Home

Poetry Section #1

Before we start today's poetry (which is actually only part of the real poem), let me tell you a few things:

1. You will only be able to read the poem easily if you know all of the rules in Malayalam alphabet! But you can also use it to your advantage, to decipher some new rules. If you don't want to go through all that, then I guess this just ain't for you yet!

2. In the poem, there's a word "thumba" O. Listen! This word doesn't exist in English, since it's strictly Malayalam (the same way that American expressions like "rock" and "suck," as in "this music ROCKS/SUCKS!" are strictly American English and can't be translated easily into other languages). Kerala is full of flora and fauna; in fact, that's why there are many indigenous plants and animals that have no equivalent in any other language.

Thumba is a (medicinal?) flower native to Kerala. According to the Malayalam-Imglish Nighandu (written by three people), its scientific name is Leuca Indica. (This probably doesn't help you understand what the heck it IS, but just in case you're interested...)

To give you the idea, I've heard it's very small and white! I think it's probably about as small as a jasmine, if not smaller (!), and as white as the moon. But anyway, that is really all that matters...

Now for our story to begin, since there's a story to the poem:

Around the 18th century, somewhere in Kerala, there once lived a renowned poet named Nambi (aka Nambiar) OV. He was well-known for his witty poems, since in India, good poetry often consists of clever, witty poetry rather than boring, somewhat-dramatic, and hardly-humorous Shakespeare. It looks like he also loved to eat--in fact, he would eat a LOT! See the latest joke for an example...

Back then, Kerala was split into separate kingdoms. Nambi lived in one kingdom, and once, another Malayalee king invited him to a feast. He gladly accepted and set on his way.

After Nambi finished the feast, the king asked him how the food was. Nambi thought for some time and then said this:

dĢ d!

O V x޿߿X K!

JX !

J ݢ!

{Mݢ {!

Here is a translation of the above poem:

The leaf is soooooo big! (Back then we didn't have plates, so we traditionally ate on palm leaves.)

The rice is even whiter than a thumba! (Lit. "The rice vanquished the thumba." If grains of rice could understand Malayalam, boy, would they be happy!)

The ghee is new! (Ghee is Hindi, and Indian English, for fat from butter, totally separated from the nutritious milk. Very expensive in India for most people, since butter itself is expensive!)

The banana is just ripe enough!

There is kaaLippazham and kaaLan! (which basically expresses VERY good food.)

In this way, he impressed the king. And then he had to go back to his own kingdom. So when his own king asked how the food was, Nambi wanted to use the same exact words, in the same order, to tell him that the food was bad! So this is what he said:

dĢ d O!

V x޿߿X K!

JX !

J ݢ {!

ݢ {!

Notice how he used the same exact words in the same exact order--but stopping at different points!

So this time the poem meant something totally different:

The leaf is as big as a thumba!

Even dry, puffed rice was better than the rice! (lit. The dry, puffed rice vanquished the rice.)

The "new" ghee spoiled!

The ripe banana became black!

And the kaaLan was old!

Ugh! Nambi's king was really happy to hear that his rival's food wasn't even fit for jackals!

Here's the vocabulary behind the poem:

/pathram/- col. and written for a palm leaf. Today, in everyday speech, it usually means a newspaper. Listen!

Ģ /vrsthitham/- a very complicated, poetic word meaning big. It's so complicated that even this huge Malayalam-Imglish Nighandu (a dictionary of mine) doesn't have it! Listen! So d means so big. Listen! In Central Travancore Malayalam, the more correct, colloquial word for "big" is /valiya/ which is pronounced kind of like "vell-yuh." Listen! In Southern Travancore Malayalam, which is more similar to Tamil, many people instead use /periya/. Listen!

O /thumpa/- Remember that flower, known variously as "thumba" and "Leuca Indica?" That's what it is. Also colloquial. Listen again if you want!

V /malar/- Basically means rice, but when you use the word specifically it means only dry, puffed rice. Also colloquial. Listen!

x޿߿X /thOtOTiin/- a long adjective, basically meaning "having lost and run away (from the battlefield)." Probably not used as much in col. speech. Listen! Notice how it's written like "thOtOTiTiin" but is pronounced only like "thOtOTiin." "thumpa malar thOtOTiin" means that "the thumba lost [even] to the very dry rice."

/oru/- a/an. Obviously it's both col. and written. Listen!

K /annam/- poetic word for rice. Sometimes it also means cereals, grains, etc. Listen! K /annavum/- means "and the rice," since the suffix "-um" means "and." Listen! "thumpa malar thOtOTiin oru annavum": And the rice [was such that] the thumba lost to the rice. The normal word for rice is /chOrr(u)/. Listen! Just like Americans use slang and say "wassup?" or "sup?" for short though they're not necessarily concerned about what IS up, Malayalees sometimes ask each other I? /chOrr uNTO?/ which literally means "have you eaten your rice?" but people generally use it to say something like Americans say "sup yo." Listen! You can just say I /uNT/ meaning "Yes, I've eaten." Listen! You can also just make a simple sound like "ah" or "hmmm." Both expressions are kind of like the usual answer to "sup": "Nothin' much."

JX /puththan/- means new. Listen! It may be a more poetic word, since the word I normally hear for "new" in Malayalam tends to be /puthiya/, but since "puththan" and "puthiya" sound similar, they may be related. Listen!

/neyy/- ghee. Listen!

/kaniye/- ripe (also spoiled?). Listen!

J /pazhuththa/- ripe. Listen! So J- just ripe (enough).

ݢ /pazham/- banana. Listen! In India, what we Americans call a banana is called a plantain and vice versa. Pazham can also mean fruit in many cases. However, it also means old! (Similar word meaning old: . Listen!) See the latest jokes!

{ /kaaLi/- Listen! Past tense of verb { /kaaLuka/, literally to burn or, in literature, to feel hungry. In this case, it means "to spoil." Listen!

{Mݢ /kaaLippazham/- Listen! Like thumba (Leuca Indica), it seems as if this word has no translation into English. KaaLippazham is kind of a mysterious banana; while most bananas are yellow when they're ripe, kaaLippazham is still green! It's very popular in Kerala.

{X /kaaLan/- Listen! Another pun of Nambi's. It's a kind of thick "sauce" made of yoghurt, turmeric, mustard seeds, red chillies, maybe some onions, and a little bit of water (enough so it doesn't lose its thickness.) This "sauce" is very popular and usually poured over rice. (It is also similar to one of my favorite foods, kaachchumOrr; we'll talk about that later!) However, it also means black! { /kaaLanum/ means "and (kaaLan/black)"

Phew! That was a lot of words and reading, wasn't it? Did you have a lot of trouble reading it? You're lucky (or maybe just too lazy) if you didn't!

Next time on the Poetry Section- The story about the meeting of Bheema and Hanuman, information about Kathakali, and another one of Nambiar's poems!

"At two in the morning, Draupadi is still trying to convince Bheema to get her the flower!" --My uncle (uppaappan), Kuruvilla John.

Home