Misery of debt (கடன் பட்டார் நெஞ்சம் போல்)

Wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

With a New Year comes very many resolutions that we vow to follow. A common one is to be more fiscally responsible – save more, be more diligent in spending money, etc. As with most resolutions, we tend to set very lofty goals and end up breaking them very soon.

When we were kids, our moms would always ask us to squirrel away some money for a rainy day – it was money guys and mostly a gold investment for girls. India has been a cash-oriented society for a long time and credit cards and loans were mostly shunned (maybe with the exception of a home loan).

As the old saying goes, one who takes a loan to pay a loan is ruined.

கடன் வாங்கி கடன் கொடுத்தார் கேட்டார்
kadan vAngi kadan koduthAr kettAr

Taking a loan was considered a no-no, quite different from a loan-oriented Western society (credit card, car loan, home loan, college loan, etc.). As a result, we were taught to live within our means. This may also have had a slightly negative impact of being generally risk averse.

Auvaiyar is one of the famed female poets. The name translates to “respectable woman” and is more a title than her actual name, and there have been a few with the title over ages. The one more prominent was a contemporary of Kamban and lived around 10th century AD.

One of her famous works is the ஆத்திச்சூடி (Athichoodi) – essentially the equivalent of the ABCD song in English that all kids sing, but fascinatingly imbibes beautiful morals within them for kids – more on that in a later post.

Early Tamil cinema started by visualizing epics and literature. Much like the American films of the 30’s to 50’s, they were more musical in nature, as they transitioned from drama to cinema. Not surprisingly most actors were accomplished singers or dramatists. Auvaiyar has been immortalized in Tamil cinema by K. P. Sundarambal – her sonorous voice fit perfectly for Auvaiyar’s words.

The wise grandma that she is, she advises against living beyond one’s means:

ஆன முதலில் அதிகம் செலவானால்
மானமிழந்து மதி கேட்டுப் போன திசை
எல்லோர்க்கும் கள்ளனாய் ஏழு பிறப்பும் தீயனாய்
நல்லோர்க்கும் பொல்லனாய் நாடு

Ana muthalil athigam selavAnAl
mAnamizhandhu madhi kettup pona thisaiellOrkkum kaLLanAi ezhu pirappum theeyanAi
nallOrkkum pollanAi nAdu.

Translation: If you spend more than you earn you will lose your dignity, peace of mind (sanity), be shunned by everyone as if you are a thief (worried that you will ask for a loan), and will not be able to get into the company of good men.

With the current Indian government making a big push from a cash society to cashless society, I wonder what impact it will have on generations built around a saving and living-within-ones-means philosophy.

Another popular reference on the misery of debt is often attributed to Kamban, considered one of the greatest poets of Thamizh literature and a worthy equivalent of Kalidasa is known for his epic Ramayana translation in Thamizh, but apparently was not written by Kamban nor is it found in his Ramayana. Instead, it is from an anthology of poems related to Kambaramayana, and likely the reason for confusion.

However, it brings forth the eloquence of the language and beautiful analogies (உவமை) that Kamban is known for. The author subtly, but powerfully, makes his point on the misery of debt when describing how Ravana felt when Rama’s arrows were raining on him:

விடம் கொண்ட மீனைப் போலும்
வெந்தழல் மெழுகைப் போலும்
படங்கொண்ட பாந்தன் வாயில்
பற்றிய தேரை போலும்
திடம் கொண்ட ராம பாணம்
செருக்களத் துற்ற பொது
கடன் கொண்டார் நெஞ்சம் போல
கலங்கினான் இலங்கை வேந்தன்

vidam konda meenai pOlum
venthazhal mezhugai pOlum
padam konda pAnthan vAyil
patriya thErai pOlum
dhidam konda rAma bAnam
serukkaLathu utra pOdhu
kadan kondAr nenjam pOla
kalanginAn ilangai vEndhan

Like how a poisoned fish flutters, like how light flickers in a candle, like how a toad caught in a snake’s mouth twitches, like how restless is the mind of a person in debt, such was was Ravana’s state of mind when he saw the brave Rama’s arrows coming at him in the battlefield.

Thanks to Bala for remembering an article by R Prabhu he had read a long time back and bringing it forward, which has acted as an inspiration for this post.

Additional Note: When starting to write this post, I almost made the same error of attributing the verse to Kamban. Upon a bit of further research, I came to know that it was not true and nor was I able to find the verse in Kamban’s Ramayana. It goes to show the truth behind Thiruvalluvar’s famous kural:

எப்பொருள் யார் யார் வாய் கேட்பினும் அப்பொருள்
மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்பது அறிவு.

epporuL yAr yAr vAi kEtpinum apporuL
meipporuL kAnbadhu aRivu.

Wisdom is when one attempts to understand the source (or truth) of  what is said than simply going by who said it.

Words of wisdom that would apply everywhere, be it fact checking during elections, mindlessly forwarding WhatsApp and Facebook messages, or in listening to what ‘markets’ and consultants claim as the next best thing!


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