Monday, July 04, 2011

An Ancient Chera King's Incarceration - 4th of July

I did not get to read Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis" until late in life. It is a poignant rumination of the abject humiliation and suffering of a human-being under (wrongful) incarceration. On 4th of July, when we in America celebrate the Independence Day for the liberties we have inherited, it may be paradoxical to ruminate about life behind incarceration of a defeated, humiliated Tamil Chera King of the Sangam Age.

In High School, our Tamil teacher taught the Sangam-era poem from Purananuru (புறநானூறு), wherein the Chera King Cheramaan Kanaikkaal Irumborai (சேரமான் கணைக்கால் இரும்பொறை) is defeated by the Chozha King Chozhan Senganaan (சோழன் செங்கணான்) and kept under incarceration at the Kudavaasal (குடவாசல்) Prison in Thiruvarur District. 

At the prison, the Chera King feels thirsty and asks for water. The prison-guard at sentry not only ignores him, but humiliates him with his indifference. This abject humiliation makes the Chera King turn down his own earlier request for a glass of water. He sings his own eulogy and in essence takes his own life on his own terms at his own time, thereby denying even that opportunity to his opponent to further humiliate him in prison. Here is that song:

குழவி இறப்பினும், ஊன்தடி பிறப்பினும்,
ஆள் அன்று என்று வாளின் தப்பார்
தொடர்ப்படு ஞமலியின் இடர்ப்படுத்து இரீஇய
கேளல் கேளிர் வேளாண் சிறுபதம்,
மதுகை இன்றி, வயிற்றுத் தீத் தணியத்,
தாம் இரந்து உண்ணும் அளவை
ஈன்ம ரோ, இவ் உலகத் தானே?

While many litterateurs tout this song for the bravery exhibited in the battlefields of the ancient Tamils, I personally feel that this is a wonderful, moving poem of an individual craving for justice against personal humiliation within the darkest recesses of a prison.

Every time I come across flippancy and a cavalier attitude meted out to an individual in violation of his or her human dignity, this song automatically comes to my mind. 

Insouciance, humiliation, and abusive behavior need not be exhibited by the sentry-guard alone as embodied in this poem. It could be perpetrated by the very forces that are supposed to protect and foster individual liberty, besides upholding rule-of-law. 

When we read in newspapers about negligent engineers, errant judges, scheming lawyers, corrupt cops, devious doctors, etc., we are often reminded of the old Latin adage: corruptio optimi pessima. Corruption of the best has the worst consequences. That theme is brought to the fore wonderfully by National Poet Subramanya Bharathi (சுப்பிரமணிய பாரதி) in these lines: 
படித்தவன் சூதும் வாதும் பண்ணினால்
போவான் போவான்! ஐயோவென்று போவான்!  
If only the Chera King had access to what I have here: A precious bottle of water!