[Galley Beggar Press; 2023]
Tr. from the Tamil by Meena Kandasamy

Acts of translation are often accompanied by registers of loss, lamentations on the impossibility of the practice. Moving beyond these familiar registers, Meena Kandasamy’s The Book of Desire, a standalone translation of the third section of the Tirukkuṟaḷ, reframes translation both as intimate practice and a necessary literary political project. The resultant text makes for an exquisitely crafted, lyrical, and poignant read which, while remaining firmly rooted in the Tamil universe, makes room for readers who stand outside of it. For the uninitiated, the Tirukkuṟaḷ, a two thousand–year-old text, is a vital part of the ancient Tamil civilization. Written in kural venpa, a two-lined ancient metrical form, the 1,330 kurals of the Tirukkuṟaḷ are divided into three sections, one each on morality (aram), materialism (porul), and desire (inpam). As Kandasamy notes, the third section, Iṉpattuppāl, “sidesteps the didacticism” of the first two and instead “presents a pair of lovers: anonymous, universal, absolutely democratic.” Although no biography remains and little is known of the poet, Tiruvalluvar, Kandasamy stresses that “anonymity does not mean obscurity.” Reading her evocative descriptions of the centrality of this text to Tamil everyday life puts to shame any stray suggestions of the death of poetry. One can take reassurance in the fact that at the very least, in the Tamil cultural life and imaginary, the place of poetry remains firmly secure.

Desire remains central to both the political framing of the translation and the translated text. It is Kandasamy’s desire to claim a space for the “terrifying (Tamil) goddess” of the Tirukkuṟaḷ as a translator, commentator, and philosopher that becomes the driving force behind this translation and the choices that shape it. Her choices, and significantly her refusals, are guided by the asymmetries in the histories of the Tirukkuṟaḷ’s translation, which are reflective of historical asymmetries embedded in social relations, especially those marked by colonialism. Kandasamy is explicit in her refusal to reduce an understanding of colonialism to the hegemony imposed by European colonizers. She instead directs attention to the Brahminical colonization of the Tamil people that predates European colonial advent. “If colonialism is erasure, we need to wonder who caused the first disappearance of Tamil texts, and consequently Tamil history,” she notes. The story of Tirukkuṟal survival is situated within this larger story of the erasure of Tamil texts which before the advent of print publication were written on palm leaf manuscripts and carefully preserved for centuries by the intergenerational labour of various scribes. Weaving together oral histories, community memory, and academic sources, Kandasamy highlights the violence of Brahminical imposition that led to both material destruction and ideological devaluing of these Tamil texts. “As a philosophy, Brahminism sanctified the denial of knowledge; as a practice, it ensured that existing knowledge among other egalitarian cultures was also taken away,” writes Kandasamy.

The Tirukkua may have survived this destruction, but was not unscathed by it. Kandasamy traces the various ways in which subsequent translations and understandings of the text have suffered from the imposition of Brahmin ideologies, world views, and values. The egalitarian spirit of Tirukkua may be evident within its kurals that renounce inequalities based on birth: “‘piṟappokkum ellā uyirkkum’ (Kuṟaḷ 972): all lives are equal by birth?” However, its circulation and reception has nevertheless been marked by forces of colonization. As early as 1871, Charles Gover, a British folklorist and one of the first translators of the Tirukkua, frustrated by his inability to find a uncorrupted version of many Tamil texts noted, “The Brahmans corrupted what they could not destroy.” Central among the corruption of the Tirukkual was the insertion of “patriarchal and caste-based Hindu social order” in both the translations and the commentaries. Kandasamy highlights the ongoing work of many Tamil scholars who have questioned this historical imposition and worked to undo it. However, she notes that aspects of Brahminical patriarchal values, with its “overemphasis on chastity, shame, and generalised misogyny,” have not been questioned sufficiently. Kandasamy claims space for herself as a feminist decolonial translator among the previous (largely male) translators of the Tirukkua. Showing a deeply intersectional understanding, her feminist practice is necessarily intertwined and shaped by a commitment to decolonial anti-caste practice.

Desiring to reclaim the text, Kandasamy undertakes many feminist decolonial decisions that shape her translation. Chief amongst these is her choice to translate Iṉpattuppāl, the third section of the Tirukkua, as a standalone text. Despite being one of the world’s most widely translated secular texts, translators have often chosen to ignore this third section; rarely has it been given the pride of place that Kandasamy’s translation provides. Another structural choice is her refusal to divide the Iṉpattuppāl into two sections, the first entitled “denoting the clandestine meeting of lovers” and the second called “the wedded (chaste) state of married life.” Tracing the imposition of this division to Parimēlaḻakar, one of the Tirukkua’s oldest and most influential commentators, Kandasamy foregrounds the ways in which it reinforces a classic paradigm of Brahminical patriarchal values—the control of women. She argues that such an imposition goes against the very spirit of the text itself, which in Kural 57 declares,

What is the point

of prison-like vigilance?

