Archive | October 2021

The Grand Anicut- Veena Muthuraman

Originally published here

When one talks about historical fiction set in Tamil Nadu, the average reader cannot think beyond Ponniyin Selvan . Though several English translations are available, none of them do justice to the magnificence of the original. Veena Muthuraman’s The Grand Anicut , which she mentions in the Author’s Note has been inspired by this epic, is like a breath of fresh air — a much welcome addition to the list of books that this genre of South Asian historical fiction so badly needed.

While King Karikala Cholan is camped inland in Ariyalur, overseeing the building of his ambitious project, The Grand Anicut, a Roman trading ship docks at the Chola capital, the port town of Puhar. On the ship, along with a cargo of silver, topaz, frankincense, and wine is the seasick Roman trader Marcellus, who has been sent to Camara on a mission by his father and Vallavan, the Chola merchant prince who has finally found his way back home after being lost in far-off lands.

Right from the moment he sets foot on land, Marcellus’ adventures begin – dangerous adventures ranging from jail encounters with Pandya spies, and escaping bandit attacks to awkward adventures of trying to sit cross-legged at a feast in a Tamil household, wearing just a short toga. Marcellus has secrets of his own, which he has to keep from his fellow Yavanas, the disapproving Hippalus and suspicious Silvius, and secrets that his father has entrusted him, which requires him to travel to enemy territory in Pandya ruled Korkai.

Zhang, the mysterious Buddhist monk is everywhere, the shadow who sees all, knows all. He gathers information while eating his appams and fish fry at Rajamma’s shop and triggers people with his views on their Gods and religion. He tells them unbelievable facts like silk coming from worms and shocks people with ideas of the possibility of a casteless society. But obviously, he is not just a mere monk who travels to spread the word of Buddha. Is he a friend or an enemy?

There are shades of Ponniyin Selvan’s Poonkuzhali in the free-spirited bandit leader Angavai and bits of Kundavai in Vallavan’s influential widowed elder sister, Kuzhali. Both of them are strong, passionate, ambitious women who form the backbone of the story. Kuzhali breaks all conventional images of a young widow in the Sangam period. Rather than waste away in the corner of her house, she has ambitions of marrying the king, climbs trees, and eavesdrops on conversations of the Merchant’s Guild.

Angavai, the hill woman is determined and focused and does not let so-called womanly emotions such as an impossible love divert her from her goal. ‘The wealth of the people is mined and stolen away from us by the merchants and priests and sold off to you for a profit. The king gives this racket protection because he needs their gold to conquer other lands. He gives away the land and hills of my peoples as gifts to these daylight robbers’ . Her angry outpouring to the young Roman can be a scene set in contemporary fiction and be relevant even today.

The book is well researched with historical facts and literary references. For a reader who has a basic knowledge of the history, culture, and language, making connections between the characters in the book and well-known historical and literary characters is exciting. A few chapters into the book when the name of Kovalan comes up, it feels like a piece of a puzzle has fallen in place and the association with the literary classic Silapathikaram fits into the story. A piece of the puzzle that does not have much relevance to the plot but is nevertheless exciting. However, with no glossary for the local words nor any of them being italicized, some passages may be difficult for a reader with no knowledge of Tamil to relate to.

The story is full of intriguing incidents and characters which makes the reader want to add a sticky note reminder to delve deeper into the history and culture of that era beyond the obvious. For example, the members of the Merchant’s Guilds are Jainas, who follow Mahavira, but they are also rooted in their ancient traditions that they serve crab and tortoise at their feasts and hesitate to give up meat. Another piece of history (or myth, depending on how one looks at it) referred to in the book, to read up more on is the story behind the founding of the island of Srirangam and the temple. And, of course, the book leaves the reader wanting to learn more about the Early Cholas and the building of the Grand Anicut. Though the book is called The Grand Anicut and it loomed over the entire narrative, threatening to shift the capital of the kingdom and the king’s priorities away from the rich merchants of Puhar, the story had little to do with the building of the actual dam.

With short chapters that seem unrelated and disconnected at first, the book may seem to be a slow starter. But five or six chapters into the book, it pulls the reader right in and becomes an addictive page-turner that keeps one up all night and leaves the reader craving for more. And since it ends with the scope for a sequel, one can hope that this is not the last of the adventures of the young Roman trader or the mysterious Buddhist monk.


About the Book

The Grand Anicut

Veena Muthuraman

Hachette India

Rs 499/ 320 pages

Funeral Nights- Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih

Originally published here

At 1000+ pages and packed to the seams with legends, folk tales, myth, parables, fairytales, history, culture, and even politics, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s Funeral Nights is an epic in its own right.

It opens with the narrator Ap Jutang introducing himself, and his birthplace — Sohra, and giving the reader a glimpse of Khasi life. The chapter — My Name is Ap Jutang — narrates the story of the origin of Sohra, and describes its terrorising tempests, and the rains — the lap-bam-briew or the human-devouring rain, and the lap-boi-ksi or the louse swarming rain, as well as the white fog that engulfs the gorges after the rains. But just when the reader settles in, travelling through the jungles with its lakes and birds, reading Khasi stories that were told to children on stormy nights, and planning to armchair travel through the beautiful Khasi hills, Nongkynrih’s narrative takes a different turn.

