Published: 05th June 2019
This girl was awarded a State Award for her literary contributions to Tamil
Nila Saravanaraja has taken painstaking efforts to translate Tamil literature's greatest novel into the world's second most widely spoken language
I’ve always been an admirer of the great Chola emperor Rajaraja Chola I, one of medieval India’s most successful monarchs. Born as Arulmozhi Varman in 947 AD, he sowed the seeds that would lay the foundation for the expansion of the Chola Empire to its zenith under Parakesari Rajadhiraja Chola I.
From administrative brilliance and temple-building grandeur to military valour and righteous conduct, the Chola emperor had it all. The most acclaimed publication of his early life, Ponniyin Selvan, was written by the poet Kalki in Tamil. As such, the work remains the single greatest novel ever written in the history of Tamil literature.
For a monoglot like me, access to such a masterpiece was restricted by my lack of proficiency in the Tamil language. 17-year-old Nila Saravanaraja, a Class XII student from Chennai, decided to lend a hand, or in this case, a pen, in translating the work into English. Her intentions were clear right from the onset – assist her father with translations and conversions, and shape them into comics that inspire readers to understand and appreciate the importance and glory of ancient Tamil Nadu’s history, culture and tradition. What awaited her were not just congratulatory remarks and gestures, but an award from the Tamil Development Department attached to the Chief Minister’s Office – State Award for Best Translator of 2019.
“My dad wanted to create comics based on Ponniyin Selvan, it was something he’s always wanted to do. So he got a copy for me when I was in Class VIII and I was both fascinated and attached to it ever since,” says Nila. They intended to publish the comics in two languages – English and Tamil. While her dad took up the translations for the latter, the young girl opted for the former. “Our working process isn’t very methodological. My father jots down the Tamil version and gives it to me as a rough draft, and I subsequently translate it into English.”
Their selection process, on the other hand, is a bit more specific. While their current portfolio consists solely of this award-winning work, more translation-based projects are being finalised. “We want our work to inspire the current generation with virtues from a bygone era, as most of them have been lost to time. The world we live in lacks certain values,” says Nila.
When quizzed about the book itself, she claims that the content presented pertains to the childhood of Rajaraja Chola I, but not in the way we imagine it to be. “The narrative comes from the eyes of a spy. In the book, the Chola king is spied upon by the keen eyes of a spy sent by his elder brother Karikalan, who was the crown prince.” The plot revolves around the Chola throne, its rulers, Pandiya rival kings and murder of nobility. “It is incredibly fascinating to read. When translating the original Tamil text, the most challenging part was to consistently find accurate English terms,” states Nila.
She recalls the day she was bestowed upon with the state award. “My dad got a call in the evening from the officials, saying that I was to receive the award. I was stunned and started screaming moments later.” At the Secretariat, Nila met a host of other recipients and guests, including the Minister for Tamil Language and noted lyricist Madhan Karky, whose son is a regular reader of the Ponniyin Selvan comic series. Her passion lies within the domain of fashion design, but there is no doubt that Nila possesses considerable literary skills.
After all, to have received a state award by the age of 17 is no joke. When I was that age, I was loitering around my school corridors, chasing squirrels. While we Indians might not have much to be proud of at the present time, there was a period when India was one of the most sought after destinations for education, employment and trade anywhere in the world. Those days have long since turned to dust, but at least we can preserve their memories through the literary resources penned in their honour.