How Kalki kept readers hooked while serialising ‘Sivagamiyin Sabatham’

An analysis of the 1944-1946 issues of the Kalki magazine, in which the story was serialised, tells us how the author managed to keep readers engrossed week after week.
Cover of one of the editions of Tamil historical novel Sivagamiyin Sabatham by Kalki
Cover of one of the editions of Tamil historical novel Sivagamiyin Sabatham by Kalki

In the classic Tamil historical novel Sivagamiyin Sabatham (Sivagami’s Vow) by noted writer Kalki Krishnamurthy, a crucial twist is introduced in the story when the Pallava King Mahendravarman is about to leave for war against the Chalukya king, Pulikesi. The king makes his son Mammallar promise to remain in Kanchipuram (their capital) and not leave it until he returns from the war or until it is confirmed that he is not alive. Initially published as a serialised story in Kalki magazine, readers following the story were left eagerly waiting for the next issue to find out why.

Serialised stories have always been popular with readers, who follow them with avid interest to see what twists and turns await them in the next instalment. Interestingly, many serialised stories have later been published as novels, again enjoying huge success. This trend has been around since the 1840s, with some of the novels by famous writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens originally published as serialised stories in magazines.

Tamil literature too witnessed this trend, with many of the novels by Kalki first published as serialised stories. He is renowned for his novels such as Ponniyin Selvan (Ponni’s Son), Alai Osai (The Sound of Waves) and Thyaga Bhoomi (The Land of Sacrifice). After many years of editorial experience with Tamil magazines such as Navaksakthi and Ananda Vikatan, he started the Kalki magazine in 1941 along with T Sadasivam. Kalki became one of the pseudonyms under which he wrote short stories and novels.

Kalki also served as editor of the magazine, which became the launchpad for his famous historical novels such as Ponniyin SelvanSivagamiyin Sabatham and Parthiban Kanavu (Parthiban’s Dream), which were published as serialised stories in the weekly.

Kalki was inspired to write Parthiban Kanavu and its prequel Sivagamiyin Sabatham when once sitting on the seashore in Mahabalipuram with TK Chidambaranatha Mudaliar, he saw a vision of thousands of ships and boats carrying women on one side and other people such as the architects and other characters in the novels such as Sivagami, Aayanar and Mammallar on the other side. This left a deep impression on him and remained etched in his mind until, 12 years later in 1946, he finished writing Sivagamiyin Sabatham, his first major novel.

Sivagamiyin Sabatham was serialised as four parts in Kalki from 1944 to 1946 – Paranjyothi Yathirai (Paranjyothi’s Journey), Kanchi Muttrugai (The Siege of Kanchi), Pisuvin Kadhal (The Monk’s Love) and Sithaintha Kanavu (The Broken Dream) – and later published as a novel in 1948. The plot of the novel revolves around the romance between Mammallar and Sivagami, a dancer. The story is set during the era of the Pallava conflict with the Chalukya king, Pulikesi.

An analysis of the archives of Kalki magazine reveals interesting insights about how Sivagamiyin Sabatham was serialised in the 1940s and how the author managed to hold the readers’ interest week after week.

Kalki would end each chapter with a bit of suspense leaving readers on tenterhooks about what would happen to the characters, such as who was the old man who woke Paranjytothi up from his sleep in the old, dilapidated house where he was imprisoned by the Chalukya soldiers. Such plot twists were perhaps most successful in keeping the readers hooked and ensured that they continued reading the story.

Another interesting aspect was how Kalki would proceed with the story in the next chapter. Although he would usually continue from where he left off, sometimes he would instead focus on the situation of some other characters first before continuing the story from the previous chapter.

The story itself had unexpected developments, such as King Mahendravarman knowing that Paranjyothi and the monk Naganandhi are hiding behind the huge Buddha statue in sculptor Aayanar’s house, which the latter characters are unaware of. Such surprises also helped sustain the interest of the readers and kept them waiting to read more. 

Kalki’s clear and beautiful prose was supplemented by artist Maniam’s amazing and detailed drawings, which accurately depicted the situations in the story. The story often contained footnotes describing for the readers the language spoken by the Chalukya army and other historical details.

An interesting technique used effectively by Kalki was to alternate between first-person and third-person narratives. While he wrote the story in the third person, he also used the first person to introduce us to a new character. He would also ask readers questions about the state of mind of a character after an incident had taken place. This helped readers develop a personal connection with the characters and become more involved with the story.

Character introductions was another fascinating element employed by Kalki. Whenever a new character such as King Pulikesi or King Mahendravarman was mentioned, not only would the author introduce them to the readers in the first person but he would also outline their early life and character traits, before placing them in the story. This helped readers understand the characters better and also their role in the story.

Sometimes the magazine would carry a page titled ‘Poorva Kathai’ (The story till now), consisting of a short summary of the story till the present chapter. When one part of the story was about to conclude, a small footnote was added at the end announcing that the part would conclude in the next issue. Another footnote at the end of the last chapter announced that the part had concluded.

These techniques that Kalki adopted while writing stories in a serialised form can serve as an inspiration for future writers who want to use the same format.

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