A group of acquaintances meet at a death house and start talking about, well, death. While discussing the Torajans of Indonesia and their death ceremonies, someone tells them about a similar Khasi tradition being followed by the Lyngngams, a Khasi sub-tribe, that preserves the body for months, sometimes even years, before the cremation. Coincidentally, the Ka Phor Sorat or the Feast of the Dead was set to happen in the coming weeks; the body of an old woman that had been preserved for nine months was soon to be cremated. Intrigued, the strangers make impromptu plans and decide to attend the ceremony. An eclectic group of historians, college teachers, taxi drivers, a film-maker, a journalist, and a preacher start their long journey to the village of Nongshyrkon in the west Khasi hills. Halfway through their adventurous journey in a rickety Maruti Gypsy through remote mountain roads they realise that they got the dates wrong and are seven days too early for the ceremony, but with rescheduling not an option, they carry on and spend the rest of the days in the village, housed in a bamboo hut that was built exclusively for them. Every night they sit around the fire, sipping locally brewed beer and sharing stories.

The sheer range and the number of stories that are covered during the 10 nights does tend to overwhelm the reader. There is a morbid story about the origin of why betel nut or kwai is integral to Khasi hospitality and a slightly off-putting story about why the pork in Sohra is more delicious than anywhere else. There are stories about tribes who fought against the imposition of Hinduism, another about families that fell under the spell of a Christian fundamentalist Doomsday Cult, and the story of why the buffalo and rooster are sacred to the Khasis. And then there are also long discussions on deforestation, how coal mining has continued illegally even after the NGT ban, the pros and cons of nuclear energy and opening up the mountains of Meghalaya for the uranium deposits. It is impossible to bound the stories to a genre.

Though the book is divided into chapters with the theme of the night such as Root Stories , Little Stories, Name Stories and others, the reader sometimes ends up confused and loses track of the narration since the stories merge into more stories. It could start with the members of the group talking to each other, discussing Khasi culture and the influx of outsiders, and the narration moves on to history where it is the reader who is now being addressed in long passages. A conversation that starts with someone narrating a Khasi folk tale could end in political commentary or even in a rant about corrupt politicians. Also, sitting in a remote village with erratic electricity and no mobile signals, it did seem a bit contrived when many a time, someone in the group, usually the tad boring but very knowledgeable Ap Jutang, pulls out his tablet or mobile phone on which a relevant article or poem has been very conveniently saved and goes on to read it aloud to the group.

The actual funeral ceremony, Ka Phor Sorat or the Feast of the Dead, for which the group has come to the village forms a relatively minor part of the book. The description of the ceremony gives the reader goosebumps. The body of the dead woman, Ka We Shyrkon, ‘as light as popcorn’, is brought down from the tree house after nine months for the villagers to pay their respects and begin the customary wailing. Two days later, the cremation rituals begin in the village now overflowing with mourners who have arrived from across the hills. There is celebratory gunfire, never-ending music and dance, shamans chanting and performing egg-breaking ceremonies, and the slaughtering of 50 bulls for the feast. It is a celebration of death. Though Raji, a film-maker, records the ceremonies and the group ask a few questions about the rituals, throughout their stay, they seem largely detached from the proceedings and rather more interested in continuing their story-sharing sessions. This makes the reader wonder if the whole set-up of the journey to the remote village and nights around the fire, and the death ceremony were really required to be the foundation of the plot since the same stories could have been shared in any urban setting.

Halolihilm, an outsider, does not contribute much to the stories but provides the much-needed comic relief, as unintended as it might have been. Having come to the village with the sole intention of converting the tribe to Christianity it comes as a huge disappointment to learn that everyone is already a Christian. He spends the remaining days trying to get the villagers to join his specific church, getting into fist-fights with the rest of the group with his holier-than-thou attitude, and is at the receiving end of the choicest Khasi abuses from everyone. But the best unintentional comic moment is towards the end when he gets into a pickle with a village girl.

Magdalene, the only woman in the group fails to deliver. In spite of being a history teacher in a college, she does not contribute much to the stories and is ignorant about much of the Khasi culture. Though her character could be a true reflection of the urban Khasi’s knowledge of their own history, what disappoints more is that she does not provide any insight or contribute to any of the stories from a woman’s perspective. She does make obligatory angry noises when the men talk about the way Khasi women should dress, but even when the men discuss a 1987 Femina article where Khasi men were described as ‘good for nothing’ and then go off on a tangent about how the matrilineal system is stacked against men, she does little to debate it from a woman’s point of view. And having been introduced as a strong independent woman ‘who has gone on hunting expeditions with men’, she is still portrayed as delicate and genteel in subtle ways. She is the only person in the group who does not carry food baskets and is queasy when stories of gory deaths are shared.

The rest of the characters are not very memorable. Though they contribute to the stories, and coming from different backgrounds and religions, showcase the diversity among the Khasis, they fail to make an impression.

Funeral Nights is not a book to be read at one go and put away, but one that needs to be taken out from the bookshelf often, opened to a random chapter, and read and re-read. Each new reading will throw up the unexpected. One day you might be travelling across the mountains with the rooster, and on another you may be at a check gate on a mountain road watching a rogue official brandish his khukri to steal the day’s cash collection.