Triveni, October 1955
A PEARL FROM TAMRAPARNI
By K. V. RAMACHANDRAN
Among our rivers, the Tamraparni is said to be the home of pearls, of a kind considered priceless, in ages when the pearl was greatly prized. Among the human pearls that emerged from its banks was Nammalvar in the remote past, and the late Sri V. Narayanan in the recent past. Nammalvar had to wait for centuries before one who had poetry in his soul and was thus uniquely endowed to interpret him, came along in the person of Narayanan. In the neighbourhood of Tamraparni, is the sacred mountain from which arose the father of Tamil, the sage Agastya. Narayanan resembled Agastya not only by his stature, but also by repeating Agastya’s feat of drinking up the twin oceans of Sanskrit and Tamil. Venkatanatha (Vedanta Desika) who hailed from the banks of the Vegavati, paid his homage to Nammalvar when he named him the Muni and his work the Dramilopanishad and ranked it higher than the Veda; and lest anyone should perversely dispute his opinion, well on to add that “when a puny cloud threatened a pompous downpour over Agastya, who had drunk the sea dry, the river Tamraparni broke into a pearly smile.”1 Venkatanatha was one of the intrepid defenders of the ‘Divyaprabandha’ and he helped to give the Tamil language its place in our life and culture. But his approach was religious and philosophic. Narayanan, whose approach was artistic, discovered Nammalvar quite independently; and he made his own significant contribution to Tamil letters when he undertook to interpret the Tamil classics, for which his gifts and equipment so eminently fitted him. He loved Tamil and wooed her like a lover. But like the fabled Chakora that subsisted on moonbeams, and Parikshit who took no other food than the ambrosia of Saka’s words, Narayanan drew his nourishment from Valmiki and Nammalvar almost exclusively. One may say that he had dedicated himself to these so wholly, that he outgrew his taste for anything else.
The only son of his father, he married the only daughter of the late Justice P. R. Sundara Iyer, a recollection of which he has preserved in the wistful reverie ‘Ayyarval’s son-in-law’ after he had lost his wife and become ‘visarada’. The saintly lady passed away in 1936, and till then she had taken sole charge of the family and the domestic responsibilities, relieving Narayanan completely and leaving him free to his harem of books and dream-children. At the time, Narayanan was such a stranger in his own house and was so seldom seen, that his children addressed him as ‘Sir’ when he did appear. But when she passed away, he replaced her, playing the role of Tayumanavar (Matrubhuta) so wholly and tenderly that the children never missed the mother, and when they were a little older, he combined the role of father and mother like Siva Ardhanariswara. In the reverie referred to above, he relates how he handed over his marriage invitation to his teacher, who did not even remember his name and who was greatly surprised to learn that his humble pupil had been chosen as the son-in-law of a High Court Judge. One can imagine the young Narayanan, diminutive and demure, with felt cap on big head and a pair of goggly spectacles, chuckling to himself at the teacher’s discomfiture. It was a habit so characteristic of him; he would express the most devastating opinions in a grave and apologetic manner, laughing in his sleeves all the time.
He had already taken his M. A., and M. L., with distinction after a brilliant academic career. He practised law for some time rather perfunctorily. I remember him in his legal garb with watch and chain, turban and brief-bag, appearing in a literary case where a copyright was involved; but I do know Narayanan got far more deeply involved in the labyrinth of Kadambari. His heart belonged to literature and not law. When years later he joined the Tamil Lexicon, he got work that found an outlet for his knowledge of languages. Sri N. Raghunathan justly praises his accurate scholarship and appreciation of the nuances of meaning and overtones of suggestion, that found full play when Narayanan played the role of Dr. Johnson, for a while, at the Lexicon. The Tamil Lexicon was one of the sagas of our time and had a long and chequered history. But that portion of it with which Narayanan was connected, bears the stamp of his genius and learning.
