Born and brought up in Kerala, India, Veena Muthuraman studied at Carnegie Mellon University for her Master’s degree before moving to the UK to take up a corporate job. In between, she kept pursuing her passion for writing. Her debut work of fiction, a collection of short stories, A Place of No Importance, was published in 2016. Now, she has returned with The Great Anicut, a historical novel set in 1st century CE of Tamilkam in the Chola Kingdom. Muthuraman spoke to Scroll.in about her literary career, her new book , her interest in historical fiction and more. Excerpts from the interview:
How did your first work of fiction A Place Of No Importance come about? From what I can see, you haven’t studied literature at university or attended MFA programmes – how did you get into fiction writing and how did you learn the art?
A Place Of No Importance is a set of interlinked short stories set in a fictional village which is based on a real cluster of villages my parents grew up in and retain strong ties to. The villages evolved to the extent that the stories required them to, but pretty much all the stories – and most of the characters – in the book are based on real life incidents that I either witnessed or heard about. Over time, I could sense that the villages were changing rapidly along with the rest of the world, and I wanted to capture a snapshot in time before that way of life entirely vanished.
So it wasn’t the case that I decided to be a writer, chose a subject and place, did my research, and then wrote about it – I came at it from the other side. These were stories that I wanted to tell, and writing about them seemed like a straightforward next step. I’d trained as an engineer and worked as a management consultant for years before finding my niche in financial services which pays the bills now, so you are right that I never went through the traditional route to become a writer. But I don’t think there is any standard route to being one. Clearly some pathways, depending on geography, offer smooth(er) access to publication, but that’s a different question from the one you are asking.
My view on writing fiction is fairly simple – read widely, find a story you want to tell, and take the time to write/experiment. Yes, art is at the centre of fiction writing but everything that surrounds it is craft. And craft can be learnt at any point, and a lot of it cuts across disciplines.
A trivial example here that you are going to laugh at – the plot and chapter outline for The Grand Anicut was sketched out on an Excel spreadsheet because I am used to thinking and structuring in that format. Now that probably makes me less of a writer but it doesn’t make The Grand Anicut any more or less of a book.
How difficult or different was it to write historical fiction after writing a collection of short stories set in the present? And what differences did you observe while approaching these two different formats?
The bigger difference for me was the format – to sustain the reader’s (and my own!) attention through the entire novel was quite different from my experience of writing short stories. Re-writing a novel, which for me is the most difficult part of writing, becomes both laborious and heart-wrenching because you have to cut chapters, entire characters and subplots that you are so in love with.
But on the other hand, the novel proved to be more rewarding at the end of the day. It reminds me of the classic marshmallow experiment – I am all about instant gratification most of the time, but when you don’t give in to it, the reward is worth the wait.
In terms of genre, there was more research involved in The Grand Anicut because it is historical fiction, but I don’t consider research as effort, to be honest. There’s a part of me that believes that I only wrote this novel because it gave me the perfect excuse to spend weeks at a time reading all sorts of interesting and arcane facts about the cultures of the 1st century CE.
Tell us a bit about the The Grand Anicut and its setting.
The book is set in the 1st century CE in Tamilakam – most of the action takes place within the Chola kingdom. Note that this is about a millennium earlier than the later Cholas, about whom more is known and documented. Things are calm on the surface with the king building a dam – this is the Grand Anicut – across the Kaveri river, which is essentially the lifeline of the kingdom.
Trade is at an all-time high with the Romans and the story begins with the arrival of a Roman ship at the Chola port capital of Puhar. The ship is carrying a Roman merchant who is ostensibly here to trade but that’s not the only reason he has come all this way. The book is about Marcellus’s adventures both in Puhar and inland, the people he runs into, and the conspiracies he becomes (sometimes unwittingly) part of. I must say that there are no evil villains in the story; everyone just has different goals and visions, and more often than not, they come into conflict with each other.
You have mentioned on many occasions that the inspiration for this book was the Tamil novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy. Can you elaborate on how your book is similar or dissimilar to Ponniyin Selvan? What were the other influences?
Ponniyin Selvan is an obvious inspiration. From the time I’d heard the story narrated to me as a child, I have imagined stories set in that milieu. There are similarities between the key characters in both novels – for instance, my Kuzhali and Kalki’s Kundavai, or Zhang and Azhwarkadiyan Nambi.
Another similarity is the narrative device of a foreigner coming into the Chola kingdom for the first time, which gave me a lot of leeway to show things from an outsider’s perspective because we are all outsiders here, including the writer herself.
The Grand Anicut is, however, different from Ponniyin Selvan in that it is not about wars and conspiring royals – my real interest was in imagining how the rest of the populace would have lived and interacted with other cultures. Because of this, trade becomes much more important in my narrative; so do the stories of people who get a raw deal caught in the crossfire between kings, merchants and priests.
As for my other influences: I grew up on adventure stories and historical romances such as The Count of Monte Cristo, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Pimpernel (yes, I know) and later, binged on Scaramouche. They all played a part in the writing of this book. The one other work from India that I thought is pertinent to mention in this context is CV Raman Pillai’s Marthanda Varma, which is a Malayalam novel written in the 1890s and is nowhere as popular as Ponniyin Selvan, but I feel it should be more widely read.
