A Remarkable Feminist Translation By Meena Kandasamy, Of Thiruvalluvar Classic Tirukkural: The Book Of Desire

Kandasamy liberates the Tirukkural from its patriarchal translations, and firmly establishes the lovers as people who revel in their sexual and sensual attraction towards each other.

Meena Kandasamy is a Tamizh Dalit feminist poet, and each of her identities plays a part in her retelling of the third section of Tirukkural, the Inpattuppal – published as “The Book of Desire”. Tiruvalluvar wrote the Tirukkural well over 2,000 years ago, but the verses remain relevant even today.

The Tirukkural is so integrated into Tamizh thought that everyone from politicians to high court judges, from teachers to housewives quote verses to indicate their mood, or to make a point.

The 1330 kural (or verses) of the Tirukkural are divided into three sections: Morality (aram), Materialism (porul), and Desire (inbam). The third section, the Inpattuppal (the Book of Desire) is the most intimate section of the work. It is also the section which is the most censored, and which is often left out by translators of the great work.

Tirukkural shows a patriarchal world yet women not imprisoned by it

In her exhaustive introduction, Kandasamy writes that “as much as Tiruvalluvar was a man ahead of his times, he was inevitably a product of them too.” She talks of how he condemned prostitution, exhorted women to worship their husbands and “articulates collective male fears of becoming hen-pecked husbands and emasculated men.”

However, as she points out, “nowhere does the Tirukkural call for any woman to be controlled. A woman is not someone to be imprisoned, all her movements watched over- instead, she is entrusted with her own protection. It is her autonomy that protects her, not her lack of it.” This firmly places the Tirukkural as a feminist text.

Of lovers and desire

The book goes into the many aspects of desire. The kurals from “Lessons from Gossip”, for example, talk about an aspect of desire that is often overlooked:


This rumour,
this talk of the town,
makes us feel we have got
what we have not.

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Wine is a welcome joy
when rejoicing-
Public gossip heightens
the pleasure of sex

Jealousy and sulking are explored in “The Subtleties of Sulking”:


We sat, we sulked, and we said
nothing. He sneezed, knowing well
(that we would break our silence)
we would bless him saying, ‘Long live!’


when I said I loved her
more than anyone else,
she sulked, asking,
than whom? Than whom? S?

The lovers in Kandasamy’s work are not perfect. The man often indulges in behaviour that we would term as harassment, gaslighting or neglect, but which are presented as aspects of desire itself:


My dear life drains away
when I think of the heartlessness
of the many who used to say:
‘We are one life.’


Can we abandon him,
my heart, saying he is cruel-
this man we love
who doesn’t love us?


The battle axe of passion
breaks down the door
of my unwavering mind
bolted with my coyness


He has a strict guard
banning my entry to his heart.
Isn’t he shameless, then
to constantly walk into mine?

On the topic of incompatible couples living together, she draws upon her own experience as a survivor of domestic abuse to say, “unlike the Brahminical-Hindu marriage, which unites a husband and wife for seven lives, or the concept of pativrata – loyalty to a husband for eternity – the Tirukkural suggests that incompatibility can be fatal. Don’t risk your life, is the undercurrent of this kural:

“Domestic life with those who don’t agree
is dwelling in a shed with a snake for company.

[This translation is by Pope, and is not a part of The Book of Desire- it appears in the Introduction]

One drawback of the book is the absence of glossary. There are many words sprinkled through the book which may not be familiar to a reader who does not know Tamizh. Some of these words can be inferred from the context, or can be looked up online. But one word that gave me most trouble was ‘madal’ from the kurals on “Renouncing Shame”:


There is no other way
than riding the madal
for those (now) broken with longing
having (once) enjoyed sexual pleasure


Throw away shame
and mount the madal-
My body and soul cannot endure
any more suffering.


This woman wearing
tiny garland-like bracelets
gifted me the madal
the lovesickness of evenings.

From the context, it is almost impossible to determine if ‘madal’ is an object, an emotion, an action or even a metaphor. I had to seek help from a friend before I learnt that ‘madal’ was the equivalent of a scarlet letter with three important differences- it is worn voluntarily by a man to declare that he has been betrayed by a female lover.

Once I read the references to the practice, the meaning of the kurals became apparent. However, a glossary explaining this and other terms would certainly help.

Meena Kandasamy’s Tirukkural rejects the shackles of morality

In choosing to translate this section, Kandasamy claims for herself the right to reject the shackles of morality in which earlier translations were bound and to reinterpret the verses from a feminist viewpoint. The Inpattuppal comprises of 250 kurals arranged in 25 sections of 10 kurals each. Each kural runs into two lines: the first consists of four feet and the second of three feet. While earlier translations translates them literally, Kandasamy captures the essence of the kurals in verses of four lines each.

The heroine of The Book of Desire is introduced in the first kurals:


My heart is tossed about:
is she the lusty she-devil,
a flamboyant peacock,
lady of heavy earrings?


She looks, her look
a fare off to mine-
Looks like she has brought along
a shock troop of terrifying goddesses.

She is, as Kandasamy reminds us, a Tamizh woman. Confident, sensual, sexual and not afraid to talk of her desires. She is also a woman who the hero admires and fears:


My legendary valour
made foes tremble,
now it lies shattered
seeing her lustrous brow.


Distilled liquor causes no delight
to those who are not drunk,
unlike love that intoxicates
at a mere glimpse.

Through these verses, Kandasamy liberates the Tirukkural from the patriarchal translations, and firmly establishes the lovers as people who revel in their sexual and sensual attraction towards each other.

There are two ways you can read “The Book of Desire”. You can read it as translation of a work you are familiar with, or you can read it as a fresh book of poetry. Your experience will vary depending on how you approached it.

A person who is already familiar with the work may nit pick with the translation, because they may not consider it the most accurate translation. A person reading it as a book of poetry will be enriched and will come away with wonder at how an book as old as this one can remain so contemporary.

Either way, Meena Kandasamy’s political convictions and her poetic ability come together in this retelling of Tirukkural: The Book of Desire.

Want a copy of this book?

If you’d like to pick up Tirukkural: The Book of Desire written by Thiruvalluver and translated into English by Meena Kandasamy, use our affiliate link at Amazon India.

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Image source: book cover Amazon

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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