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.
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.
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.)