The city Puhar, the capital of the Cholas, gives a feel of 17th-century Amsterdam, a cosmopolitan city which had emerged as a major trading hub. Is this an appropriate comparison?
That’s a very interesting comparison and yes, it works to the extent that Puhar is indeed a cosmopolitan trade hub. But in my (very amateur) view, there are a couple of key differences between trade in the 17th century and that of the 1st century – for one, the 1st century trade was with not just the Greco-Roman world but also with Arabs, Persians, and the Indonesian islands was a more equitable proposition for the kingdoms in question. It wasn’t quite the “I have guns and you will now give me everything you have” type of deal that became commonplace in the colonial era.
Second, it wasn’t just Puhar that was a trade hub – we are talking of tens of port cities along the western and eastern coasts of the peninsula that were all major trading hubs. These hubs were also connected via an inland supply network of hundreds of settlements. This, as you can imagine, is absolutely fascinating – it is what really drew me to this period in the first place.
Your novel has strong female characters like Kuzhali and Angavai. How close are these characters to women living in the Sangam era?
From what we know, it was a patriarchal society and it is difficult to decipher how much agency women actually had during that period. The literary sources that we have for the Sangam era are primarily from Sangam poetry which, needless to say, were all written by men.
There are a number of poems about love, separation, desire, motherhood, etc, but the worldly work, for the most part, is left to men. That doesn’t mean there aren’t hints of subversion – perhaps this is more so in my reading of them but well, why not? I want to tell stories for our time regardless of when and where they are set in.
The setting of your novel is a time when Brahmanical Hinduism was being challenged by Jainism and Buddhism, and the new faiths challenged the existing caste and class structure of society. You have touched upon these issues also in a subtle way. Can you tell our readers about the socio-religious structure of society in ancient Tamilakam? And why did Buddhism not find any takers in India?
To respond to the second part of your question first, Buddhism did have a significant presence in India for centuries. To name two very powerful and large empires in which Buddhism was the main religion – the Kushans in the north and west, and the Satavahanas in south-central India and both of these were well after Ashoka. It did decline starting in the latter half of first millennium CE, but even then, the faith survived intact for many more centuries.
From accounts I have read, Tamilakam had a tolerant attitude towards different gods and faiths – this included Jainism/Samanas, Buddhism, folk/local gods with Vedic gods becoming more important in later periods. There is also evidence to suggest that both religious doctrines and social structure such as the caste system became rigid over time rather than it being constant over the Sangam period.
Socially, it wasn’t just the three kingdoms of Chera, Chola and Pandya that held sway over Tamilakam – there were a number of major and minor chieftains, tribes, etc, controlling their own territory.
In early Sangam poetry (unlike the later epics), gods and religion are just not that important – these poems are primarily about love (akam) and war and bravery (puram).
There is a landscape associated with each poem, and each landscape is associated with certain flowers, animals, deities, etc. Each of these landscapes evokes a certain mood. This is not to say that early Tamilakam was a non-religious, egalitarian society, not at all. It is more that the gods weren’t the focus of their literary output, which I found both refreshing and exciting.
To state the obvious, the other society in the subcontinent that we know of where we have found very little sign or mention of the gods and religion is that of the Harappans. There is not enough to connect the two, but doesn’t make it any less exciting.
In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of historical novels, but they are mostly about the kings and emperors of north India. Do you see any change in this trend, with South Indian kingdoms getting more space?
I definitely hope so! Geographically, I’d like to read more narratives not just from the south of the country but from other regions not well represented in the popular imagination, such as the eastern kingdoms. But more importantly, I’d like to see more narratives that talk less about kings and wars and more about the people themselves.
Tell me more about your research for The Grand Anicut. Did you seek out any historians or archeologists?
No, I didn’t speak to historians or archaeologists for this book, but I read a fair bit – Greco-Roman sources, especially The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Sangam poetry, and contemporary books on historical trade routes. There was also field work involved if you count seeing the Pompeii Lakshmi at Naples or the tombstone of a pearl-seller in Rome.
But like I mentioned before, I am not sure I can call any of this research. This is because I was and continue to be genuinely interested in this period, and the plot of The Grand Anicut is an effort to connect various strands of interesting information that I’d gathered about this riveting place and time.
In Europe, efforts are being made to give space to marginalised voices in publishing, but in India we don’t see such similar initiatives. What is your take?
The markets are quite different, and I think the push in the western world to bring more diversity into the literary landscape is primarily because of the vociferous demand across sections of society to make their voices heard. This is not to say all’s now well with the scene here, but more power to them.
Coming to India, I can’t speak for the entire country, but if what I know of Tamil Nadu and Kerala hold true for the rest (which is a big assumption in itself), then you can find the diversity you are looking for in books written in “regional” languages. Not to say that publishers shouldn’t do anything about the paucity of it in English, but English is the wrong place to look for that in my opinion. And I’d like to think the recent increase in the number of translated works is a way of addressing this diversity deficit.
You have gone from short stories to historical fiction. What’s next?
There are a couple of things I am working on, but the one that’s taking up most of my writing time nowadays is a children’s historical fiction novel set in Kushan-era Taksashila. I have always been fascinated (and for a time, obsessed) with the towns of the silk road, and recently, I have been (secretly) reading my daughter’s middle-grade stash. So my next project is an attempt to bring them together.
Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic, and banker. His debut novel, Patna Blues, has been translated into eight languages. He can be reached here.