The Challenge of the Belly — Paet ka Savaal

By K. S. Venkataraman


In the literary traditions in Indian languages, poets have been borrowing ideas, imageries, similes and metaphors back and forth from other languages through the millennia. One common theme in Indian poetry is poets addressing their own minds, eyes and ears.

One that many Karnatic music lovers know is a composition in Telugu, Sadhinchanay, O, Manasa  by Tyagaraja (18th century). In this, the lyricist addresses his own mind: “What have you accomplished, Oh, mind?”  telling himself not to be carried away by his own accomplishments.”  Even though Tyagaraja seems to be talking to himself, his real audience are his listeners. This is an effective technique for conveying important messages. When you hum the song, unknowingly you are addressing your own vanity. So, at least for a short time, your vanity and pride are contained.

As a technique in poetry, this is very old in the Indian tradition. There are  poems, I am sure, in every Indian language along similar lines.

A similar  4-line verse is by the grandmotherly Tamil poet  Ouvaiyaar, one of the greatest Indian poets. Her time is not known, but is believed to be over a millennium. Even as late as several decades ago, when they taught Tamil alphabets to children, they used Ouvaiyyar’s works in which she weaves ethical codes of conduct, secular even by today’s standards, starting with Tamil alphabets, a, aa, i, ii, u, uu, etc. Compared to Ouvaiyyaar’s enlightened sophistication, the English equivalent of  A for Apple, B for Boy… is  banal. In Ouvaiyyar’s 4-line verse the opening two lines run thus in translation:

If I implore, “Forgo meal for a day,” you refuse;
If I tell you, “Eat food for two days together,” you refuse.

You may think she is addressing her servants, her child, or somebody else. But the Grand Old Lady is addressing her own stomach as if her stomach is capable of listening to her. The last two lines in translation:

You never ever recognize my difficulty, Oh, my stubborn belly!
Living with you is, indeed, very difficult.

That is perhaps what they mean in the colloquial Hindi idiom, paet ka saval, or “the challenge of the belly.”

Here are all the four lines of the Grand Old Lady’s rhyming verse for those who can read Tamil:

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