yâyum ñâyum yârâ kiyarô
enthaiyum nunthaiyum emmurai kêLîr
nûm nîyum evvali yarithum
cempulappeyanîr pôl
anputai neñcam thânkalan thanavê

Your mother had no bonds with mine
your father and mine were not kin
yet, though we knew nothing of each other,
like red earth and pouring rain
our hearts have mingled, in love.

The poem is from the Kuruntokai, a collection of Tamil poetry from the classical period (c. 2nd century B.C. - 3rd century A.D.). Although Vikram Chandra has not credited it as such, I suspect it was the source of the title of his book "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" (which, I assume from the original softlinks, was the reason this nodeshell existed, but I digress).

Classical Tamil love poetry relies on delicate lyricism and vivid, but subtle, imagery, conveyed through ullurai uvamam, suggestive hidden metaphors whose meaning unfolds slowly and with introspection. The metaphors are shaped to evoke memories of a landscape - with its flowers and trees - at a particular time and in a season. This imagery subtly conveys a mood, associated with one aspect of a relationship.

This poem is a beautiful example of a kuruñci, a type of poem named for a small blue flower that grows on the hills of the Tamil lands. The image of "red earth and pouring rain" evokes pictures of the first monsoon rains falling on the red-earthed hills so typical of the Tamil lands to mingle with the dry, parched soil forming a cool, damp clay, and of the flowers blooming in the rain. The mood created is that of lovers, clandestinely meeting in the hills, their hearts waking suddenly, unexpectedly, to each other.

A second level of meaning is created by the imagery of progression. The poem opens with the possible bonds of friendship, and then kinship, between the parents. Then, it moves to bonds formed by two people learning and getting to know each other. From these abstractions, it comes to concreteness with the picture of red earth in the rain, drawing a parallel with the lover's journey from aloneness to union.

Finally, there is the image of the kuruñci flower itself. Though never mentioned in the poem, it is nonetheless present as a fundamental part of a landscape of hills. A kuruñci flower only blooms once in twelve years, the period associated in Tamil tradition with the coming of a girl to sexual maturity. Unspoken, but present, in the poem through the image of the flower is a sense of a woman awakening to herself and to union. In classical Tamil culture, sexual union was regarded as something sacred, and looked upon as a divine marriage. This sense is an important underlying mood in kuruñci poems.

The atmosphere is heightened by the fact that the poems are never in the voice of a poet, nor are they addressed to a reader. A character connected with the relationship that is the subject of the poem speaks, and the reader is never more than an interloper, an eavesdropper who overhears a part of the conversation.

akam poetry is intellectual. The poems are characteristically short - usually between four and six lines long - but the reader was expected by classical poets to spend time on a poem, pondering over its syllables and the significance of the poem's meaning, which goes deeper than the brief sketch I've presented above.

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