I also remember his depredations of the Hindu office, annexing an enormous booty of miscellaneous books, which he would review with the patience and fortitude of a Job. He loved the dingy old Hindu building of which he had very pleasant memories; one of the reasons why he joined the Indian Express later was perhaps because it was located in that dear old building. But he did not admire the then new sky-scraper of the Hindu, which he considered lofty and American. In those days, I was one of those who considered, early rising immoral. Narayanan, an authority on the ethics and aesthetics of early rising–vide his discourses on Palliyezhuchi–and the sacred month of Marghazhi, was a confirmed early bird. Almost every day Narayanan would arrive on his bicycle and, with an agility worthy of a better cause, clear the stairs at one bound, accompanied by his war-cry ‘C-M’ (an abbreviation of my nickname–Caveman–because I always kept indoors) and be at my bedside, leaving my wife to scamper off as best she could–a heroic attempt on the part of Narayanan to set our crooked habits straight, though not a very successful one. The bicycle was his favourite vehicle and his daily routine (which was of course subject to variations) was to inject Prof. K. Swaminathan with his theory about the text of the Ramayana, because he was his neighbour and nearest to him; then invade Perungulam House at Elliot’s Road and spar with Sri Anantanarayanan, I. C. S., over his father-in-Law’s Ramayana theories and exchange compliments with M. Krishnan who was just winging for the stellar height where he now is; drop in at Prof. Kuppuswami Sastri’s for a sloka or two; hold up Sri N. Raghunathan for at least half an hour before he left for office; and to peep in at the ‘Asrama’ to clear his accounts of the funds of the Sanskrit Academy of which he was the Treasurer. The beach and the evening he reserved for Tamil and friends like Somasundara Desikar, Pundit Rajagopala Iyengar, who edited ‘Ahananooru’, and Sri Vayyapuri Pillai. In between he used to look up his relations, of whom there were quite a number, irrespective of their worldly success and importance, and attend to their wants, as in duty bound.
Besides the literary page of the Hindu, he was a prolific contributor to the ‘Everyman’s Review’, ‘Triveni’, ‘Journal of Oriental Research, ‘Vedantakesari’, ‘Bharatamani’, and ‘Silpasree’. He also gave some very valuable talks under the auspices of the Archaeological Society and the Sanskrit Academy. Prof. K. Swaminathan said that “about a dozen associations and two or three dozen journals exploited his goodness and learning”. But Narayanan never considered himself so exploited. Out of his innate goodness, he scattered the gems of his thoughts far and wide to whoever wanted them, and even to those who did not want them. If I may be permitted to say it, the late Prof. P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar, who was himself a very good scholar, was not above borrowing ideas from Narayanan. Narayanan was therefore a scholar sought out by other scholars–the scholars’ scholar, so to say. He gave cheerfully and he gave lavishly without any motive of gain or fame. Equally disinterested was his pursuit of knowledge. He threw himself heart and soul into the functions of the Sanskrit Academy, and was ebullient and beside himself with happiness when scholars of the stature of Pundit Raghava Iyengar, the Elder, were honoured. For Raghava Iyengar whose outlook was very similar to his own, and who was the one man who could understand his own work, he had genuine affection, which he has given expression to in an essay describing a visit to him. Once he sat up a whole night to prepare a Tamil version of ‘Swapna-Vasavadatta’ because the All India Radio wanted it urgently. It can never be said that Narayanan was a recluse who kept to himself; not only did he take considerable interest, but also participated with gusto in contemporary life. He was never idle, but was always reading or writing or discussing literature and art.
In the make-up of Narayanan was an excess of modesty (vreeda) which ripened and mellowed into a saintly humility as he grew older and which completely masked the prodigious range of his attainments. He had so much to say and said so little of it, that I gave him the nickname ‘Iceberg’ which was mostly submerged under water, the top alone being visible and a month before he passed away, in a tragic flash of illumination, he wrote to me that the ice was thawing and on its way to join the ocean. If ever there was a man without trace of vanity, it was Narayanan; he never talked about himself nor allowed others to talk about him. Even the little appreciation he did get appeared to delight him, as though he had partaken of a banquet. Rich in contentment and equipoise, he never seemed to regret the lack of recognition, and went about his work as cheerfully and nonchalantly as ever. He wrote just to disburden himself of some divine discontent and not to canvass for fame and name. He had a genius for friendship and a good assortment of talented friends. He took pleasure in reading poetry with friends; and some poems he was never tired of reading again and again. Needless to say that I learnt a good deal from his readings and conversation.
