History is a desert made up of grains of sand big and small: people, inventions, events, dynasties. Most of them are too miniscule to count for much on their own, but held in the hand, each has a texture of its own. Written by Vasudhendra and translated from the Kannada by Maitreyi Karnoor, Tejo Tungabhadra is a work of historical fiction that attempts this tactile examination through stories of trade and duels, oceans and journeys.

Two rivers, two stories

The Tejo flows through Lisbon, Tungabhadra brings life to Vijaynagara. Beyond this, nothing else in the 15th century is certain; the air is saturated with possibility. Vasco da Gama returns from India having found a sea route that makes it possible for the Portuguese to engage in spice trade without any middlemen, and suddenly a new door to the future opens up.

Gabriel comes from a Portugese Christian family of modest means, and Bella is the daughter of wealthy Jews with no land to call their own. They meet as children in Lisbon, and grow to fall in love over the years as religious turmoil in Portugal deepens. Spurned in his proposal, Gabriel leaves for India to find fortune and balm for his broken heart.

In the narrative universe of Tejo Tungabhadra, times tests, punishes, soothes, but it moves. The voyage is long and onerous, and any idea of what lies on the other side might well turn out to just be a phantom. It is in the descriptions of these trying conditions that the author’s careful attention to detail in research shows. His accounts of how men sailing away from a known life, trapped in a wooden vessel floating in boundless water adapt to a life of voluntary imprisonment are vivid, revolting, often touching.

Parallel to this runs the story in Tembakpura, where Keshava is a young man and a gifted sculptor. He has his eyes set upon Hampamma – an attractive young woman, determined to be an agent in her life in whatever limited way she can. But in a town where the divine cohabitates with the human, a kind of cosmic circularity permeates all actions. Their match is beset with troubles from the start, setting the stage for a turn of events no one sees coming.

The largeness of the future and the past

Tejo-Tungabhadra’s is a society rife with injustices, and Vasudhendra does not let the reader look away from their cruel everyday manifestations. His portraits of the naked violence that makes and unmakes this world are slowly etched with small details intact, and evoke an almost visceral reaction upon reading. Alfonso de Albuquerque, the heir to da Gama’s mission, is set upon acquiring Goa, and no amount of bloodshed will move him to compromise. But the issue of conquest is fraught with more than the simple question of who has more force at their disposal; it is animated by an altogether more primal identification – that of rightful place.

These questions of belonging draw blood year after year: who can live in Portugal? Whose land is India to claim or cede? Where does one house spurned desires of the heart? Vasudhendra lays out these questions and then sharpens them page after page, so that when any kind of tragedy strikes – and it often does – one laments with the characters over what these stories could have been.

But it is not all at the altar of the self – more often than not, it is a collective blinding of reason that devours lives. Traditions occupy a plane long abandoned by logic, and it is upon this plane that the everyday life of the common people plays out. Reading Tejo Tungabhadra and trying to understand the social world of the 17th century can be disorienting because of the degree of control that communal norms exercise over the decisions of an individual’s life, both big and small.

The cost of expansion and conquests often makes them a bad bargain: material ambitions accrue emotional debts heavy enough to crush, and it is to the author’s credit that the characters bear their cross with an almost unflinching humanity. They are people who find within themselves space for both kindness and brutality, with a disposition towards life that hinges more on necessity than strict adherence to any moral code. Karnoor translates from the Kannada with an admirable commitment to the emotional complexity of the characters and their situation; the tenderness and awkwardness, for example, when Hampamma talks to her friend Champakka about her womanly concerns flows off the page.

At almost four hundred and fifty pages, the feeling that Tejo Tungabhadra could have used tighter editing does occur to you eventually. It is not so much the medley of characters that imbue the book with narrative chaos – they go a great part of the way, in fact, in tying together a story of ambitious scale. Tejo and Tungabhadra flow in parallel for so long, however, that when their confluence finally comes in sight, it feels all too quickly gone.

Despite this, Tejo Tungabhadra is a captivating novel, deeply impressive in its ability to string together a tale magnificent in both breadth and depth. Though moving at a brisk pace, it offers pause when confronting the overwhelming largeness of the future and the past, and the smallness of our perception of it.

Tejo Tungabhadra, Vasudhendra, translated from the Kannada by Maitreyi Karnoor, Penguin.