Poonguzhali – A Character Sketch

Warning! Spoilers Ahead! 

Sometimes I wonder if Poonguzhali lived in a wrong century. Surely she is the quintessential modern girl of this century, who probably ended up in the Chola period due to a time machine malfunction.

Gutsy, brave, passionate, fiery, tempestuous, ambitious and yet soft, sensitive, beautiful and tender. For some reason, I am reminded of Billy Joel’s timeless song, whenever I think about this enigmatic boat girl –

She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see
She hides like a child, but she's always a woman to me

She can lead you to love, she can take you or leave you
She can ask for the truth, but she'll never believe
And she'll take what you give her as long it's free
Yeah, She steals like a thief, but she's always a woman to me

She takes care of herself
She can wait if she wants
She is ahead of her time…
She never gives out she never gives in
She just changes her mind…

And she'll promise you more than the garden of Eden
Then she'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleeding
But she'll bring out the best and the worst you can be
Blame it all on yourself 'cause she's always a woman to me

One can almost imagine Vandiya Devan humming this…. :) 

In this novel, Poonguzhali stands apart from the rest of the women characters in the novel. Kundavai, Vanathi, Manimegali and Nandini are Princesses who live in a palace surrounded by servants, companions and friends. They have guards to protect them, vehicles and elephants to take them around. They have weightier things to worry about; politics, palace intrigues, alliance, political situation of the kingdom and revenge.

Juxtapose them with this ordinary boat girl. She plies the boat through the sea. She is independent. She comes and goes whenever she wants and wherever she wants. She is not answerable to anyone, not even to her parents. No one bothers her about propriety of taking men in her boat or pesters her with questions about when she would get married. She speaks to people whom she likes, shows attitude to those whom she doesn’t and may God protect those whom she hates. She makes good her promise to those who wrong her. Remember what she did to the mandiravadi who was following her around.

We are first introduced to her through a conversation between Vandiya Devan and Senthan Amuthan, who finds her more fascinating enough to give up an eternal life in the heavens (a metaphor that he tells our hero). Many might not have given much thought to her then because we had weightier issues to worry about. But right from the time, Vandiya Devan comes to Kodi Karai, Poonguzhali becomes the darling of the mass, surpassing even the hero’s popularity.
She is a tart mixture of strange and sweet. Vandiya Devan finds her infuriatingly mad yet attractive and until he reaches Eelangai he finds it difficult to make up his mind to trust her completely. Though Vandiya Devan had succumbed to the attractions of his ideal woman of dreams, Kundavai the flirt in him is determined to make yet another conquest… and boy did he meet his match there!

Poonguzhali runs him around in a merry chase. She laughs at his pompous bravado, his vain image of himself, which irks him to no end.  (Remember how angry he got when Kundavai’s friends laughed at him.) He finds her beautiful and lovely but she compares him to an owl!

Just like Vandiya Devan, we too struggle to figure out this girl. Why does she call the hot bubbles of the marshlands, as her lovers? What is the secret sorrow that she is hiding in her heart?  We ponder along with Vandiya Devan even as we are astonished by her intelligence and understated bravery. She does not brag around saying that she killed a tiger single-handedly, instead she casually hands over the fish’s tail saying that it might come useful as it helped her once.

While on their way to Eelangai, Vandiya Devan is scared of water, while to her it’s just a day’s work. She casually reveals details about storms and sea that scares our hero causing him to lose his mind and jump into the sea. But she is more than ready to handle such eventualities. She punches him in the face and gets him into the boat. Remember Vandiya Devan is by no means a puny man. He is a warrior with bulging muscles…

The story becomes more interesting when she reveals a part of her heart to us. She wants Vandiya Devan to remind Arul Mozhi Varmar about her. And soon all the pieces of puzzle fall into place. She is in love with the most eligible bachelor of Chola Kingdom. She had no hopes of marrying him. Princes do not marry boat girls. With her heart broken with unexpressed love and anguish, it is no wonder that she behaves strangely. But she is no Ophelia. I am sure she would have gone on in life braving the sea…

In many ways, she should be thankful to Vandiya Devan because it is because of him that she meets Arul Mozhi again. She brings a very important message to warn him about the Pazhuvetrayar’s plans to arrest him for trying to secure the crown of Eelangai. During the course of their journey, she and Arul Mozhi share a ride on the elephant and they successfully come away from the escorting soldiers. It’s all romantic and nice and Arul Mozhi almost falls for her here. If Kundavai had not intervened at the right time with information about her father and brother falling for two different women from the same family (Mandakini is Poonguzhali’s aunt which makes Nandini her first cousin), I am sure Arul Mozhi would have put his foot down about marrying her. But he cherishes her bravery and intelligence in the heart of his hearts and to him she represents an ideal woman worthy enough to be his wife.

Poonguzhali’s catfight with Vanathi is so typical of teenage girls. She realizes her mistake and regrets her words, when Vanathi in a pique takes an oath not to become Arul Mozhi’s queen. If her character was any shade shallow, she would have rejoiced at this but she instead realizes the depth of love that Vanathi had for him.

Mandakini’s death mellows down Poonguzhali’s ambition to become a queen. Though if she had persisted she could have got Arul Mozhi on his knees proposing to her but instead she agrees to marry Senthan Amuthan. This could be because she had at last realized that it was better to marry someone who loves her truly, madly and deeply.

Poonguzhali in other words is your fairy tale Cindrella (albeit a brave one) who lives a hard life supported only by dreams of a Prince who would one day sweep her off her feet. Her dream comes true though she was wrong about the identity of the Prince.

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Volume 1 - New Flood