The shade of the farmer’s basket is sovereign,
Ringing the land green – the king’s parasol a pale shadow

பலகுடை நீழலும் தங்குடைக்கீழ்க் காண்பர்

அலகுடை நீழ லவர்

palakudai neezhalum thangutaikkeezhk kaaNpar

alakutai neezha lavar

The shade of the farmer’s basket is sovereign
Ringing the land green – the king’s parasol a pale shadow

किसान की टोकरी दे सब ही को छाया
छत्तपती का छाता बस ख़ुद ही को भाया

kisaan ki tokri de sab hi ko chaaya
chhattapati ka chhaata bas khud hi ko bhaaya

రైతు గంప కింది నీడ అందరికాయే
రాజు గొడుగు నీడ అతనిదాయె

raitu gampa kindi needa andarikaaye
raju godugu needa atanidaaye

On 14 January, 2022, which was Pongal, Sankranti, Bihu, Magha Mela and so on, names that once portended the heavy Indic theme on which people of my generation wrote silly school compositions (and the previous generation even wrote books) – Unity in Diversity – an idea we took for granted, now under attack as all reports agree, each festive name undergirded by the idea of thanking the farmers who nourish and nurture us, a day when farmers also thank the cattle and their work tools and the bountiful earth which they renew each year as surely as night brings day, I cooked an indulgent breakfast of two kinds of pongal.

Pongal literally means to boil or bubble up, after the fact that the dish is prepared on this special day marking harvest. It is ideally cooked in a mud pot and allowed to boil over (not in an unmessy pressure cooker), since this dish is a sign of bounty. This Tamil dish, a khichdi of moong dal (paasi paruppu in Tamil) and raw rice, comes in sweet and savoury versions. The sweet version, chakkarai pongal, cooked in milk with sugar (and more often jaggery), is reserved for special occasions, of which the namesake festival Pongal is one. Venn (butter) pongal, the cumin-pepper-ginger-ghee-laced salt version, is eaten all year round in well-to-do homes and restaurants, often as breakfast. Like most people in the urban middle class world, I have no idea of which faceless nameless farmers to thank for all the nameable ingredients that went into my Pongal breakfast or any meal for that matter.

After breakfast, I looked up a YouTube channel I have come to often visit in this post-pandemic period of unearned leisure, Kurale Kavithaiyai, which means Kural as Poetry. I was sure there would be a Pongal special post. Here, a well-fed well-bearded smiling Tamil man who has seen over thirty Pongals offers lucid commentary on the aphoristic seven-word wonders attributed to a wise, bearded poet from the distant past who posthumously bears the name Thiruvalluvar, who created a short haiku-like genre of Tamil poetry called the kural, of just one line and a half, something short of a couplet, where language is distilled into a heightened state of self-awareness. His work Thirukkural is The Book of Life. It comprises 1,330 verses divided into 133 sections of ten couplets each, covering a range of subjects from sexual love to statecraft, diplomacy and agriculture. It is an unabashedly secular work, as poetic as it is philosophic, where language is harnessed to serve beauty and pleasure, and when needed, politics.

First page of 'Thirukkural' published in Tamil in 1812. This is the first known edition of 'Thirukkural'. | Public Domain.

To celebrate this much celebrated poet and his memorable work in new ways, Kurale Kavithaiyai introduces a new verse, a new kural, in each post of about three to four minutes, some of which gets as few as eighteen views, the best scoring four hundred. Each post is a generous and joyous lesson in the pleasures offered by the word. Like the harvest festival, Thiruvalluvar is many things to many people. Literary, etymological, hagiographic and other kinds of evidence are marshalled to argue that he was a Jain, a Buddhist, a Dalit (sometimes Parayar, sometimes a Pulayan), someone of mixed caste, a Shaivite and a Vaishnavite and even a proto-Christian thinker-poet. None and all of this matters. Thiruvalluvar has a little of something for everyone. Everyone who knocks at Thiruvalluvar’s door is made to feel that he speaks only to them. Such a fine poet is Thiruvalluvar that I reckon it was Kabir’s and Mirza Ghalib’s misfortune not to have been able to savour his verse (nor, alas, any pongal). Thiruvalluvar, it is believed, lived in the fifth century Before the Common Era, between Madurai and what’s today known as Mylapore in Chennai. Like the Indian Ocean (where, since 2000, he statuesquely occupies some prime real estate off Kanyakumari) or the river Kaveri, he is an integral part of the Tamil landscape.