A woman protecting herself

is the greatest safety.

Moreover, this refusal is equally motivated by an attunement and sensitivity to the context of her own translation’s reception, circulation, and impact. Acutely aware of her own responsibilities as a translator, Kandasamy writes, “This translation comes into being in a society where women continue to inhabit a shaming culture, where offhand divisions of premarital or clandestine love versus married love will feed damaging stereotypes.”

Extending from the structural elements of the text, her choices and refusals are evident in the very words of the kurals. No stranger to the power of words, Kandasamy is motivated by the possibility of words to be “occupied in service of a broader, more inclusive politics.” However, commentators and translators of the kurals, including the “known offender” Parimēlaḻakar, have routinely ensured that the words themselves “were extrapolated and tinged with regressive patriarchal meanings and interpretations.” This is made clear by Kandasamy’s discussion of the translation of the “simple but contentious word niṟai.” Often translated as “chastity,” Kandasamy accounts for the full spectrum of the word’s meaning—niṟai as fullness, strength, containment—and instead translates it in Kural 1251 as “unwavering mind”:  

The battle-axe of passion

breaks down the door
of my unwavering mind,

bolted with my coyness.

As a decolonial translator, Kandasamy’s choice to translate the Tirukkua into English is aimed at breaking the hegemony of ancient Brahminical Sanskrit texts on a world platform. However, even as she translates to English, she refuses easy analogies that may inadvertently erase the Tamil context and world of the text. The kural is not explained away as a haiku or a couplet or a doha but remains just that, a kural. Within the verses themselves, the world is one animated by aniccham flowers, thorny nerunchis, and the drumbeats of the parai. These are but a few glimpses of the many ways in which even as the text is made accessible to those of us who cannot read the original, it is not reduced to accommodate our limitations. By drawing attention to these choices and making them transparent even for an unfamiliar audience in the introduction, Kandasamy also exposes the choices that have shaped past translations. In short, she lays bare that translation is not a neutral practice but rather one embroiled with politics. The task that she sets up for herself as translator is to liberate the Tirukkua from these impositions, preserve its egalitarian spirit, and where possible, “seek avenue for redress.” Kandasamy’s translation is not aimed at returning to the past but oriented toward and in “service of a broader, more inclusive politics” for the future.

But what of the translated text itself? I must admit that in writing this review, I wondered what I could add to a literary discussion that is two thousand years in the making and very much ongoing. As a first-time reader of these verses, what I can admit is that I found it difficult to stop reading once I entered the world of the Tirukkuṟaḷ. Particularly striking was the role that desire, markedly feminine desire, plays in these kurals. Cutting across the private and public realms, desire shapes and marks the body but is never confined to it.


Worried that no one

knows of its existence,

my desire defends itself

by taking to the streets.

On the other hand, shame is considered the antithesis of desire, and as something that must be given up so that desire may take center stage. One must be renounced, as both cannot exist.


Give up desire or
give up shame, good heart;

I cannot suffer

the both of them.

Kandasamy’s commitment to a decolonial feminist translation is primarily driven by her insistence on the text’s egalitarian spirit, one that has been intentionally obfuscated by the imposition of external values. In reading these and many of the other kurals, it is undeniable that the Tirukkua routinely refuses values closely associated with Brahminical patriarchy, such as shame and chastity when speaking of female desire, and instead “burns with longing, only ever concerning itself with shame in order to speak of the shame itself.”

In the expertly written introduction, Kandasamy expresses feeling “awkward and torn” between her desire to let the text speak for itself and the introductory framing that she feels compelled to provide. It is true that the introduction could be read independently as a manifesto for translation as a decolonial feminist intervention. However, its richness and clarity perfectly match the egalitarian inclusive politics of the text itself, and together, they prove to be a potent combination. Readers of this translation and its framing, be it those intimately familiar with the Tirukkuṟaḷ, as well as those unfamiliar, will find much with which to engage. For myself, I am reflecting on lessons learned from a “circuit-breaker.”

Damini Pant is a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego and is working towards a PhD in Anthropology and Critical Gender Studies.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.