, warriors, princesses, epic voyages, of cmets that portend a royal death, of songs, and of poetry. From fortune-tellers to flower-sellers and blacksmiths to bhikkhus, he weaves an elaborate world with layered characters. The era of the story comes alive in the sprawling epic, and makes the reader fall in love with the palaces, highways, rest-houses, monasteries, caves, ships and river-islands that the protagonists inhabit and travel through.
Looking back at the journey, what struck me the most, were the female characters, who were pivotal to the plot without being the buff, sword-wielding, machismo-glorifying caricatures we often find in modern retellings of historical and mythological epics by contemporary Indian authors. I found it extraordinary that despite having been written by a man in the 1950s, characters like Kunthavai Devi (the Chola princess), Nandini (a rival queen), Poonkuzhali (a boatwoman) and Vaanathi (the princess’s maiden-friend), are not one-dimensional dames looking for men to save them. They pull all the strings throughout the plot; they utilize their charm, guile, wit and intelligence. They are politically active, independent thinkers, and do not need brawn to achieve things. Strangely, this same attention seems to be absent from the women we find in Amish Tripathi's(3) series.
Be it the Shiva Trilogy or the Ram Chandra Series, female protagonists in his books seem to be continuously validated by the men around them for the way they ‘fight like a man.’ They are repeatedly ‘rewarded’ with such gracious compliments as, “You don’t wield your sword too badly for a woman,” (Amish 54) and get ogled at by male protagonists: “Anandmayi’s movements were so flawless that Parvateshwar did not even see the target. He stood there admiring her action. His mouth open in awe. Then he heard Uttanka and Bhagirath applauding. He turned towards the board. Every knife had hit dead centre. Perfect” (Amish 161).
These men often challenge the women to duels, who politely decline, claiming that they do not have to prove anything to anyone. As these persistent requests are nothing but a thinly-veiled effort at courting, if not an excuse to boost their male egos, it is relieving to see them refuse these advances.
A Woman’s Place
One of my favourite moments from Ponniyin Selvan is when Poonkuzhali and Seynthanamudan, a flower-seller, travel on a mission to Tanjai city (Kalki, ch. 20). As they walk along the highway, she tutors the latter on how to use a sword upon his request. They are the same age. The author does not focus on Poonkuzhali’s sinewy arms or confident movements; he details out the relevance of the journey instead. The dynamics between the sexes ride not on typified roles, but on skill and individual persona. Strength in Ponniyin Selvan’s women is incidental; it does not exist merely to charge all male libido within a ten-metre radius.
Picture another scene: Poonkuzhali, who is also addressed by the prince as Samudrakumari (Daughter/ Princess of the Ocean(4)), takes her tiny boat out into the storm-washed waters between Lanka and the Indian peninsula, and chances upon Arulmozhivarman, the prince, and Vanthiyathevan, his aide, adrift, clinging onto a floating plank for dear life. The shipwrecked duo catches a strain of her singing, and the aide cries, “It’s her! We’re saved!(5)” (Kalki 424).
There are no long-drawn professions of gratitude and life-long indebtedness, the sort that we find in the Shiva Trilogy; in fact, the second volume ends with them catching the young boat-woman’s eye. It is a matter-of-fact detail that Poonkuzhali saves the two men, as anyone in her place would have. She is not deified, nor is she immediately made the object of anyone’s infatuation.
If Poonkuzhali is the feisty girl who romances the rough seas and amuses herself by getting drenched atop domes amidst thunderbolts and cyclones, Kunthavai is the keen stateswoman and diplomat, quick with her tongue and wise in her tactical decisions. Nandini, the ‘villainess,’ earns the reader’s awe with her impeccable scheming, double-crossing and shrewdly manipulating people (not just men) into doing her bidding. Mandakini Devi takes a dagger for her past lover, the ageing Emperor. Manimekalai covers for her murder-accused love-interest, Vandiyathevan, by accepting the blame. One loses count of the times women ‘save’ the men in this series without being paraded about as ‘being manly’ or ‘heroes.’ Kalki masterfully avoids the popular trope of celebrating 'female sacrifice as the ultimate virtue’: these women know whom they're saving, and why. Their decisions are entirely their own, and their self-sacrifice stems more often from rationality than an innate sense of altruism, which popular media has venerated as the principal attribute of all womankind, refer Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (Ramayan).