Whoever Thiruvalluvar was, he is always represented with a generous beard (quite like the nameless presenter of the YouTube channel) and is found seated in what we may, for ease, call sukhasana. He has a quill in his right hand (which may owe to the inexplicable bias many humans tend to have against all things left) and in his left, he holds a clutch of palm scrolls. Unlike latter-day bhakti poets and even the Persian and Urdu poets, he did not sign his name into his work. Given that each kural is an exercise in compaction, all of seven words in the venpa metre known as kural venpa, the vain priority of weaving in his own name is not for this master poet. His singular signature is the very form.

It is Kural 1034 – with which this excursive exercise opens – that our YouTube channel host chose to discuss on Pongal day. In this kural, Thiruvalluvar speaks of the place of farmers in society and contrasts it with the apparently exalted status of the king. This is a land where at one end of the spectrum we have the ideology of the Manusmriti of the third century CE and a living “Hindu” philosophy that up to the dire present looks down on farmers as shudras, a polluted caste because they literally soil their hands. Here’s Vivekananda, who sometimes peddled obscurantism and regressive thinking (volume five of his complete works): “I do not propose any levelling of castes. Caste is a very good thing. Caste is the plan we want to follow. What caste really is, not one in a million understands. There is no country in the world without caste. In India, from caste we reach to the point where there is no caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody a Brahmin, the Brahmin being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmin. That is the plan.” At the other end of this spectrum, we have the luminous mind of Thiruvalluvar. That the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, so named because Narendranath Datta apparently attained the “bliss” (ananda) of “enlightenement” (viveka) while meditating on it for three days in 1892, stands at a short distance from the Thiruvalluvar statue off the Kanyakumari coast is testimony to the lack of unity in diversity.

Vivekananda Rock Memorial (left) and the Thiruvalluvar statue, Kanyakumari. | Image credit: Karthic 9952668367 / CC BY-SA 4.0

As I saw and heard the nameless YouTube host walk me through the couplet, telling us how this is one of the most remembered and recited verses from Thirukkural, it gave my Pongal – and everyone’s farmer’s day – a sudden new meaning, at once sweet and savoury. By evening, I set this verse to the raga Puriya, in the seven-beat teevra taal, treating it almost like a dhrupad bandish. Here are seven words, 2,500 years old, speaking clearly and severely to the present. It was as if Thiruvalluvar was addressing our current prime minister, who, from all evidence, behaves like a king who thinks agitated farmers are out to kill him. The poet is a prophet. And the prophecy is not good for the king who thinks his parasol is bigger than the farmer’s basket that shades all beings. Kural 1034 suffused me with hope. It bears reiteration:

palakudai neezhalum thangutaikkeezhk kaaNpar

alakutai neezha lavar

The shade of the farmer’s basket is sovereign
Ringing the land green – the king’s parasol a pale blob

A mural at the farmers protest on the Delhi border. | Image credit: PTI

Given the kind of solidarity various sections of society and the world have expressed with our agitating farmers over two years – but not, say, with the women and men who congregated at Shaheen Bagh against the CAA and NRC – let me end on a sore note. That the farmers are seen as truly noble by Thirvuvalluvar and by a vast number of people today is heartening; but let us remember that the same solidarity is never on display when sweepers or sewer workers, almost always Dalit, protest and strike work as they often do to merely be paid overdue wages. It is as if we must remain in their debt for they are in ours. Gandhi believed, up till 1946, that sweepers must never strike work; he often expected all shudra-atishudras to offer their services to society without expecting anything in return. “A Bhangi may not give up his work even for a day. And there are many other ways open to him of securing justice,” he declared in his saintly wisdom. Ambedkar, who went to the cause, believed such a caste-occupation linkage must be annihilated. Thirvuvalluvar may have lived in a time when untouchability did not exist and people tended to their own excrement and garbage.

Our mere living yields so much waste. Food leads to shit. No other creature’s excrement poses as many issues as ours. More than what we leave behind, how we leave things behind matters. I turned to the very first kural discussed by our bearded host in his inaugural post on 25 September 2020, where he declares at the outset: “We shall discuss any kural that pleases me and there will be no particular order followed. We are not going to be too serious.” And so we get to this very serious declaration that is Kural 1062:

இரந்தும் உயிர்வாழ்தல் வேண்டின் பரந்து
கெடுக உலகியற்றி யான்

irandhum uyirvaazhdhal vaeNdin parandhu
keduka ulagiyatri yaan

If begging must even be a source of living
Let god wander the world as a beggar

We have seen a kural on the farmer, and now a kural on the shame that even one person begging for a living must cause to all of humanity, resulting in the poet’s cursing god. What could a kural on accursed untouchability be? It has to be this:

If there must be even one untouchable
Let god live and die as one

The king is grounded.
Then god.
Shudra fells king.
Dalit fells god.

S Anand is the publisher of Navayana. He is a student of dhrupad with Ustad F Wasifuddin Dagar.