It is the first century of the Christian era. As the Roman merchant ship Minerva sails into the Chola port of Puhar, after crossing the treacherous Gulf of Mannar, everyone on board expects a pleasant time exploring the exotic eastern kingdom and closing trade deals that would make them richer beyond their wildest dreams.

Veena Muthuraman’s The Grand Anicut tells the story of the son of a Roman merchant, introduced to us as Marcellus, who has been sent by his father Gaius, to Chola country with an eye on the lucrative trade. The young man is eager to set foot on the land of the Cholas famed for their silk, rice, gems, circus animals and spices. His appetite for the strange new country has been whetted by his friend Vallavan, a merchant-prince of the Chola kingdom, whom he had befriended and rescued from the Arabian seaport of Cana, where the latter had been stranded after being mistakenly left behind by his own ship.

But the young Roman is in for a shock, for he and his captain are arrested upon disembarking. The charge is the kidnapping and torture of a young Chola merchant-prince. Thus the young man’s adventures begin.

Twists and turns

Muthuraman plunges us directly into the prosperous world of the Cholas. Though it is peacetime, things are not as peaceful as they seem, and there are undercurrents of dissatisfaction against the reigning King Karikalan. But it is not a world populated by kings and princes. Instead, it is the world of ordinary, everyday people – soldiers, roadside vendors, priests, petty thieves, merchants – and their concerns.

The narrative is fast paced and there is never a dull moment. There are detailed descriptions of the city and the countryside, the social milieu, the business conditions and the political situation. It is evident that Muthuraman has done her research thoroughly. But unlike some historical novels where the research interferes with the telling of the story, Muthuraman’s world-building is not intrusive and blends seamlessly into the narrative.

Though most of the novel is told from Marcellus’s viewpoint and in the third person, there are welcome interludes. In these, the story is narrated by minor characters in the first person. This clever device adds variety and also helps conceal information until it is time for an effective revelation. Although there’s one particular disclosure that takes almost halfway through the narrative, and this was the only discordant note in an otherwise smooth rendering.

Peppered with unexpected plot twists and exciting adventures, The Grand Anicut has a colourful cast of characters ranging from Hippalus, the captain of Minerva who nurses literary ambitions, to Rajamma, the resourceful roadside appam seller who is not above engaging in some nefarious activities if they would help her make a quick buck. Not to mention Angavai, the fiery bandit girl; Kuzhali, a young widow who has ambitions quite unlike other women of her ilk; Adi, the slave boy who is more than a slave boy; and Zhang, the fiery Buddhist who would do anything to spread the teachings of the Shakyamuni.

In fact, readers will be reminded of the great Tamil novelist Kalki Krishnamurti, and in the character of Zhang discover traces of the fiery Veera Saivite in Ponniyin Selvan, Krishnamurti’s masterpiece, set in Chola country of nine hundred years later. In the several disguises and revelations one finds parallels to CV Raman Pillai’s Marthanda Varma, the Malayalam novel based on the life of the eponymous king. As in Pillai’s work, one is never sure that a character is what s/he seems to be.

Laughs and lines

Muthuraman’s style is threaded through with gentle, ironic humour. But beneath this there is an undercurrent of thoughtful reflection on the perennial nature of the problems the human race faces. Angavai, the fiery bandit leader could be speaking of the twenty first century when she tells Marcellus:

“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, and we have no choice but to become bandits. To reclaim what is rightfully ours!”

Any woman of today would have asserted at least once as Angavai does: “A word of warning – from now on you will not mistake me for a maid of any kind …”

Zhang, the Buddhist, could have spoken for anyone dreaming of a more equal world when he says: “The Buddha makes no distinction – you are an arahant not by birth but by what you are and what you do. The folks whose company I keep are arahants by that definition.”

The novel is divided into sections, each introduced with verses drawn from the corpus of Sangam literature (translations by AK Ramanujan). These excerpts, while adding depth to the story also give the reader cause to pause and reflect on where the protagonist – and all of us – is headed and what the journey’s end has in store.

Another highlight of the novel is the sharp dialogue. Whether it is a Chola magistrate interrogating the accused, or a pair of confused bandits bickering about their heavy hostage, or a learned debate about religion, Muthuraman’s skill is evident. The dialogue effortlessly carries most of the narrative forward and is a delight both for the eyes and ears.

Those looking for a fast paced historical mystery will not be disappointed. As will those who are looking for something deeper, for it is essentially a book that reflects on the problems that have afflicted the human race from the earliest times.

The Grand Anicut, Veena Muthuraman, Hachette India.