“Reading the Iṉbattuppāl, the erotic poetry of the Tirukkuṟaḷ, is an enriching, unforgettable experience. I invite you to partake of its beauty.”
The Tirukkuṟaḷ is one of the most important and significant works of literature in Tamil culture, dating back to the first century BCE. Composed of 1330 verses by Tiruvaḷḷuvar, a Tamil philosopher, it is made of three sections: Morality, Materialism and Desire. THE BOOK OF DESIRE is Meena Kandasamy’s feminist translation of the third of these sections and our sensational January Book of the Month.
Also known as the Book of Love, this 2000-year-old love song has only been translated by a woman once before. Other previous publications are by male translators; some have censored the third section, some have missed it out altogether, and some have translated female sexuality and desire within the poem as ‘love’, when it was not necessarily about love, or imposed chastity where it was not intended. Meena Kandasamy’s translation as a Tamil decolonial feminist reclaims this female agency that sings out freely and unashamedly from the lines of the text; a striking and intimate translation that is passionate and invigorating, vivifying and vibrant.
The female voice, and in particular the female voice of desire, is natural yet seen as outrageous, organic yet rebellious. It is silenced in previous translations as the patriarchy perceives female sexuality as emasculating, thus it must be repressed. Past male translators such as William Henry Drew and Sivaya Subramuniyaswami are part of those who omitted the Book of Love entirely from their translations of the Tirukkuṟaḷ, the former stating that “The third part could not be read […] without exposing the translator of it to infamy.” Those that did translate the Book of Love wrote gender politics into the text, interpreting figures within the text as wife and husband, which introduces a societal structure and convention placed on those labels, confining love, sex and desire in the conjugal sphere. Introducing gender politics to the text places a patriarchal ideology, hegemony and restraint on female desire, a desire that is nonetheless constantly prevalent in the Book.
Kandasamy releases this desire, whether female, male or non-binary, in her translation that can not and should not be contained. She harnesses language that emancipates the desire in the text by using the nouns woman, man or the non-gendered term ‘lover.’ This non-binary translation liberates any expectations of spousal roles and gendered customs; it is a fully inclusive interpretation of a universal human yearning of life, of each other and of love.
A truly beautiful and luminous piece of Tamil poetry, Kandasamy lays out an eye-opening etymology of her translations and how the gorgeous Tamil language (one of the oldest languages in the world) conveys an ancient yet perpetually present desire so deep that it has survived centuries past, and will for many more to come.
“Electrifying and iridescent—Meena Kandasamy’s translations of the Thirukkural sear the page, unravelling an ancient grammar of love, which speaks of desire and sex and the particular delight of a lover’s sulk, all in one breath.”Tishani Doshi — Forward Prize-winning poet
“Achingly gorgeous. The Book of Desire both a revelation and a complete pleasure.”Clare Pollard
“Precise, passionate… Beautiful and resonant… Kandasamy’s [The Book of Desire] feels both ancient and modern… No reader will find themselves left out of its fundamental language of love and yearning.”The Irish Times
“[The Book of Desire] bristles with electrifying encounters, dramas of social shame and separation, solitary longing… Kandasamy’s translation is a radically decolonising and feminist gesture, and an important moment for Tamil poetry in English.”The Guardian
“Kandasamy’s frank, yearning prose contains a decolonial urgency that undoes the historic erasures of the Tamil language… reclaiming the beauty and lust of language as an expression of vivacity.”The Skinny
The Book of Desire is published by Galley Beggar Press
9781913111366 // HB // £14.99 // 5th January 2023