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
Rs 499/ 320 pages