The Autobiography of a Goddess by Andal trans. by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar, reviewed by ALHS

The Autobiography of a Goddess, Andal tr. Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar. Published by Zubaan Books, 2016. Available here.

In “Dark Rain Clouds Be My Messengers,” the eighth song in Andal’s Nacciyar Tirumoli translated by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar, Andal addresses the rain clouds. She incorporates the ancient Indian literary tradition of entrusting nature with a message to one’s beloved. “Your great black body is cleaved / By springing lightning,” Andal sings. Her voice weaves through her description of Lord Vishnu, rich in natural imagery, and I find myself wondering whether these lines describe the rainclouds or hint at a description of Vishnu himself, who is also said to have skin the colour of rainbearing clouds. I wonder if Andal is so immersed in her love for Vishnu that she finds herself wandering into these indistinguishable layers of meaning. Chabria couples this with a scattering of words, a shadow of the combined poetic voice: thundering your name, it reads.

Andal was a ninth century Tamil mystic poet who fell in love with the god Vishnu. She is worshipped as one of the twelve Vaishnava saints known as the Alvars. Chabria’s and Shankar’s translation takes songs that I have heard in congregational worship and complements them with a new, contemporary familiarity.

The collection constantly negotiates the concept of familiarity. Andal familiarises the unfamiliar. Each song in Nacciyar Tirumoli closes with a kind of devotional refrain that promises the one who recites these verses a path to Vishnu himself. “Those who with true devotion house these pure / Tamil verses in their hearts and sing them will forever / Be showered with grace by Vengadam’s lord,” Andal voices. Having learned to perceive this refrain in a devotional sense, an essentially poetic interpretation captivates me. Reading it through both layers affirms to me that Andal is taking me across the unfamiliar terrain of being rapturously in love with Vishnu. However, there is also an inherent familiarity for me, conveyed through the images that Andal invokes. She negotiates intimacy by channeling the overwhelmingly romantic and devotional through the lens of the comforting natural world.

Andal describes her god and her unbearable love through images that evoke her surroundings. In “White Conch from the Fathomless Sea,” she wonders aloud, “Camphor aflame? Or budding lotuses? What is / the scent of his sacred breath?” I wonder if Andal herself understands god through nature or if she is using these metaphors for me. Her love and instinctive incorporation of nature into her song-poetry is so implicit that it almost does not bear spelling out. The Kuyil bird, the conch, the rainclouds, the flowers are her confidantes. There is a lingering sense that she has fallen in love with nature long before she has fallen in love with Vishnu – the intimacies of the two grow alongside each other. “White conch whirled / from the ocean of time, like you I long to sip / from Madhavan’s coral lip,” she sings of her longing, infusing the arresting beauty of nature with a beautiful eroticism.

Here, the natural world is as much a medium as poetry is. Chabria uses language to familiarise the unfamiliar the same way Andal uses nature. The fragmentation of thought inherent to fervour is reflected in Chabria’s form. There are scattered words that complement verse translation; there are lines that defy grouping and there are italics that sound different in my head when I read them. Sometimes they flow from each other, sometimes they do not. Chabria draws the challenging concept of ancient poetry closer to me in an almost temporal sense.

There are times I am left wondering, of the images and emotions Andal invokes,  which one is the familiar figure and which the unfamiliar one – am I more familiar with “the discus / Hissing flame;” or the fire she feels within herself in “The Song to Kamadeva, God of Love”? Is a mythological familiarity informing a poetic one or the other way around? Am I more familiar with nature than I am with myself?

The natural imagery in her poetry is not rife with a tone of discovery. Nor does she draw philosophical conclusions on her intimacy with nature. There can be no intimacy, Andal seems to say, if you are one with nature. In the poetic tradition I witness in this collection, there is no difference between nature and poetry. It is an instance of eco poetic tradition that is part of ethnic heritage and here, nature has never been a subject of poetic attention, it is the medium of everything. And Andal sings, “Black clouds forking argent paths / go tell the Knowing One of the ways / of love.”

ALHS is a student and research assistant at University of Victoria. Her poems have appeared in Thistle Magazine and the Rising Phoenix Review. She also writes the Poemgranates Newsletter.

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