Monday, April 17, 2006

Kuruntokai - "Red Earth and Pouring Rain"

What He Said

What could my mother be
to yours? What kin is my father
to yours anyway? And how
Did you and I meet ever?
But in love
our hearts have mingled
as red earth and pouring rain.

-- Cempulappeyanirar


Some of you may be familiar with the novel "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" by Vikram Chandra. The title of the novel is derived from the poem above.

This poem dates to around 2000 years ago, to the Sangam age of Tamil poetry as compiled in the "Kuruntokai". This translation is A K Ramanujan's. The history of Tamil poetry is marked by many anonymous contributions, and traditionally the poet is identified based on a distinct phrase from his or her work. "Cempulappeyanirar" literally means "red earth and pouring rain".

This is one of those poems that I think of as being like lightning. Though brief, it offers a split second of such powerful illumination. It is especially meaningful contextually, when you think of Tamil culture (its emphasis on marrying within kin and community) and even the geography that must have surrounded the poet. When I read this poem, I am taken immediately to summer rain -- scarce, relished -- in Chennai, how the streets run red with mud, the smell of it.

More universal are the concepts of chance/destiny -- of everyone possible alive on this earth, how is it that we met one another?

The timelessness of poetry like this never ceases to awe and humble me. I've chosen to showcase this poem because the red earth/pouring rain reference may be familiar to some of you. More Sangam translations by Ramanujan can be found online at

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Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Wow, you posted as soon as you received the invitation. I am just thrilled to have you onboard, as with Sharon and Leon.

I really love this piece. It adds a multicultural and international flavour to our blog.

Despite the poem's simplicity, it conveys a depth and complexity that really fills me with wonder. The metaphor of red earth and pouring rain is beautifully earthy, conveying a kind of raw but deeply genuine elementality of love, which, if taken on its ownself from the perspective of a modern day concrete urbanite, would appear somewhat 'dirty' and 'gross'. Indeed, when contextualised with its time, this is really beautiful.

6:44 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i love to discover poems i wouldn't normally have come across and know almost nothing about tamil poetry - would love to hear how it sounds in tamil too - next time i see you, you have to recite it for me

the image of red earth and rain is so ... sexual.

two totally dissimular elements coming together almost accidentally to make wild red muddy water, a torrent in the street, getting into everything.

dreamer idiot - dirty yes. dirty and messy and joyous. like love should be.

red earth and pouring rain is such a good name for a novel. wish i'd thought of it first!

7:47 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Sharon, am ashamed to say that I don't know it in Tamil! :( I can, however, recite some Subramania Bharati...

And yeah I think so too -- RE&PR is a great title... sigh!

I'm glad you both enjoyed this one. Was a little nervous posting it, as I wasn't sure how well it would go down with readers from different cultural environments.

3:14 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i think no-one should get nervous about posting - all poems give us something to talk about - whether we love or hate 'em or they leave us indifferent

9:32 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Spot said...

I agree with Sharon, it would be interesting to hear the poem in Tamil, to appreciate the aural aspect of poetry in the context of a tonal language (hmmm..I make an assumption that Tamil is sure sounds so).

It reminds me of haiku, the sparseness of the prose.

"Red earth and pouring rain"...what a nice tropical monsoon kind of feeling it evokes. Summer rain, as Sharanya says. The romanticised idea I have of India, hot rain on ochre and teracotta tones.

I like how those natural elements provide the backdrop against which an individual's insignificance (as reflected in the "who am I, who are we" train of thought at the beginning of the poem) is framed.

I wonder if it's intentional, this idea of genesis in roots, earth and water.

earth + water + love = roots?

Hehe. I like this blog.

2:44 PM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

True, Sharon. Was just afraid to bore!

Spot -- I like this blog, too! :)

3:28 PM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Sharanya, welcome aboard. So gald to see you here.

The red earth and the rain, to me, seem to represent blood and water. The red as blood seems to connect not only to the hearts of those in love, who met, but to kinships, like parents, progeny.

3:45 PM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Spot, I like how u spelt it out, earth, water and love...which is how I felt about its deeply felt elementality, bringing love back to its very heart and core...

while at the same time, accords with Sharon's view of its sensuality: the parched, thirsty land...and the water gushing down in a torrent of pure ecstacy.