It was Sri Aurobindo Ghose who thought that the ‘Uttarakanda’ was a late addition and pleaded for its exclusion from the Ramayana, as also the other patent interpolations in the other ‘Kandas’. But it was Narayanan who studied the Ramayana in close detail and tabulated the various species of interpolations that the Poem invited in the course of ages from various agencies. Relying on the Alvar he would quote ‘Uruttezhhli vali Marbil Oru kanai Uruva otti’ and make out that in the Ramayana known to the ALvar, Vali rose against Rama and was quelled by a single arrow. From the beginning of the ‘Aranyakanda’, the theme, according to Narayanan, was the prowess and heroism of Rama which rose in a crescendo and reached its climax in the defeat and destruction of Vali. What a pity that before he could restore the pure gold of the quintessential Valmiki, Narayanan was snatched away! How invaluable would have been his masterpiece on the masterpiece of Valmiki, had he been spared to write it! His favourite passage was Sita’s message to Hanuman, in the course of which she breaks down in a hallucination and addresses Rama in the first person, as though she saw him bodily there. When Narayanan read it, his voice would falter and choke, and tears flow down his cheeks.
In a moving narrative Narayanan has recounted how his deeply religious father and mother came under the spell of Sarada Devi, wife of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whom they actually entertained in their house and from whom they took lessons in spiritual discipline. Later Narayanan made a pilgrimage to the village where the lady was, near Calcutta, along with his mother; and there he was fascinated by an image of Rama. The saintly lady, reading his unuttered thoughts, bathed him in the nectar of her eyes and initiated him into the worship of Rama. The incident throws light on Narayanan’s subsequent outlook and development. He was an intimate devotee of Sree Rama; and it was his faith that sustained him in his hour of trial when he lost his wife, and forged a new link between him and the Ramayana. In an early essay, he speaks of the sacred ladies of his harem. As one who understood him, may I take the liberty of unveiling the principal Goddess there–his Bhakti. The other Goddess who was part of him–Modesty–I have already uncovered. In another mood he described “the solitude of star-lit nights on seashore with the billows sweeping over the sand, while the immensity beyond glowed in the phosphorescent curl of the wave where he met infinity face to face”. So this shy young dreamer saw the Pilot face to face even before he had crossed the bar! How tellingly he expresses himself and his exaltation! Delicious are some of his early essays, revelling in the impish perversities of paradox caught from Chesterton, as in his plea for the cult of unintelligibility and his defence of failure, and the one on the folly of wisdom. In the last, he tilts against Tagore whom he had seen at ‘Santiniketan’, Mylapore, decked out all in velvet. In another piece he rewrote the map of the world, replacing the geographical features with the intellectua1 and spiritual creations of the respective regions. One of the most charming was his dissertation on ‘the lamp’ in the course of which he compared the light-house to the “one-eyed Cyclops rolling his big eye round the broad sea at his feet”. All this was excellent writing,–‘angelic’ as Sri K. Chandrasekharan calls it, from a young man just out of college. If Narayanan had stuck to English, he might have achieved distinction as a master of the personal essay. But the lure and challenge of Tamil and Sanskrit proved irresistible and he turned his back on English to seek his fulfillment elsewhere. Such a step was in harmony with our own outlook and tradition, which reckon achievement as something impersonal and work as higher than the man. But it did deprive him of his share of contemporary appreciation to an extent.
Narayanan had the capacity to do easily what others found it difficult, and attempt things that no one had attempted before. Like Arjuna he was ambidextrous and could formulate with one hand a new approach to the problems of Federation and throw off a formidable thesis on Ramanuja’s indebtedness to ‘Tiruvoymozhi’ with the other. He could hold forth on the doctrinal differences between Kumarilabhatta and Prabhakara Misra and pile Ossa on Pelion to scale the Upanishads. Among his papers are excellent studies of the early Alvars and expositions of the various facets of the Ramayana and the moods of Subrahmanya Bharati. Essentially a thinker, his approach was fresh and original always.