Why and how did Kalki understand his pivotal women characters so well? How were their personalities so distinct from each other, as compared to Sita, Sati, Anandmayi and Kali in Amish’s books, who could practically replace one another simply because they are the same kind of women?
Mightier than the Sword
While there is nothing wrong with the idea of physically strong women per se, Amish’s treatment of his characters suggests that men only respect women who fight well. They remain slotted either into the frail, weak archetype or the sexy, muscular archetype. The only ones who are of any consequence to the plot also must be great fighters, and be attractive while they’re at it (throw in a bunch of duels with large men with larger egos, only to have the woman win: hurray for wokeness). Amish’s evident male gaze makes him avoid the feminine archetype all-too-conspicuously, and emphasize how ‘non-ladylike’ and against-the-grain these women are. It also offers no critique of the sexist men who populate these books, confuting the possibility that Amish was using these characters to satirize the male gaze. While Sati and Sita might be likeable characters, they are undeniably a man’s conceptualization of a ‘strong’ woman.
Where are the self-assured, assertive women such as those in Kalki’s novels, who unabashedly and deliberately charm men into doing their bidding? The ones who always stay one step ahead of their adversaries through sheer strategic intelligence and extensive connections? For the lack of a popular local archetype, they almost remind me of the Greek war goddess, Athena, who embodies rational thought, wisdom, and the art of strategy. One bemoans the absence of these same characteristics in Amish’s women: the decisions are all left to the men. Is there truly a subversion in these reimagined stories, or is it merely a feeble attempt at being politically correct in a world that is increasingly questioning the dynamics of power? It is, after all, easy to fall into the trap of confusing power with physical strength.
Amish’s women have might, but no agency. He might reimagine Sita as the “warrior princess of Mithila,” but is that the only way to make her palatable to today’s audience? The subtext here is the equation of physical prowess with the centrality of the character. Amish’s writing succumbs to the very binary it attempts to break: perhaps a more nuanced treatment would ensure that not all plot-relevant characters are attached to violent displays of machismo. Kalki’s women are courageous without exuding bravado, wilful without being belligerent; they take matters into their own able hands. He understands that sculpting a woman character to be ‘feminine’ is not a disservice to her. She can be a meek Vaanathi, quick to faint, but remain steadfast despite a prime minister’s threats to her life, and keep her silence about an absconding prince’s location. She can be a lovelorn Manimekalai, but not flinch or falter when she takes responsibility for her lover’s unproven crime. She can be graceful, frail, kind, emotional--all that society traditionally considers 'womanly', and yet have an incredibly important presence and significance.
These juxtapositions of quintessential femininity with fortitude appeal to me more than the brash, weapon-swinging ladies of retold myths. It speaks of the everyday courage and perseverance of women who do not need to emulate the aggressive ways of men. They have the slow-burning ambitious streak of the quiet girl who stays up late studying, the poise of the lady who asks for the dinner bill that the waiter handed her male partner, and the fierce endurance of a woman who bides her time and orchestrates a vengeance against the man who wronged her. All this, but magnified to the scale of empires and courtly politics.
Of Retellings and Relevance
If Kalki’s women each have an individuality without being a caricature, so do the men. They offer neither grudging respect nor overt adulation. They have the grace to share the stage with the ladies without incessantly pointing out that they are bestowing a favour upon the latter. How refreshing it is to retrospectively realize the absence of unobvious condescension through men’s appraisals and adorations, how promising the depth and dignity in the women’s backstories and character arcs.
Ponniyin Selvan was first published in October 1950 and serialized in Kalki’s weekly journal. Seven decades later, this magnum opus is still a much-loved, appreciated and relevant work of literature, albeit unfortunately less popular than the contemporary English historical-fictions by Indian authors which are devoured by a growing urban population. Perhaps this obscurity stems from the series not having been popularized in the accessible colonial language that binds us together. Still, I wonder where this epic novel would fit in the context of the current convention of storytelling if translated. Would it begin to conform to the trend of plastering woman empowerment onto thinly written characters who draw all their worth from stereotypical “manly” qualities?
