#366days366posts – Day 24 – The Nalini/Leela conundrum

There was an open house at my elder son’s school yesterday. Me and my wife were meeting his teachers, who were scattered across different classrooms in the school. So, when we went to Class 7 to meet his Hindi teacher, I could not help noticing some charts which were put up by the students of that class. The charts were on Kumaran Asan, one of the most renowned poets Malayalam has ever produced. The students of Class 7 probably had to study one of his poems – the charts extolled some of his famous works and there were two in the list on which I was deeply interested in – Nalini and Leela.

Both Nalini and Leela were poems which were written three years apart – Nalini in 1911 and Leela in 1914. For those of you who are uninitiated to Asan, Nalini tells the story of Nalini and her love Divakaran. Divakaran had renounced all worldly possessions and had been leading an ascetic life and the crux of the poem is a meeting between the two. While Divakaran is not ready to accept Nalini back into his life even as his disciple or follower, Nalini’s love for him remains steadfast. Leela deals with the story of Leela and her heartthrob Madanan. Madanan is also a person who has been leading a life of renunciation after learning that Leela had married another man. The poem again is structured around a meeting between the two protagonists who still harbor a lot of love for each other. The end is quite tragic in both the poems.

Having read both these poems a few years back, I was intrigued by some similarities and a searing question had been raging in my mind. Seeing those charts yesterday was fodder for the question to return to the realm of active thinking. I posted a status in my Facebook timeline this afternoon as a start to the thought process. The question is – Is Divakaran in Nalini and Madanan in Leela one and the same person?

It is to be noted that Asan wrote these poems during a gap of three years. The premise of both the poems largely remains the same – the leading lady still in love with their men who incidentally are now leading the life of a mendicant. The only difference in the characterization of these men is that Divakaran is actually an ascetic while Madanan is just heartbroken and wanders through the forest – not an ascetic per se but nevertheless engaged as one.

I believe there are shades of Asan in both Divakaran and Madanan. Asan married only in 1917, when he was 44 years old. There is a possibility that he could have fallen in love with two women prior to this. The ascetic coating to the heroes was probably intended to divert the attention of the readers and there could be a little truth but even more imagination in the tragic endings in Nalini and Leela. How else could one explain poems written using largely similar themes and similar nature of the protagonists only a few years separating these works? I don’t think Asan was obsessed with this theme – if that was the case, he would have written more poems on these lines. So, my best estimate is that between the late 1890s and 1915 he may have fallen in love which could have failed leading him to compose two critically acclaimed poems in succession. There is nothing like tragedy to spur a poet – for a poet of Asan’s caliber, it was easy to get immersed in the world of words.

Coming to the leading ladies, there are differences between Nalini and Leela. Leela’s life possibly starts where Nalini’s ends, lending credence to the belief that they could have been portrayed after Asan’s own lovers. While Nalini’s initial attitude towards Divakaran when they meet after a long time borders on respect because he is now a sanyasi, Leela is much more bold. She craves for Madanan’s affection and Madanan appears totally confused. Perhaps Divakaran’s experience with the tragic fate of Nalini was manifested in Madanan’s hesitation.

Divakaran and Madanan could have been the same person penned by a poet whose love affairs lent inspiration to script two different love stories. Whether this is a definitive answer, only Asan knows. This will probably be enough to satiate my curiosity until something better comes along.

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I'm an avid reader and writer. Reading gets me a feeling of understanding the world through different perspectives and writing helps me outline my thoughts from the cobwebs that the mind has trapped it in!

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