Mornings usually find Chenthil Nathan poring over his phone, the backlight illuminating his handlebar moustache. His bespectacled eyes keenly run through the snippets of classical Tamil poetry he had carefully chosen the previous evening from online archives. This is his only time of day to chisel out the translations.

Nathan prefers to start his day early because, in a matter of moments, his phones will start ringing in succession. It is a busy job owning a fleet of 15 container trucks, monitoring their pick-up and drop schedules. He is on the move constantly, travelling across South India on business or shuttling between his work base in Thoothukudi and Chennai, where his family lives. Yet, no matter where he is, for three years now, his evenings are reserved for a sacred ritual — translating into English and posting snippets of classical poetry from 2,200 years ago on his Twitter handle @OldTamilPoetry.


Chenthil Nathan


“All of us could do with some ancient wisdom and poetry, don’t you think?” his Twitter bio asks. Unwaveringly putting up a post a day, Nathan gives his 12,000 followers a delectable daily dose of Sangam poetry — a collection spanning 2,381 poems dating from 200 BCE to 200 CE. “The entire canon of Sangam poetry is eight anthologies and 10 poems, composed over 400 years,” Nathan says over the phone from Thoothukudi. While most were anonymous poets, some of the famous writers of that era were Kapilar, Velli Veethiyar and Avviyyar.

The Kurunthokai, which literally means short anthologies, has been his focus this month. One of the most popularly quoted works, it comprises eight short poems that explore the themes of love and longing, all set in nature. “Life in Sangam poetry is experienced through five landscapes — hilly, pastoral, agricultural lands, seashore and arid land,” explains Nathan. While the hilly areas set the mood for enticing new love, pastoral regions signify a man going away to war and the woman longing for his return, the seashore signifies a reunion of love, and arid land speaks of separation. Sample this:

Like an alluringly striped snakelet

of a small white snake

that torments a wild elephant —

this lass, with rice grain-like bright teeth

and bangle-laden arms — torments me

~ Kurunthokai-119

“We weren’t so prudish about love 2,000 years ago,” chuckles Nathan.

What could my mother be

to yours? What kin is my father

to yours anyway? And how

Did you and I meet ever?

But in love

our hearts have mingled

as red earth and pouring rain.

~ Cempulappeyanirar, Kurunthokai

“Sangam is more earthy. Post Sangam we get moralistic,” he says, pointing to his posts from Bhakti literature that date from 6-8 century CE and 1st-century works such as Tamil philosopher Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural (poems on righteousness, love and politics that are ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu, seen on everything from ration cards to public buses and road-facing walls).

Origins of a spring

“I was never a language or arts student. I read the poems in my school syllabus avidly and went on to become a mechanical engineer,” says the 43-year-old poetry buff. The pull of classical poetry returned and he started a blog in 2011 with his translation of the Kambaramayana. He was not satisfied though. He then found his inspiration in Prof Joel Christensen of Brandeis University, US, and his translations of Greek and Latin poetry on Twitter. Nathan created his own Twitter handle for classical Tamil poetry in 2016, but not before turning to Christensen for advice. The professor urged him to unfailingly post every day to sustain the level of social engagement and community feeling among his followers.

Nathan had long been following the work of the Central Institute of Classical Tamil, which publishes classical poetry with three different translations for each, to highlight the diversity of interpretations. He was equally familiar with the work of the poet scholar AK Ramanujan, who believed that translations from regional languages to English should be consumed as English poetry with proper metering and not as translations. While in agreement with that, Nathan however preferred to try and stick as close as possible to the original, offering more literal translations, even if it sometimes sounded clunky or ungrammatical. He makes sure to never look up any other translations in order not to “accidentally plagiarise”.

His biggest challenge initially was Twitter’s 140-character limit. Soon he found a way out. He typed out the translation and uploaded the screenshot as an image attachment to his tweet. Last year, when Twitter doubled its character limit, Nathan’s enthusiasm too naturally doubled.

Timeless poetry

Keeping mouth shut in an assembly of scholars

but boasting in an assembly of naive lackeys

is like one who, afraid of enemy’s valour in battle,

strings a bow inside his house and shoots arrows amidst vessels

Pazha Mozhi 400-249

Nathan likes to believe that his followers are young Tamils who have disconnected from the language and, yet, want to find something in their mother tongue they can connect to.

“After the ’90s liberalisation, most young Tamils can’t read the language... Several manage to finish schooling in Tamil Nadu without learning it. I was writing for this group,” he says. The poems he translates are timeless, travelling effortlessly and seamlessly across the centuries to arrive with contemporaneous wisdom.

Bolstered by the enthusiastic feedback on @OldTamilPoetry, Nathan has also translated into Tamil Pablo Neruda’s poetry and Manto’s short stories. Once in a while, he writes his own poetry too, mostly on love, slice of life, and things he likes to call “nothing much”. These have appeared mostly on his blog.

“I am not a professional, I know my limitations,” he says. Yet, his Tamil diaspora fans and other poetry buffs from the US, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Canada, Spain and Japan write him fan mail. His tweets manage to make them pause in their busy lives, no matter where in the world, and, for a brief moment, experience the richness of emotions from lifetimes ago. A momentary sense of home, away from home.