A gem of a poem by Nammalwar, and my commentary on it from November 6 2003. I had posted this on a poetry website called “The Wondering Minstrels” which, sadly, is defunct. First the poem, and then my commentary on it from that day. Scarce two months before I wrote this piece, we had lost a baby and I wrote it as part of catharsis. The Tamil original was written sometime in 850AD. The entire post below is from that day.

We here and that man, this man,
and that other in-between,
and that women, this women,
and the other, whoever,

those people, and these,
and these others in-between them,
this thing, and that thing,
and this other, in-between, whichever,

all things dying,these things,
those things, those others in-between,
good things, bad things,
things that were, that will be,

being all of them,
he stands there.

“We had a recent bereavement, and in my grief, trying to sleep and failing, I picked up this slim volume called “Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Vishnu by Nammalwar” by AK Ramanujan, and read this gem. I had purchased this book in Chennai recently to better acquaint myself with my ancestry. When I read this poem I felt things fall into place for me, and even as I write this I can feel the emotions well up due to the loss of a long-awaited one.

Nammalwar is often called the greatest of the Tamil poets who sang songs in praise of Vishnu (known as Alwars) and was the one of the creators of the Tamil Bhakti cult. He is supposed to have lived between AD880 to AD930, from a peasant family, and apparently died at the age of 35. He composed more than a thousand poems, and the work from which this one is taken (“Tiruvaymoli”) is the best known. By the time he died his influence on the common man was so profound that statues of Nammalwar were installed at most Tamil shrines where they are worshipped to this day, and his songs are celebrated and sung by people every day in Tamil Nadu. Not many poets are revered this way.

The doyen of Tamil scholars, Prof A K Ramanujan, the translator, taught for many years at the University of Chicago and died in 1993 at the age of sixty-four. The original poem in Tamil is a simple gem of pronouns and semiotic pointers, and it goes to the genius of Prof Ramanujan that he has managed to create through translation what I thought was a beautiful piece of verse in itself.

The poem is addressed to Vishnu, the Preserver of the Universe in the Hindu trinity. Nammalwar was a devout man, and truly believed that Vishnu is immutable and inclusive, of people and things, birth and death, joy and sorrow. In this poem, Nammalwar plays on Tamil pronouns to point to each of us present and not present, man or woman, and every object, dead or alive. The poem is one long sentence, and starting with the ‘we’ at the start, and the “he” – denoting Vishnu – at the end, Nammalwar manages to create a sense of one-ness and inclusion. However, as Prof Ramanujan says, Nammalwar manages to point to a central stillness or oneness – “He stands there”.

To quote from Prof Ramanujan, in a poem like this “grammar becomes poetry, and poetry becomes theology. If one may be fanciful, the ‘present perfect’ here describes both a grammatical form and the form of the divine. Conceptions of god are enacted by word and syntax; furthermore, god’s one-and-manyness becomes the living word to be uttered, danced to, sung and chanted in temples as these poems are to this day”.

Reading it, I began to feel the stillness underlying our lives and the process of coping with loss is just beginning.”

The Tamil original for those interested

நாமவ னிவனுவன், அவளிவளுவளெவள்
தாமவரிவருவர், அதுவிது வுதுவெது
வீமவை யிவையுவை, யவைநலந் தீங்கவை
ஆமவை யாயவை, யாய்நின்ற அவரே

And its transliteration into English:

nAm avan ivan uvan avaL ivaL uvaL evL
thAm avar ivar uvar athu ithu uthu ethu
vIm avai ivai uvai avai nalam thIngu avai
Am avai Ay avai Ay ninRa avarE

The transliteration is courtesy http://divyaprabandham.koyil.org/index.php/2015/03/thiruvaimozhi-1-1-4-nam-avan/

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