I recalled four occasions when the Kural was cited to me in the ordinary course of things. I was not yet twenty when I heard Rajagopalachari describe the speed of the assistance rushed by officers to flood victims in the Krishna and Godavari basins in 1954. He was chief minister of undivided Madras at that time. “How would you describe,” he asked me, “the speed of help that comes the very moment it is needed?”

“The speed of light?”
 ”Yes... but Tiruvalluvar has a better description for that speed. He describes it in his great work that you must read one day, called the Kural, as the speed of the hand that moves the very instant a garment slips, to halt its fall...”

It was some years later that I read his rendering of the 788th kural in which, to the description of the slipping garment, he adds, typical of his conservatism, a context: “slips in company”. Every translator adds something, be it ever so slight, to the original.

My second recollection is of 1969. I was an IAS Probationer in Tanjore when the young but unbelievably wise sub-collector of Kumbakonam, D Murugaraj told me: “The Gita is a great book, but the Kural, in my view, ranks higher. Whatever else you read as a trainee in Tamil Nadu, you have to read that masterpiece.”

A couple of years later, at the inauguration of a school near Gingee, where I was posted as an assistant collector, an MLA was pontificating on the virtues of learning. “Men of learning,” he quoted from the book, “have eyes, blockheads have two sores.” The 393rd kural seemed to have been tailor-made for the man himself but I let my wicked thought pass.

My fourth induction into the Kural being invoked is from a decade later.

Watching me entranced by my two little daughters’ baby talk, my mother said, “You know, the Kural says those who call the veena’s sound or the taste of honey sweet have not heard their own little one’s sweet lisps...” Her words came fluting into my mind as I now read the 66th kural.

It was with these random recollections refreshed in my thoughts that I opened, for the first time in my life, the 1,330 kurals. I found that I just could not make out their meaning. It is an unusual experience to be able to read a script but not get the sense of what you are reading.

Of each couplet – with four words or feet in the first line, three in the second – I could just about understand one or two. Five or six – the majority – of the words were completely beyond my comprehension. And this is where my obtaining the Rev. GU Pope 1886 English translation made all the difference.

Rukmini Devi Arundale’s collection of antiquarian books in Kalakshetra, Chennai, has a 1980 reprint of Pope’s translation entitled The Sacred Kurral, giving the author’s name as “Tiruvalluva-Nayanar”. This particular reproduction by Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, is only thirty-five years old but has already browned into the feel of an old book. Its pages melt and come off when turned. Poring over them as gingerly as I could, I could see why Pope’s English rendition of the Kural is regarded as definitive.

Pope has gone into the work like a conch fisher dives into the sea. He disappears into the Kural to emerge with a find that is from that point on “his”. He gives us a Valluvar that is his Valluvar, a Kural that is his Kural and yet is unmistakably Valluvar’s. Reading Pope’s renderings, matching them with the Tamil verses and then dipping into Beschi’s Latin equivalent (1730) and the rephrasings of FW Ellis, both of which Pope appends to his volume, was sheer exhilaration.

The Lexicon and Concordance given at the end of his work proved invaluable. In his translation, Pope gives us his understanding of the couplets; in the Lexicon and Concordance he gives us the word-to-word meaning as if saying “Check my version out, word by word”.

Going back and forth in this study, I knew I was “caught” and the originator of Aleph Book Company was not surprised.

David Davidar knew the classic’s timeless appeal. And before I quite realised it, I found myself becoming a “commissioned translator” of the work and, exactly like the besotted reader, entering its deathless life.

I also returned, as I had to, to the much-thumbed copy of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s 1965 edition of Rajagopalachari’s translation and commentary in our home’s peripatetic bookshelves. Half a century old, its binding had all but come apart. But on my picking it up now it “held” in more senses than one.

Rajagopalachari calls this edition of his translation, rather didactically, Kural: The Great Book of Tiru-Valluvar. Very different from his much more interesting Rochouse title (The Second Book of Kural: A Selection from the Old Tamil Code for Princes, Statesmen and Men of Affairs). I then noticed something all Kural experts know but that I had missed all these decades. Like Beschi, the moralist in Rajagopalachari not only leaves out Book III (The Book of Love) from his attention, he draws a veil over its very existence.

Domestic censorship is the surest allurement to a ‘home kid’ and so as a grandson, albeit nudging seventy, of the veiler, I had to turn to Book III in Pope’s version like to forbidden fruit. Valluvar is not Vatsyayana but there is in the frequently vanishing seaman longed for by the woman a figure of curious sensuality. The reader may see what I mean in the translation.

Given Valluvar’s mastery of sea lore, I could not help but wonder at the goddess of coincidences who steered me to the doors of a lighthouse-maker for my initiation into the Kural. The Kural-smitten neighbour in my suburb of Chennai, a retired deputy director general of Lighthouses and Lightships, KN Varadarajan, told me of other translations and commentaries, adding his own fascinating comments.

A foundational fortune came by way of a conversation with the Chennai-based historian and scholar of classical and modern Tamil, Professor A. R. Venkatachalapathy (Chala). Understanding my enthusiasm and my diffidence, Chala said I absolutely must have some working sessions with a friend of his he described as a person of remarkable scholarship and equally remarkable modesty, the Tiruchirappalli-based scholar and professor of Tamil, B Mathivanan.

Meeting Mathi was an education. I have not seen anyone wear scholarship as lightly as he does. Mathi showed me the inestimable value of several couplets without raising them to the status of Mosaic tablets. He touched them with a feather, as if only dusting them, to help me see what they held.

Chala and Mathi spared several hours for me, leading me, cross-textually, to read Valluvar through Parimelazhagar and Pope, with Tamizhannal’s commentaries on the Valluvar original. The very simplified renderings in Tamil by Sujata (Tirukkural: Puthiya Urai, 1995), the simplifier of voting technology in the shape of the electronic voting machine, and those done into economical English by PS Sundaram (The Tirukkural, 1991) were most useful to me.

Excerpted with permission from the Preface to The Tirukkural by Tiruvalluvar, in a new English version by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Aleph Book Company.