Love Generosity : A Translator’s Note on Avvaiyar
Children in Tamil Nadu grow up reading Avvaiyar, a poet whose work scholars usually place in the 12th century. You can often hear grade-school students repeating after their teachers the opening statements of her alphabetical acrostic, one line for each Tamil letter, much like “A is for Apple, B is for Ball.” Her list begins: “Love generosity.” Among her aphorisms are “Forsake no quality,” “Prepare no war,” “Amend the earth and eat.” Nine centuries later, her adages make good sense, perhaps even more now than ever before.
As students grow older, they move on to the quatrains that are found in Avvaiyar’s books on the ways and means of good life. These poems are so vivid and sharp that even years after they learned them, men and women can still recite them by heart. I was once in Goa, hundreds of miles from Tamil Nadu, exploring the streets of an old town, when a friend and I overheard a group of Tamil-speaking men buying cashews in a small roadside shop. My friend, whose mother is Tamil, but who grew up in Hyderabad, turned to the group and said, “Here, listen to a poem that my friend knows.” At his urging, I recited Avvaiyar’s “Good done to a man of character.” The men’s faces lit up and one by one they approached me and shook my hand. Aside from the stories and tales that have grown up around her, we know very little about Avvaiyar’s life. Her given name is Avvai, which means “mother,” “woman,” or “female ascetic”; people add the suffix cír as a sign of reverence and respect. For centuries, even millennia, Avvai was a common name, and Tamil literature has known several Avvaiyars. One of the most famous poets of the Sangam period, roughly two thousand years ago, was also a woman named Avvaiyar. But beyond what we can conjecture from etymology and story, all we really know of this later Avvaiyar are her poems.
` She was clearly a devout woman. From the prayer songs that preface her books and from references in her poems to Pillaiyar, sacred ash, and the great hymns of Gnana Sambandar, Thirunavukkarasar, and Sundarar, we know that she was Saivite. She believed in reincarnation and moksha, as we can see in the following poems, the first from Mûturai and the second from a later collection of individual poems:
Sad, ignorant heart! Do you think things happen
As wished? See how our fates are written:
If the tree
That grants wishes grants stones to a man wishing,
Those stones are the fruits of past lives.
Giving is virtue, earning rightly is wealth, living
In harmony and hospitality is love.
Letting go of all three, thinking only of God—
The bliss without peer of release.
But above all she believed in the earthly possibility of goodness, which places her work firmly in a Tamil literary tradition that goes back to the Sangam
period itself. As she sings in Mûturai :
To behold a good person is good. To hear
His words full of meaning is good.
Of a good person’s character is good. Good
To find a place in his company.
What follows are twenty of my translations from Avvaiyar’s quatrains, a sampling from Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar, forthcoming from Red Hen Press in Los Angeles. Earlier versions of several of these poems, as well as an earlier version of this introduction, were previously published in Kavya Bharati (Madurai) and The Temenos Academy Review (London), to which I make grateful acknowledgement.
The first ten poems presented here come from Mûturai, “The Word that Endures”; the following seven come from Naḻvali, “The Right Road.” Both of these books are works on ethics, containing thirty-one and forty-one poems respectively. The last three poems were written separately and gathered into a later collection by an unknown editor. All twenty exemplify a Tamil verse form called venpâ, dating to the late Sangam period. The particular kind of venpā that Avvaiyar used has a total of four lines: three lines of four feet (cír) followed by a fourth line of two and a half feet. There is often a break between the third and the fourth foot of the second line, giving the form what I find to be a satisfying dissymmetry. Although I don’t think it’s possible or even desirable to maintain the exact pattern of feet in English—a dr, after all, is not quite the same thing as a foot-I have nonetheless tried to mimic something of the original form through lineation and the relative length of lines.
A translator, of course, is never allowed to be satisfied. He can never share all that he wants to give away. But I’ve loved the generosity of Avvaiyar’s songs. They have been for me an endless source of instruction and delight, and hope these translations suggest at least some of that pleasure.
THE WORD THAT ENDURES
Poems from Mûturai
When doing good to a man, do not ask
If he’ll do good.
Tall-standing coconut palms,
Tireless and growing, drink water at their roots
And return it, sweet, from above.
Good done to a man of character—
Letters etched in stone.
To a man who lacks ethics and love—
Letters traced upon water.
Does he who gives life before he gives honour
Bow when he sees his enemies?
Beneath a heavy load
A stone pillar may break, but tell me,
Does it buckle? Does it bend?
With the water, the lily rises; with books studied
Climbs subtlety of mind.
Deeds in the past fix the wealth of the present;
Lineage, the limits of character.
The water that runs from the well to the rice
Also waters the wayside grass.
If on this old earth
There walks one upright man, for his sake
Everyone receives rain.
Don’t think to conquer the one who holds back,
Concluding he must lack sense.
Perched on the sluicegate
Letting the running fish run, the white crane
Waits for the catch.
Don’t think those born of the same body are brothers.
Fatal illness springs from the body too.
Medicines that heal grow in hills far away.
There are people like that medicine, too.
Knowing its own venom, the cobra lives in hiding.
Watersnakes lie about without fear.
Those who have malice
Make themselves scarce. Those without it Do not hide.
Between the king and the careful poet, the poet
Has greater glory.
Apart from his kingdom
A king has nothing. Every place a poet goes—
As long as they can, the wise help
Even those who do wrong.
Till the day they chop it down, a tree grants People shade.
THE RIGHT ROAD
Poems from Naḻvali
Looked at in all ways, this body is a hovel
For foul worms and teeming disease.
Because they know this, stand apart from it, silent,
Like water on a lotus’s leaves.
Even if you wallow, weeping year after year,
Will those who have died come back?
You of this earth
Weep not. That too is our way. Till going, give
—What is it to us?—give, eat, and live.
The riverside tree and the regal life of kings,
Will these not totter and fall?
To plow and then eat
Is majesty without peer. All other work
Far worse than begging to make ends meet
Is to flatter, and jostle, and eat.
Better to keep honour and give up one’s life
Than fatten one’s belly and live.
To eat, a cup of rice. To wear, a length of cloth.
And yet a person thinks a thousand thousand things.
Like an earthenware pot, the house without sense
Frets and worries till the end.
Like mounds and hollows in rivers, wealth
Rises and falls.
Heirs of wide earth,
Serve rice, pour water. By giving,
The heart glows, and grows.
Tough does not beat tender. Arrows
Pierce elephants, not cotton.
Rods of iron
Cannot crack stone, but a green tree’s roots
WHAT WE KNOW
Practised hands, good paintings. Practised tongues, pure Tamil.
Practised minds, knowledge that lasts.
By practice, a man.
Walks miles. But a heart that melts, loves, and gives—
This comes from lineage alone.
What we know: a handful of dirt. What we don’t:
The width of the world. The goddess of learning
So, poets, don’t bet and talk big.
The body of an ant, too, is eight spans.
With mothers go good meals, with fathers, good learning,
With children, the wealth one earns.
Good living, with brothers, strength in arms,
And with wives, everything, all.
Poems 2, 10, 20, and 26 from Mûturai first appeared in Kavya Bharathi 17 (2005). Poem 8 from Mûturai first appeared in Kavya Bharafi 19 (2007).
An earlier version of “Love Generosity,” poems 2 and 16 from Mûturai, 10 and 33 from
Naḻvali, and “What we know: A handful of dirt,” appeared in the Temenos Academy Review 10 (2007).