Book Review: Tirukkural: The Book of Desire by Tiruvalluvar, Translated by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewed by Kiran Adharapuram

Book Title: Tirukkural: The Book of Desire
Author: Tiruvalluvar
Translator: Meena Kandasamy
Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton (Penguin India)

Book Review
Tiruvalluvar was an ancient Tamil poet and philosopher best known for writing the Tirukkural, a collection of couplets on matters ranging from love to ethics. The Kamattu-p-pal is the third part of the Tirukkural – one of the most important texts in Tamil literature. The most intimate section of this great work is also, historically, the most heavily censored. Although hundreds of male translations of the text exist, this is the first translation by a woman.

Tirukkuṟaḷ-The Book of Desire by Tiruvalluvar, Translated by Meena Kandasamy Book Cover
Tirukkuṟaḷ-The Book of Desire by Tiruvalluvar, Translated by Meena Kandasamy Book Cover

Tirukkural in the English language, published by Penguin India and translated by Meena Kandaswamy, is a luminous translation of the Kamattu-p-pal. Meena Kandasamy is an anti-caste activist, poet, novelist, and translator. In this book, Meena Kandasamy delves into this classic and provides the first feminist interventionist translation into English-remaining true to the desire throbbing through the lifeblood of the text while retaining the drama that permeates the quintessential Tamil world of exaggerated hurt, lover’s quarrels, and evenings lost to longing.

With her trademark wit, lyricism, and passionate insight, Meena weaves a magic spell: taking the reader through 250 kurals. These are organized under separate headings – ‘Renouncing Shame’, and ‘The Delights of Sulking’ – the result is a fresh, vital, and breath-taking translation that conveys powerful messages about female sensuality, agency, and desire. It is a revolution 2000 years in the making.

Tirukkural consists of three groups, Ethics (அறம்-Aram), Wealth (பொருள்-Porul), and Love (காமம்-Kaamam). Each group has multiple sections (இயல்), and each section has several chapters (அதிகாரம்). Every chapter has ten couplets (குறள்), and each couplet has two lines. The first line of the couplet has four words, and the second with three. There are 133 divisions called “athikarams”.Each Athikaram consists of 10 tirukurals.

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This isn’t the first translation of the original Tamil version of Tirukkural, composed by Tiruvalluvar; the author did a commendable job in transliteration along the lines of an “egalitarian” approach. The author also touches upon different caste-based influences in writing and perfectly decoded the references quoted in “Greek, French, Malabar & ancient Tamil civilizations/cultures.

Tirukkural: The Book of Desire” offers a unique experience of first-century BCE poetry without missing the actual essence and offers gratification via women-centric love and intimacy. Go for it; this book will not leave you dismayed.

Worth Mentioning Kural:
innatuinanilürvältalataninuminnatu iniyärp pirivu
“Life is a land with no friends is abject misery – even bitterer is separation from a loved one.”

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