Western Young Adult fiction, where female leads are invariably physically strong and independent (The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments, The Infernal Devices, Divergent, Percy Jackson, The Heroes of Olympus, Magnus Chase), has heavily influenced contemporary Indian storytelling. Authors like Amish are actively seeking to spotlight female characters who have historically been dominated by the male heroes in their stories. However, in Western fiction, character development and strong motives complement those traits. Meanwhile, Indian authors, in subverting epic female roles, seem to ‘elevate’ these characters to a warrior standard, rather than levelling the playing ground.
Will modern Indian authors re-interpreting epics or writing historical fiction remain relevant? Or will they become textbook examples of men telling women stories from a man’s point of view? Reading Ponniyin Selvan with Amma, looking back, did more than connect me to literature in my mother tongue, and spark inspired conversations (and fangirl sessions) with my mother. It showed me that as far back as 1950, people were writing progressive characters in a subtle, nuanced way without the in-your-face feminist overtones characteristic of an internet-fuelled global milieu. In an age in which we are consciously and perpetually deconstructing gaze, I am confident of Kalki’s Kunthavai holding her own against the scrutiny, as she did in the face of unknown looming dangers over her beloved empire. Amish’s Sita, I am not so sure of.
Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy
The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi
The Ram Chandra Series by Amish Tripathi
Tripathi, Amish. The Immortals of Meluha. Chapter 3. Westland Press, 2011. pp. 161
Tripathi, Amish. The Secret of the Nagas. Chapter 10. Westland Press, 2011. pp. 161
Krishnamurthy, Kalki. Manimakudam: Chapter 20. Ponniyin Selvan, Book 4. E-Book ed. Kalki App, 2013.
Krishnamurthy, Kalki. Suzhalkaatru: Chapter 53. Ponniyin Selvan, Book 2. Vaanathi Pathippagam, 1984.
Ramayan. Sagar. Ramanand. Sagar Arts, 1987-1988.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games Trilogy. Scholastic, 2014.
Clare, Cassandra. The Mortal Instruments Series. Margaret K McElderry Books, 2007.
Clare, Cassandra. The Infernal Devices Trilogy. Margaret K McElderry Books, 2010.
Roth, Veronica. Divergent Trilogy. HarperCollins, 2011.
Riordan, Rick. Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series. Hyperion, 2006.
Riordan, Rick, and John Rocco. Heroes of Olympus: The Complete Series. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.
Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and The Gods of Asgard Series. Disney Hyperion, 2015. Text.
Krishnamurthy, Kalki. Manimakudam: Chapter 24. Ponniyin Selvan, Book 4. E-Book ed. Kalki Mobile App, 2013.
Ramaswamy Krishnamurthy (1899 – 1954), better known by his pen name Kalki, was an Indian writer, journalist, poet, critic and Indian independence activist. He founded a magazine, which was also named Kalki, with T Sadasivam being the co-founder, in 1941. Kalki's writings include over 120 short stories, 10 novellas, 5 novels, 3 historical romances, editorial and political writings and hundreds of film and music reviews.
The Chola Dynasty was a Tamil thalassocratic empire of southern India, one of the longest-ruling dynasties in world history. Rajaraja I (reigned 985 CE – 1014 CE) born Arulmoli Varman, was a Chola emperor who was the most powerful king in south at his time chiefly remembered for reinstating the Chola power and ensuring its supremacy in South India and Indian Ocean, and building the great Brihadisvara Temple at the Chola capital Thanjavur. His extensive empire included the Pandya country (southern Tamil Nadu), the Chera country (central Kerala and western Tamil Nadu) and northern Sri Lanka. He also acquired the Lakshadweep and Thiladhunmadulu atoll or part of the islands of Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Campaigns against the Western Gangas (southern Karnataka) and Chalukyas extended the Chola influence as far as the Tungabhadra River. On the eastern coast he battled with the Chalukyas for the possession of Vengi (the Godavari districts).
Amish Tripathi (born 1974) is an Indian author known for his book series Shiva Trilogy and Ram Chandra Series. His books have sold over 5.5 million copies in the Indian subcontinent since 2010.