A Tamil poetess uses a thorny metaphor to convey the pain of domestic discord and disloyalty.
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.
situation is this: the thalaivan,
has started spending all his time with his mistress, the paraththai.
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
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?
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
the thalaivi said)
how my heart aches!
blossoming amidst its tiny leaves,
so pleasing to the eye, turn
into thorny burrs.
so, our beloved
who was kind and caring,
is being callous now -
My heart aches so!
- Alloor Nanmullaiyar, Thinai: Marudham
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