Leon's insight extends this poem even deeper and further to the deep kinship which is also encapsulated in this metaphor. Indeed, the opening lines elevates the question of kinship between unrelated starngers to the realisation of the brotherhood of all peoples (despite our differences). Beautiful.

7:26 PM, April 19, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

I enjoyed the sensuality that 'red earth and pouring rain' evoked but this poem reminded me of something of a more innocent nature.

Those were the days when we neighbourhood boys would play football in the rain after school and shuck our shoes so that they won't get soiled. We would often end up slipping and sliding in the mud and it would turn out to be more of a wrestling match.

It does remind me of those childhood friends and the simple joys we shared.

I liked your interpretation, Sharanya. It was very insightful. Taken in that context of culture and geography, I was immediately in awe of the poem's simplicity.

Spot: earth + water + love = roots? ... too profound. I loved that.

I wonder how many other poems have survived for thousands of years and would still move us so deeply.

On another note, I like how the line breaks work to energize and enrich the poem's meaning. I keep reading it out loud over and over again, playing with intonation and pauses, and finding a different 'dialogue' with the poem every time (I hope that makes sense).

I would really like to hear a real poet read it :)

Sorry for the long-ish comment, I really enjoyed the poem and the conversation. I'm addicted to this blog now.

1:42 AM, April 20, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

The poem feels quite universal to me. It could well, I imagine, have been written by a Japanese poet (with that peculiar quality of meditation that Japanese poetry has)

or a native American poet (because of the references to the elements)

or perhaps even Persian/Middle Eastern (somewhat Rumi-ish?) .....

... or English (anyone reminded of Romeo & Juliet, or perhaps Lady Chatterley's lover, with the class divide)

...... maybe Australian aboriginal poetry (red earth --> dry, reddish parts of Australia's landscape/geography; the pouring rain image then becomes all the more striking because torrential rain would be so rare and amazing in those areas)

.... perhaps most bizarrely, I am thinking of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus (a kind of spiritual love ecstasy) ...

.... then I am thinking of the lovers in Ho Minfong's "Clay Marble" novel set in war-torn Cambodia; poignant because in that story, the "kin" is lost, dead or scattered anyway, and there is an additional layer of meaning in questions like "What could be my mother be to yours? What kin is my father to yours anyway?" because these persons may never be found again. The "red earth and pouring rain" reference also takes on a special meaning, because the people, rushing back to rebuild their villages, need to sow the rice seeds in the fields in time for the coming rains, otherwise they will starve the following year ...

very universal poem ....

11:06 AM, April 20, 2006  
Blogger eternal flunky said...

my dad is to yours who read his (ur dads) daughter's blog and asked his (my -'s) son to read it...
nice post...
as they say wts lost in trnsltion is literature... this one's good in english as well, but i can imagin the 'redness' as u call it coming more alive in tam.... gorgeous language it is... though it goes well over my head...:)..
where your own poems? thats what i came looking for... the other blog was full of news and stuff... which is good, but as i said, its the poems i was lookin for

1:37 AM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Hi Eternal Flunky - V late reply (just saw this). Thanks for your interest in my work, and am happy your dad recommended my blog. I hope you've returned to my blog since, and have found the poems you were looking for. :)

1:08 PM, October 22, 2006  
Blogger Nancy Ellen said...

The writer of this blog may be interested to know that a fragment of this poem plays a significant role in a book by Shashi Deshpande entitled _A Matter of Time_. Deshpande omits the final three lines of the poem, leaving it for her readers to complete. It is indeed a beautiful and evocative poem.

4:09 AM, June 12, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For readers who need to see english transliteration of this poem, check

9:14 PM, July 16, 2009  
Blogger Gokul Madhavan said...

Hi, this is my first time here, and I just wanted to say this is one of my favorite Tamil poems. Since somebody asked, the original Tamil roughly reads thus in transliteration (probably with a number of errors owing to my ignorance of the language):

yāyum ñāyum yār ākiyarō
entaiyum nuntaiyum emmuṟaik kēḷir
yāṉum nīyum evvaḻiy aṟitum
cempulap peya nīr pōla
aṉpuṭai neñcam tāṅ kalantaṉavē

I wish I could understand old Tamil!

12:36 PM, August 26, 2009  
Blogger Kopal Thakur said...

I am reading this exactly after 12 years...the exact time it takes for nealkurinji to bloom. Was specifically searching for this poem and reached here. A timeless piece indeed

1:50 AM, July 31, 2018  

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