Take his thesis on ‘Chola Polity’, of unique value to those who wish to read and understand history aright. He begins by criticising the method of reconstructing history from the records of foreign travellers and cross-sections of dynastic lists and lexicons, without taking account of the basic concept and philosophy of life of the people. The Solar Race was the ideal of the Cholas; if Bhagiratha brought down Ganga from heaven, so did Kavera bring down Kaveri; the Cholas were ‘Adityas and Vijayalayas and resembled Vishnu; likewise did the eyes of the Chola Kochenganan tinged red with grace resemble Vishnu’s; if Dasaratha went to help Indra, so did the Chola Muchukunda; Raja raja (a title of Kubera) not only resembled Kubera by his boundless riches, but also by his devotion to Siva; Karikala bore the name of Siva who tore asunder the elephant and did not get his legs burnt to a cinder in an attempt at firewalking. The line in the Chola inscription ‘Kanthalurchchalai kalamaruttaruli’ is responsible for a number of amusing deductions on the part of the professional historians. ‘Kalam’, according to the Tamil dictionary, means a boat or ship or eating vessel; and ‘chalai’ is a road or Oottupurai. One school of historians claim that the Chola smashed a fleet of ships in the harbour of Kandalurchali; the other claims that the Chola broke all the eating vessels in the Oottupurai. This is history indeed with a vengeance! If Mohamed Ghazni smashed images, the noble Raja Raja smashed pots and pans in a hospitable eating house! Narayanan said that the Chola, like Vishnu, got rid of the pest of wicked men (khala) and established Dharma in that region, especially because in the first two lines ‘Thirrumagal polap perunilach chelviyum thanakkeyurimai poondamai Manakkola’ the Chola is said to have made the wide earth, along with Lakshmi, his very own like Vishnu. The word ‘aruli’ denotes an act of grace and the historians, unaware of the poetic approach of the king to his duties, not only miss the significance of the reference, but misread and distort it. What a vista of happy circumstances does the title ‘Sungamthavirthapiran’ of Rajendra, evoke! But it has meant nothing to the historians, because they are not students of literature and fail to read the overtones of the poetic title. Besides, the Vaishnava commentaries of the middle ages represent untapped sources for reconstructing social history, which no historian seems to have utilised. Narayanan concludes, “Every brick in the edifice of history must be truth-moulded and put in proper place with utmost care, or the edifice will tumble down. This is specially so in Chola history, as Chola Polity was suffused with poetry and philosophy which moulded the life of the people of that great epoch.” His incursion into historical research was not unlike the advent of the bull in a China shop. But what a valuable lesson he taught when he said that history, no less than literature, needs men of creative imagination and taste! How one wishes that the research scholars benefit by his suggestion and realign their enquiry from the new angle, however unsweet the taste of his rod.
His note on ‘Tamil Civilisation’ in ‘Triveni’ was a closely reasoned argument. Beginning with a reference to the late R. Swaminatha Iyer’s thesis that the peculiarities of Tamil grammatical form and construction were features common to most prakrits, and that the early Tamil vocabulary bears close affinity to Vedic vocabulary and that of the early prakrits of the Punjab, Narayanan passes on to explain the co-existence of Vedic and Agamic forms of worship in the same community; and after examining certain crucial words, concludes that the evidence only reinforces an identity of culture throughout India–a conclusion on which the new State of India and her policy are based.
His interpretation of the word ‘Sanga’ as the variant of ‘Sanghata’ i. e. Anthology, and his suggestion that many of the poems” of ‘Purananooru’ represented the speeches of characters from old Tamil dramas playing the parts of poets and kings, started a new era in the understanding of Tamil poetry and chronology, and were as sensational in their own way as Prof. Dubreuil’s discoveries in Pallava history. According to him the Sangam Anthologies represented a literary dialect like Sanskrit, that found favour at Royal Courts and was confined to a specific literary group that adhered to a specific set of literary conventions; it was therefore but a segment of the Tamil literature. There must have been and were other groups earlier and later who did not conform to the conventions, or chose themes with which the conventions did not fit in, or chose a different diction altogether. Indeed there was more than one school of literary conventions that flourished side by side when Tamil was a creative language. Narayanan therefore thought that an intensive study of Tamil literature as a whole was more immediately needed than deductions based on a segment of it. I am yet to find a scholar who studied Tamil as Narayanan did, or summed up his findings as neatly and succinctly. Whether it was history or literature, his standard of truth in investigation was very high. Unfortunately for him, the world of Tamil was more bleak and lonely than history; and where he expected a multitude of voices for and against him, he was disconcerted by listening to just one voice and that was his own.
