History’s Forgotten Nuts

For a book set during the times of Rajendra Chola, Empire teems with the most ghastly anachronisms. Yet it tells an engaging story with some verve.
History’s Forgotten Nuts
History’s Forgotten Nuts
outlookindia.com
2017-09-30T12:55:09+0530
Empire
By Devi Yesodharan
Juggernaut | Pages: 308 | Rs: 699

The first major Chola novel ever to have appeared was Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan in Tamil in the 1950s. Kalki was a student of both Tamil history and literature and so could weave skilfu­lly a popular novel which became a primer on Chola history. Later, Tamil literature had Sandilyan, who too wrote historical novels which, though risque, had some basic period detail and information. Both these authors—and there were several others—could at the very least make the reader feel that they were reading about Tamils in a Tamil setting. Unfortunately, Empire has nothing to do with either the Tamil country or the Tamil people.

Advertisement opens in new window

In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell (above) lives and breathes from his time through the pages. The author of Empire is not even familiar with Tamil names.

What is a historical novel? Encyclo­paedia Britannica defines it thus: “A historical novel is a novel that has as its setting a period of history and that att­empts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity (which is, in some cases, only apparent fidelity) to historical fact”. Take, for example, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  She takes up Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of Henry VIII who oversaw the king’s break with Rome and who was not at all a popular figure during his lifetime, and weaves an extraordinary tale. Mantel, according to a reviewer in The Guardian, “works up a 16th-century world in which only a joker would call for cherries in April or lettuce in December, and where hearing an unlicensed preacher is an illicit thrill on a par with risking syphilis”.

The author of Empire, on the other hand, is not even familiar with Tamil names. Most of the characters’ names are modern and unlikely to have been used during the 11th century. The country and the city she portrays are like the one-size-fits-all mass market products. They merely serve as the backdrop screens used in old black-and-white movies, in front of which characters enacted their parts. The king, the queens, the ministers, the priest and others are all generic, without traces of individuality. Change the name of Rajendra to Qin Shi Huang and give other characters Chinese names, no one would know the difference.

Advertisement opens in new window

In the Byzantine Greece of the 11th century, the old pagan gods and pagan history were a distant memory, though some historians say that a few Greeks here and there were still practising pag­anism. The author would have done well if she had done some research on paganism in Byzantine Greece and used it to show her main character, Aremis, in relief. The Sangam literature does speak of Yavana soldiers, but I am not sure the Cholas had any Yavana guards. Nilakanta Sastri, an authority on Chola history, does not mention any Yavana guards in his book. There are no doubt references to Padimagalir, who could be the women bodyguards of the Chola kings. The aut­hor has used this reference to conjure up a Greek woman bodyguard to King Rajendra. I have no problem with this, but my main grouse is about the nuts and fruits mentioned—Aremis munches peanuts and one of the characters is the wife of a cashew merchant. These nuts came to India after the arrival of Portuguese and they originate in South America. Similarly, guava and papaya are of South American origin and they would not have found a place in a Chola market. Also, it is amusing to read a Chola general uttering the word ‘philistines’!

Despite these grave shortcomings, Empire is an eminently readable novel, written in a fresh and attractive style. Its story is filmy and Baahubali-esque, but gripping nevertheless. It is primarily about a brave, single and uncommonly talented woman in search of life with some dignity. I particularly liked the way the novelist tells the story alternately, through the words of Aremis and Anantha, the protagonists. The archery and naval scenes have been described with some realism. The dialogues sound modern, but not gratingly so. I agree with the novelist when she says “certain compulsions are familiar to us regardless of the time in history; the loneliness and longing for lost homes, the role of trauma shaping a young life, the pull of romantic love and desire—often insatiable—for recognition and greatness”. Her two main characters epitomise these compulsions and the novel presents them with verve and poise. But I would hesitate to call Empire a historical novel. The Chola empire and the Srivijaya empire are as far away from it as we are from King Rajendra.


(P.A. Krishnan is the author of The Tiger Claw Tree and The Muddy River, as well as many Tamil novels.)

Post a Comment


You are not logged in, To comment please / Register
or use
  • Daily Mail (1)
  • Published
Next Story : In A Coven Of Spymasters
Download the Outlook ​Magazines App. Six magazines, wherever you go! Play Store and App Store
THE LATEST ISSUE
CLICK IMAGE FOR CONTENTS
REVIEW
Review
Ismat Chughtai was a doyenne of Urdu literature. These essays throw light on her fiercely original voice vis-a-vis the demands of the Progressive Movement.
MAGAZINE December 15, 2017
Review
Naina Devi’s personal journey across varied elite strata makes for a great story. So is her early talent as a thumri singer, its cessation, and its later continuation.
MAGAZINE December 15, 2017
Extracts
Nadia Murad was a Yazidi peasant girl in a small village called Kochu in northern Iraq. The ISIS attacked her village, killed almost all the men, including her six brothers, and took the women as sex slaves. Excerpt from Murad’s horrific, and courageous, memoir, The Last Girl.
MAGAZINE December 15, 2017
Review
Her claim to a major role in socialist politics and self-defence in the Tehelka sting affair fills up Jaya Jaitly’s memoir. Much of it stretches credulity too.
MAGAZINE December 08, 2017
Review
A 100 years back, a group of American women changed astronomy. Their story, hidden under a sexist shroud, is uncovered in this engaging book.
MAGAZINE December 08, 2017
read more>>>
Advertisement

OUTLOOK TOPICS :

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

or just type initial letters