Perhaps Solomon Pappaiah’s parents knew the destiny that awaited their son when naming him. Solomon, the wise, who sits in on judgement. One whose word is final.

Pongal means Solomon Pappaiah Why Tamils love the pattimandram so much
Flix TV Friday, January 17, 2020 - 12:09

One of my earliest memories of Pongal – back when the earth was a younger place and the air was fresh and the water flowed – was that of boys in my neighbourhood buying little drums from the local ‘provision’ store (called Annakili, in Mandavelli) and waking up an entire neighbourhood with their enthusiastic beats. More noise than music, it was tolerated as something you just do on the first day of Pongal.

The other memory very strongly associated with Pongal – apart from the raison d'être of Pongal, which is Pongal the food – came a bit later. When television in India had begun to flex its muscles, Sun TV was on, and that mildly nasal voice coming from a benign-looking man in a shirt and veshti rolled off a few dozen complex sounding Tamil words in record time. And then, said something that got the entire audience in the hall – and in the hall in our house – rolling in laughter.

Solomon Pappaiah had entered our lives.

There may have been a pattimandram (loosely translated as debate) before there was Pappaiah. But absence of evidence, in this one instance, is pretty much evidence of absence. For, such is the force of this man who has pronounced his verdict on over 5,000 issues that contemporary Tamil society faces, that we cannot imagine a life when he wasn’t there to tell us what is right and what is wrong.

Who does the most work in keeping a household running?

What is the role of cinema in moulding our perceptions?

What is the power of youth: to shape or to destroy?

Where will we be without the Tamil language?

What makes us tick as a nation?

That the Tamil person likes a good, rollicking debate is known to us. That we are a wordy tribe, is evidenced every day. After all, it’s here that class is not venerated much, and one laughs along with the auto driver who doesn’t even blink while destroying a writer's sense of superiority with a clever jab. We have the literary history and the oral practice to show that we’ve been doing a bit of talking to and over each other for millennia. Even the gods aren’t spared and opening the third, cosmic eye, is just further proof that you’re insecure about your writing and your intentions.

But it was Solomon Pappaiah who took that, channelled our righteous anger into everyday things and in the process, got us to question some of our implicit biases. 

And he did that with oodles of charm and wit.

There is this idea called Nominative Determinism. Name a person, define their lives. Perhaps Solomon Pappaiah’s parents knew the destiny that awaited their son. Solomon, the wise, who sits in on judgement. One whose word is final.

And so we listen.

We listen because we appreciate a self-made man, a man who came from very constrained circumstances - his father was a mill worker and could barely support a family, Solomon was the 9th of 12 children - and put himself through school and college. From these humble beginnings, he became a professor, one of repute. And from there, he became a writer, a playwright, an intellectual. So we listen.

And we listen because he makes it worth our while. Salting every speech with choice excerpts from Bharathi’s poems, from the Sangam, from the medieval poetry of our Bhakthi poets. And from the Thirukkural. That primal Tamil text of ethics.

So much so that to a generation of Tamil comedians, Pappaiah is the man who gave them Thirukkural. Ask Vivek.

And so we listen.

To that voice that gradually increases in intensity the stronger he feels about the topic. That sudden deflating of tension with a well-placed pun.

And so one learnt that Tamils have not lost their identity.

We learnt that the language still has the power to move our souls and mountains.

That it doesn’t matter who does what in a household as long as one shares and shares alike.

That cinema isn’t just a medium of entertainment but a medium that forces opinions, and that this power must be exercised cautiously.

Over the years, other channels have come in, bringing us more pattimandrams, even more pattimandrams with Solomon Pappaiah adjudicating. Deepavali. Christmas. New Year. Ramzan. Independence Day. Name it, there’s a debate on TV. Other voices and other leaders have emerged from the school of Pappaiah. Raja. Bharathi Bhaskar. Uma Maheshwari. And others. It is the mark of a leader and a great man that those under him find equal fame.

But like that drum that beats on Bhogi morning, waking up a neighbourhood to the new year and to the new sun, like that milk boiling over and the overflowing vessel that signifies plenty in the year to come, like that sugarcane that promises sweetness for eternity as long as you are willing to put in the effort, like the sun and the cow and the cries of ‘Pongalo Pongal’, Solomon Pappaiah and his pattimandram are integral to this most Tamil of festivals.

Nadika is a writer and researcher.