Sangam Poetry: Like Nerunji Thorns

by S Ramachandran - Feb 20, 2016 02:44 PM
Sangam Poetry: Like Nerunji ThornsTribulus Terrestris vine.
  • A Tamil poetess uses a thorny metaphor to convey the pain of domestic discord and disloyalty.

Many Sangam poems have been composed by female poets; these female voices at once subtle in their tone as they are ferociously strong in their message. This short poem from the Kurunthokai was composed by the female poet Alloor Nanmullaiyar.

The situation is this: the thalaivan, the hero, has started spending all his time with his mistress, the paraththai. The thalaivi, heroine, is naturally upset. Now infidelity of this sort is seldom an overnight event. It starts with little strains and tensions in a marriage: instances of being ignored and feeling disrespected slowly add up. Somehow, there doesn’t seem to be any space left, in what was once an ocean of love, to bring up these wounds. When the affair begins, the person who cheats as well as their spouse walks on eggshells. Tentative questions like “Is everything okay?” are met with either too-hearty laughs and reassurances, or cruel, snappy retorts. But both of them know. Everything is not okay. Each interaction is a tiny act of brutal violence. The distance between man and woman grows. Is this the man I married? she wonders forlonly.

This mess - we don’t see it depicted very often in our contemporary literature. It’s unpleasant. And here is the Sangam poet, who sums up this particular state of affairs with a very specific metaphor in a single line.

The poet paints a picture of a particular plant: the nerunji. The nerunji plant (Tribulus terrestris) grows everywhere. It trails on the ground and puts forth small, yellow flowers. These flowers are heliotropic; like sunflowers, their faces follow the sun. The flowers, when fertilized, shed their petals and form a hard, thorny exterior within which they hold their seeds. The thorns of the nerunji plant are legendary - they are so sharp that even mighty elephants can be brought to their feet by them. (Hence this plant is also called யானை வணங்கி - yAnai vaNangi, I.e makes an elephant bow). The nerunji thorns are sharp and bristly so that they can attach themselves to passing animals’ skin (or shoes) and make their way elsewhere.

So here we have a plant, with sweet little flowers, turning their face devotedly as the sun moves across the sky, quite attentive to it. And slowly, without notice, the flowers become thorns. Their nature changes to something unfamiliar, hard and thorny. You can’t go near the flower anymore. It bristles all over and pricks you painfully. And it takes the first route out - to disperse its seed elsewhere. Can there be a more precise metaphor for the thalaivi’s grievance? Can anything else capture the slow death of a relationship better?

Like Nerunji Thorns
Like Nerunji Thorns


நோம் என் நெஞ்சே நோம் என் நெஞ்சே

புன் புலம் அமன்ற சிறி இலை நெருஞ்சிக்

கட்கு இன் புது மலர் முள் பயந்தாங்கு

இனிய செய்த நம் காதலர்

இன்னா செய்தல் நோம் என் நெஞ்சே

(What the thalaivi said)

Oh, how my heart aches!

Nerunji flowers

blossoming amidst its tiny leaves,

so pleasing to the eye, turn

into thorny burrs.

And so, our beloved

who was kind and caring,

is being callous now -

My heart aches so!

- Alloor Nanmullaiyar, Thinai: Marudham

S.Ramachandran's interests include science, languages, literature, history and music. Her illustrations and English translations of the Kurunthokai can be found at @kurunthokai on Twitter and Instagram. Some of this work was recently published in the volume 'Kurunthokai: Love, Loss, Landscapes' by Mulligatawny Books, Chennai.
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