Nothing much is known about Tolakavi the witty poet who lived during the times of Cheraman Perumal Kulasekhara Varma; not even his real name. It is said that Tolakavi’s father passed away soon after his upanayana or sacred thread ceremony. It was the common practice in those days to make the young boy who has undergone the ceremony to also wear a piece of deer skin round his torso like a sash along with the sacred thread. This piece of deerskin was removed after the boy had completed his education, when he turned sixteen, during a ceremony called samavartana. It was also common practice to jokingly refer to such a boy wearing the deerskin sash as Tolan (tol – skin) or skin-wearer. The skin sash removing ceremony could not be conducted for our poet because he got excommunicated from his Brahmin community before that could happen. And this is the story behind it.
After the death of Tolan’s father, he and his mother were the only people in the house apart from a feisty maid called Chakki. Chakki was extremely young and given to stealing things from the house when no one was looking. One day Tolan was having his breakfast and his mother was sitting next to him serving him the food. He noticed that Chakki had entered the room where paddy was stored and he understood that she wanted to steal paddy. He could not warn his mother immediately since there was an injunction that said that young brahmacharis who had just had the sacred thread ceremony performed for them could speak only in Sanskrit during mealtimes. Tolan’s knowledge of Sanskrit was rudimentary since he had only begun his studies. But he was a witty and intelligent fellow. Using the few Sanksrit words he knew and combining them with vowel sounds from his home language Malayalam, he managed to convey what he wanted to. His mother being an intelligent and witty woman herself immediately understood what he was trying to say and went looking for Chakki. She caught her red handed packing ten large measures of paddy into a cotton sack. But being a kind hearted woman she did not punish the maid but only gave her a stern warning.
In the months that followed Chakki realised to her immense chagrin that she could not pilfer anything because the mother and son were always on high alert. This made her think about deploying a different strategy. She decided that it would be a good idea to seduce Tolan. At first, being a mere boy Tolan had no idea what her gestures and whispers and eye messages meant. He was immune to all her efforts. But as he grew older, he began to get curious about Chakki’s secretive gestures and behaviour. Finally, there came a day when he fell for her charms. He was not yet sixteen then.
Chakki made sure that everyone got to know about the new relationship between her and her young master. Those were the days when the caste system was draconian. Any Brahmin who had illicit relations with a woman from the lower caste was in danger of being excommunicated. The elders of the community gathered one day and declared Tolan and outcast. And he had not endeared himself to anyone because of his habit of routinely making fun of others through wickedly funny verses that he composed. So it turned out that before the deerskin sash removing ceremony could be conducted, he had become an outcast. He reacted by throwing away the sash himself and so the name Tolan stuck. As time went by everyone forgot his name and he was known only by his nickname. Being a brilliant student, he had become a scholar and poet in his own right and thus came to be called Tolakavi – the poet who threw away the deerskin sash.
Since no reputable family would agree to give their daughter’s hand in marriage to him, he lived with Chakki and composed verses about her during his free time. His fame as a witty and intelligent poet spread through the land. Even those who had continued to refer to him only as Tolan, were forced to acknowledge his brilliance and call him Tolakavi.
It was around this time that Cheraman Perumal had it announced that he was calling a meeting of scholars and poets to listen to a couple of Sanskrit dramas that he had composed in order to give him honest feedback. Tolakavi too went along for the meeting. All the distinguished scholars and poets of the land sat in the audience hall and listened as the king read his plays. After sometime, a few people noticed that Tolakavi was shivering and shaking from head to foot as though possessed by a deity. The king stopped reading and all the people including the monarch gathered around the shaking Tolan.
“Who is it?” they asked reverentially. “What is the cause of your displeasure? What can we do to please you?”
“I’m the spirit of Abhijnana Shaakuntalam (great Sanskrit play written by classical Sanskrit poet Kalidasa). I can’t bear the pain anymore. I can’t stand by and see the edifice of the Sanskrit play murdered thus,” said Tolan still shaking all over and acting as though possessed. The assembled scholars burst into spontaneous laughter. They had all been listening silently to the king’s reading fearing that he would be angry if they critiqued it. The king felt humiliated and silently walked away. The scholars fell silent and returned to the guest house where they had been put up afraid of being punished for laughing at Tolan’s joke.
Cheraman Perumal could not sleep a wink that night. He had great plans of having his plays performed by the land’s most talented actors. But being a wise person, he realised that what Tolan had pointed out was correct. It was the most difficult thing for a writer to get – honest feedback. Knowing this, the king realised that one who offered it was invaluable. So in the dead of the night, he secretly sent out two of his trusted bodyguards to bring Tolan to him. When Tolan came, he gave him due respect and seated him on a high chair near him and then asked him outright how his plays could be improved and whether Tolan would help him with suggestions. Tolan was more than willing to help. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Their friendship often incited the jealousy of the other courtiers and frequently Tolan was in trouble because of their machinations. Being given to logical thinking Tolan often persuaded the king to give up obscurantist practices. Tolan also sometimes landed in trouble because he loved pranking others and often the other was the king.
One morning Cheraman Perumal went down the steps of the royal ghat to have his bath. Before getting into the water he removed his signet ring and placed it on the step. After his bath he forgot to take the ring. His attendants too did not notice it lying on the step. Soon after, Tolan came to have his bath and immediately noticed the ring. Immediately guessing what had happened, he took the ring and hid it in his scabbard. Then he went to another ghat to have his bath.
Meanwhile, Cheraman Perumal got dressed after his bath and went in to have his breakfast. It was only while washing his hands after the meal that he noticed that he was not wearing his signet ring. He remembered placing it on the steps of the ghat and sent his attendants to look for it there. His servants and officials could not find the ring and reported it missing. Finally, some enemies of Tolan started the rumour that he had stolen the king’s ring and asked him in open court to prove his innocence. Tolan agreed to the procedure and the full court was summoned by the king.
In those times a person accused of a crime had to prove his innocence by submitting himself to a peculiar procedure. Two measure of ghee were poured into a large flat vessel and heated to a boil. The accused had to dip his palms in the boiling ghee. If he got burnt, he was considered guilty. If he was innocent of the crime it was believed that his palms would not get burnt.
Three stones were brought in and placed right in front of Cheraman Perumal. A fire was started and two measures of ghee were heated in a large flat bronze vessel. When it started to boil, one of the officials of court used a length of cloth to take down the hot vessel from the fire and still holding the vessel with the help of the cloth brought it to where Tolan was standing.
“Why should I dip my palms in the boiling ghee?” asked Tolan in mock surprise. “The culprit has already been found!”
“What do you mean?” asked the king.
“The man who took down the vessel from the fire – he is the culprit. He used a cotton rag to take down the vessel. He did not use his bare hands. That shows he is guilty because he knew he would get burnt if he touched the vessel.”
No knew how to answer this.
“If I dip my hands in boiling ghee, they will get burnt whether I’m innocent or not,” continued Tolan. “That is not the way to prove guilt or innocence. Now if you want me to, I’ll locate the signet ring for you.”
The king readily agreed.
And Tolan took the signet ring out of his scabbard and handed it over to Cheraman Perumal. “The times are bad,” he whispered conspiratorially to his royal friend. “One can’t even prank the king for being careless.”
And the two laughed uproariously.