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 Happy Portrait

Through The Eyes of a Poet - Sangam Poetry of Women Poets
Reflections - Part 1

This series has been inspired by a similar series written in Tamil by Jeyamohan titled, 'Sangachithirangal'

O! Sentinel! O! Sentinel!
O! One who guards the gates that never close 
for those
         with ambition in their heart
         living a life of deception
         flattering their donors
         obtaining gifts and positions

Do you think
Neduman Anji is unaware of this 
Or do you think he is unaware of me

It is not yet the way of this world
that a person with talent
die of starvation

So I pick up things
tie my bag
As a skilled son of a carpenter
goes into the woods with his axe
Any which direction I go
a meal awaits me

- Avvaiyar (Purananuru)

Piles of Books


A topic eternally debated by poets and writers and which occupies a lot of their thinking time is the poet's place in society. It is especially true for those who pursue literature for its own sake. I once met a famous poet who asked me, "What is the purpose of us writing? Take, for example, (he spoke the name of a Marathi poet). He writes something that stirs people and is relevant to society, but whom do we write for? Nevertheless, we will write. We have to write." 

Jeyamohan has written a commentary on this poem in his 'Sangachittirangal.' Additionally, on a very similar theme, Jeyamohan has written a novella titled 'Lanka Dahanam,' which I personally rate among one of his best writings. The novella's theme is also about the artist's role in society, though the protagonist is a dancer, not a poet. However, the concerns remain the same.

Jeyamohan, commenting on this poem, says that more than the bitterness apparent throughout the poem, what makes him sad is that the poem is addressed to the gatekeeper. Most authors in India, who have tried to get their works published, will immediately understand all the connotations of the word 'gatekeeper.' Gatekeeping is not just a publishing industry phenomenon but exists universally. The best example for us: People trust the Godman more than they trust God. Avvaiyar had to address the gatekeeper though Neduman Anji was her good friend. Because that is the way of the world, and that is how the power structure works.

Avvaiyar claims - and many of us would agree - that the gates remain open to the sycophants and the loyalists – words that have now acquired political meaning. What is worth noting is that Avvaiyar says that Neduman Anji knows about it. In other words, Avvaiyar refuses the oft-given excuse that bad things were done without the Supreme Leader's awareness.

Jeyamohan says that the words 'a meal awaits me' are self-deceptive. Avvai is trying to tell herself that she has talent and can walk away from Neduman Anji and survive using only her talent. If Avvai is so confident that she would get a meal in any direction she goes, why is she bitter? The answer is simple. Avvai knows that in whichever direction she goes, the menu will remain the same. The conditions will not be too different if she goes somewhere else. As Jaimini said, "Na kadachit anidrusham jagat". The world was never any different. True words indeed.


I picked up this poem because this poem led me to reflect on certain other aspects. So, a rambling take follows about some of Life's significant issues.


The need to justify one's actions and the need to justify their current position is a deep one, and every person I have met has this need. In the poem, Avvai justifies her action of going away from Neduman Anji. The challenge of justifying our current position in life is that the current position is inextricably linked to our past decisions. The present is the culmination of various roads we decided to walk in the past, the road we chose standing at the fork, and roads we rejected. Each of those decisions comes under our scrutiny, and how kind or harsh you look at those decisions is based on our current situation. A person can never be sure until death that they have made all the correct decisions. Whether you embrace your mistakes or refuse to accept them has a significant bearing on how you live.

The need to justify our existence and define a life purpose is probably the core issue for any human being. No wonder this forms the basis of a lot of great literature. (Read Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment' if you want to understand what I mean) The need for a purpose has driven people in different directions. On the one hand, we have seen a lot of young and sensitive artists commit suicide because they thought their whole life was purposeless. On the other hand, we have people willing to join violent struggles and blow themselves up for a cause. We also have examples of people willing to dedicate all their lives to serving people and not wanting anything for themselves. Dedicating oneself to a cause is probably the easiest way of finding a purpose for life and sticking to it. The decision-making becomes easy,  for all decisions must be in concordance with your goal.

It seems that every religion is formed only to address this issue. Some religious philosophies ask a lot of questions and give some answers but drive you to find the answers. Upanishads are full of questions concerning life and its purpose. We may or may not understand the answers, but you will see essential questions here. Some other religions give you clear documentation of right and wrong, enabling you to make decisions based on the morals advocated by your religion. In such cases, for many people, following religion closely becomes their life purpose. It also excuses them from performing an arduous function, namely, thinking about a purpose for life. So, religion provides a prop to many people and gives them an excuse to continue living.

Antique Volumes


However, do you need an excuse to live? I feel that the whole problem arises from the basic fact that we are trying to fit a purpose to Life that asks nothing from us, not even that we live it. Some, like Camus, feel that the absurdity of life can only be overcome by struggle. Some feel that the basic purpose of life is that live it. So is there a need to find a purpose?

That becomes a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, the absurdity of life is such that it seems to make no sense to map a purpose to it. However, on the other hand, if no purpose is mapped, it gives us a feeling that we are running away from life.
I am reminded of the film lyricist, Kannadasan's very perceptive words here.

In one of his famous songs, he wrote:
''The question 'why' shall always remain
Through happiness and sorrow 
only questions remain"

Yes. Only the questions remain. It reminds me of the homam that we perform in our houses for certain functions. As you keep pouring ghee, the fire rises higher and burns with great intensity. As time passes by, our past gets poured into this great yagna called Life, and the questions blaze with ever-increasing intensity. The intensity of this fire only increases as we keep living our lives. Whatever you offer in the form of an excuse, a justification, is devoured, and the flames rise higher.

I will try to condense a short story by Katherine Mansfield here. (My apologies to her for probably trivializing her story by condensing it. I thought it would be very relevant to our discussion). The story goes that a very young girl is invited to a ballroom dance. She is excited since it is the first ball she will attend. She is stunned by the opulence of the place, the chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling, the tastefully done decorations, the spiral staircase, and whatnot. Her joy peaks when a young boy asks her for a dance. After dancing a lot, she sits in a chair, feeling tired. Next to her is an old man, who starts talking to her. He says that though all this looks great now, once this ball is done, what remains will be messy; the whole room will be dirty, nothing will remain in its place, and she will be tired. In short, he tries to explain the 'reality .'The girl becomes a bit sad hearing this, and her mood changes from joy to reflection and a bit of sadness. Then another boy comes up and asks her for the dance. She agrees, and very soon, she is swirling around, with the colors all around her, excitement in her heart, and the old man totally forgotten.

Once in a while, in our lives, we too look back, only to see the questions leaping at us majestically. We shudder for a second, turn our faces, and then join the ballroom dance called Life. 

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