Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar
Reviewed by Akshay Ahuja
Moral instruction is one of poetry's oldest functions, but it is often hard for modern poets to muster the confidence that earlier writers must have felt, both about their own wisdom and their position in society, to tell us how to live. So it can be startling to encounter an unknown work that speaks directly to us with this lost confidence. Here is a poem by the 12th century Tamil poet Avvaiyar, in Thomas H. Pruiksma's beautiful translations of her short, aphoristic poems:
As long as they can, the wise help
Even those who do wrong.
Till the day they chop it down, a tree grants
-- p. 41
There is a sense of authority here usually found only in sacred texts. But unlike the other ancient Indian poets who have been translated into English -- Kabir and Mirabai, for example -- Avvaiyar's work is not primarily devotional or mystical. These poems are plain and durable, suitable for everyday use. They deal with the basics: the body's desires, dealing with adversity, how to spot a true friend.
A doctor who ends a tiger's disease
Becomes his next meal.
To a man who lacks gratitude and sense
Is a pitcher cast upon rocks.
-- pg. 33
Very little is known about the woman who wrote these untitled, numbered poems -- even her name, Avvaiyar, is only a polite way of saying "older woman," and there is even an earlier Tamil poet who is given the same honorific.
The stories that exist about her life are apparently unreliable. One can learn a few things from reading the poems: she was clearly devout, well-traveled, and intimately acquainted with the natural world. She was also proud of her role as a poet, and her rare hints of ill-temper come when discussing "Idiots / without learning," on whom knowledge and art are wasted. An ignorant man who learns a great poem, she writes, is like a turkey who sees a forest peacock and "spreads his ugly wings / And struts."
Her warnings, it seems, have not scared many people away. The introduction tells us that "everyone in Tamil Nadu who can read has read her poems." Children grow up learning the alphabet through her acrostic poems, and then move on to the quatrains translated in this book. Many adults, the translator tells us, never forget them -- not just because of early training, I suspect, but because they are worth remembering. Unlike ossified precepts in English like "A friend in need is a friend indeed," they retain their power to reach us, and grow with thought.
Look at the two poems quoted above, for example. You'll notice that they appear to be recommending exactly contradictory courses of action. Should you try to help apparently bad people or not? If the poet's only intention is to instruct children, she is not doing her job in straightforward fashion. Read the poems again, though, and the dissonance becomes more complex. A tree does not have a choice in granting people shade. Is the poet implying that wisdom consists in cultivating this higher indifference, this refusal to discriminate between individual merits, even in the face of the axe? Also, a tiger is not necessarily "doing wrong" by eating a person, but simply following its nature -- who, then, is responsible for what occurs, the doctor or the tiger?
These reflections grow fruitfully as you absorb more of the verses. Since similar images, often from the natural world, fill many of Avvaiyar's poems -- the broken clay pitcher appears again, as well as other animals dangerous to man -- constellations of opposing concepts, all vividly rendered, begin to interact with each other in the reader's mind. Eventually I saw that Avvaiyar was not merely confused, but that, like all great artists, she was giving us tools to think about how to resolve these apparent contradictions, or exist happily between them. This is the same sort of education that collections of folklore once gave to the communities that created them: simple moral tales that are never outgrown because they are finally as profound as a person's desire to think about them.
The water that runs from the well to the rice
Also waters the wayside grass.
If on our old earth
There walk one upright man, for his sake
Everyone receives rain.
-- p. 31
I do not know a single character of Tamil, so I cannot judge the accuracy of these translations. Pruiksma has, at least, a beautiful sense of where to break lines, and how to use a vocabulary that suits the era and culture of these poems -- "upright," for example, instead of "righteous," which would have the wrong associations in English. And his lines have a purity and flow -- the delicate assonance of "runs-rice-wayside," in the poem above, that mirrors the movement of the water -- which help place them quickly in the memory. Further, although this may seem like faint praise, Give, Eat, and Live is the only set of translations easily available in English. Since Avvaiyar strikes me as a poet of world stature, whose best verses merit a place beside the Tao Te Ching or the Dhammapada, Pruiksma deserves our thanks for giving her to us in any form at all.
The only possible complaint is that this is a slim collection which does not contain the totality of Avvaiyar's work. If you subtract the facing Tamil pages, there are only about twenty pages of poetry. But Avvaiyar has already written a response to my petty concern:
Magnolias have large petals; honeysuckles, a sweet fragrance.
Don't judge a man small by his body.
The sea is vast
Yet cannot clean hands. Beside it, the little spring
Yields sweet water.
-- p. 31
Aksha Ahuja grew up in New Delhi and Maryland. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, The Gettysburg Review, The Baltimore Review, and Ploughshares, among others. He lives in Boston and blogs occasionally at The Occasional Review.
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.