Besides, he had an original explanation for the female icon interposed between Krishna and Balarama in the Puri temple, and he derived Narasimha from the sculptured pillar. His essay on the interplay of arts gives an insight into the inwardness of his knowledge of art. He was the first and only one to interpret the significance of the dances described in ‘Silappadikaram’.
When I started ‘Silpasree’ in 1937 Sri Y. Mahalinga Sastry hoped that even as ‘Sree’ (Lakshmi) chose Narayanan in the primeval Swayamvara, ‘Silpasree’ would choose Narayanan. So she did. During the two years of its existence, it was Narayana who sustained and kept the journal going. He wrote on how to rejuvenate Tamil and prescribed some ‘kayakalpa’ treatment for it. Out of the many fine things he wrote, I would single out the Playlet ‘Natakavataram’ portraying the origin of the drama under the guidance of Bharatamuni, in which Krishna plays the part of Rama, and Rukmini and Satyabhama contend for the part of Sita, as something entirely original.
Towards the end of his career he was attracted by the hymn literature in Sanskrit of which he gave some very readable translations.
I hope I have given an idea of the work Narayanan was doing which called for talent and capacity of a very special kind. It is one thing to have merit and quite another to get it recognised. The latter demands faculties of an entirely different order. No wonder that Narayanan found himself quite alone in his pursuits. He was indeed the stone rejected by the builder, though to us, his friends, it seemed that his place was as the headstone of the temple. If, according to Ibsen, the strongest man was he who was most alone, Narayanan may be said to have achieved that ideal, closely followed as he is in his spiritual isolation by others, among whom I include myself. Did not Cassandra stand most alone, though she spoke nothing but the truth?
Sri N. Raghunathan has said that ink was in Narayanan’s blood; I am Sure that at least some of that ink was of the indelible kind–the kind that survives, unlike that which vanishes. Sri Raghunathan hit him off when he said that literature was his passion and that, once started, his non-stop discourses delighted more prosaic souls by the serenity with which he ignored the importunities of the clock! And who does not share his regret that Narayanan is not here to waste one’s time by his genial buttonholing way? The late K. S. Venkataramani wrote that “in the last five years Narayanan was ripening so perfectly that every hour I spent with him was a great fertiliser to me. In any other society he would have been gratefully used for a higher purpose and honoured and recognised as a dynamic hermit, a Karma Yogi saturated in the culture and traditions of our life”.
We all remember the story of how music was buried in the time of Aurangzeb and how Aurangzeb asked the musicians to bury her deeper. Some ages happen to be uncongenial and unpropitious for certain causes and ideals. The time-spirit had undoubtedly its share in denying collaboration to people like Narayanan. If a complacent and self-sufficient society that had no use for the thinker and dreamer, notwithstanding pious professions to the contrary, kept aloof, no wonder that though Narayanan had plenty to give and gave freely, he did not give of his best. Clearly the society did not deserve it. The infant mortality of journals like ‘Everyman’s Review’ and ‘Silpasree’ and the lifelong martyrdom of ‘Triveni’ are eloquent of a malady for which no treatment has yet been devised. The romance of archaeology ought to tempt people, but at the Society where Narayanan lectured, the audience consisted of about seven people, of whom two must have been the peons waiting in impatience for the speaker to cease, so that they may close the doors the sooner. The following epitaph by Emily Dickinson seems to have a topical appropriateness for the circumstances of our own time and place:
“I died for Beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb
When one who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
“He questioned softly why I failed
‘For Beauty,’ I replied.
‘And I for Truth; the two are one,
We brethren are,’ he said.
“And so as kinsmen met anight
We talked between the rooms
Until the moss had reached our lips
And covered up our names.”
To us his friends, however precious the pearl-like hours spent with him, the recollection of them is but a poor substitute for the real pearl of peerless sheen–the pearl from Tamraparni–irretrievably lost six years ago.
“Oh for the touch of a vanished hand
And the sound of a voice that is still!”
1 That is to say, the river with its myriad pearls seemed to laugh at those who, with a little knowledge of Sanskrit, looked down upon Tamil.