Book review

This epic saga of a Kerala port is as much history as it is a work of expansive imagination

Ancient, medieval, and recent history, populated by characters and communities spread over 2000 years.

“The story of mankind can be narrated in terms of great exoduses and migrations. A never ending search for greener pastures; a journey to find new places to feed oneself; a journey to save one’s life.”

Aravindan, the narrator, and his schoolmates return as elderly men to their village in Kerala in search of the fabled lost port, the City of Muziris. In Sethu’s novel, The Saga of Muziris, Aravindan seeks to embrace his own roots and the many “civilisations” and peoples that flourished near Chendamangalam, close to the fabled port. The present is always palpable, as the group, individually and collectively, grapple with questions of emigration, the loss of home, a search for roots and the importance of ties to one’s homeland. These journeys propel this very ambitious novel forward and backward in time over thousands of years. Prema Jayakumar, who has translated another novel of Sethu’s and several of his short stories from Malyalam to English, is very deft in conveying this complex work.

In an antique land

Muziris, an ancient port city on the Periyar River in Kerala, apparently vanished with the floods of 1349. To tell its story Sethu relies on the few fragmentary historical references, Sangam literature and mythology, and, most important, applies his vivid imagination and deep knowledge about Kerala to conjure up those times when the pepper trade flourished and many Yavanas (foreigners) visited for trade. The port, slightly inland, brought Arab traders and, later, seamen from Rome and Greece, making it very wealthy more than 2000 years ago.

This “black pearl” that grew wild in the forested hills, was a status symbol for the wealthy in Rome, for which they were ready to pay an exorbitant price. Not only was pepper desired by the wealthy, it was essential for ordinary people to preserve meat over long winter months. Pepper was also a life-saving medicine used to treat fevers. Arabs first shipped pepper to Alexandria and then transported it to Europe over arduous land routes. When pepper became too expensive, Roman and Greek sailors made their own way over to Muziris to obtain this valuable commodity till they could no longer afford to do so.

Given that so little is known about Muchiri (Muziris), Sethu brings the port alive with the scenes and characters he creates and his imaginary descriptions of the time.

“Once the Yavana ships left the port, a great celebration took place, under the patronage of the rule himself…it was not only the ruler’s treasury that was filled with money, the purses of the people of the areas also bulged…” 

In narrating the grand past of the humble village in which he grew up, Aravindan “did not want facts to come in the way of the vivid pictures he portrayed.”

Among the most sensual of the characters are those of Thanka and her daughter Ponnu, who belong to the noble Vaddakoth lineage in Muziris. Adrian, an older and very wealthy Greek captain of high birth, comes each year to trade at the port. He makes his way to their home and sleeps with both mother and daughter. To Thanka’s chagrin, the young and beautiful Ponnu falls deeply in love with him. Ponnu not only pines for him when he is away at sea, but voluntarily undertakes penances and fasts for his wellbeing. Yet, as trade diminishes over time, Adrian is unable to return leaving Ponnu despondent and living the life of a widow.

Death of a city

The golden age of Muziris recedes with the loss of trade, and then the change in the river’s course leads to its demise: Kochi rises as the key port. While the glorious past gets buried, the village once again becomes an agrarian society where men like Manikkan, the farmer and his faithful helper and guide, Kichan, till the soil. They uphold the values that defined rural life for centuries. Mannikan says: “Let the Yavanas bring gold and take away the curry (pepper). That is their job. Our duty is to grow grains…there is nothing to replace rice. When man rejects the soil dawn will be from the south, rains will cease, rivers will become thinner and shores will bulge out.” Over time, many leave the land to look for opportunities outside the village.

Sethu is not content to end the sprawling tale with the passing away of two civilisations. He is keen to introduce the other diverse communities of his village, including Jews and Christians, as it is the mingling of peoples that lived in great harmony that he sees as an essential part of his tale.

“The Kottayil Kovilalakam of those days was a shining example of people of different religions living in peace in a small area. There were a number of Hindu households on the slopes of the hill on which the temple of Vishnu stood. Below, in the lanes of Jew Street, on the two sides of the synagogue, were about thirty Jewish families. Where the lane of Jews ended, the Muslim households started. The mosque of the Muslims was built on the opposite side of the road from the synagogue….And then came the houses of the Christians, their church, the police station and the primary school.”

When Muchiri was destroyed, the King of Kochi welcomed the Jews who had been visiting since the time of King Solomon. Later they sought refuge and settled in the area. Aravindan fondly remembers his childhood and his many Jewish friends. He recounts how when the state of Israel was being forged, many determined to set out to make a new home in a country that still did not exist on the map. A country where they knew they would face discrimination and hardship. Though they “had got mislaid from its pages,” they returned to their place in history.

Undeterred by having created a very dense tapestry that moves from ancient, medieval and more recent history, Sethu then briefly introduces readers to the coming of Communism. In a few brief and underdeveloped strokes, Arivandan mentions the protests of the Exhava community in the Paliyam struggle that was a protest against the dominance of the upper castes. In this struggle the lower castes, supported by some women of the royal family and the Communists, asserted their right to use a path to the temple from which they were ritually forbidden.

A river’s course

He likened this profound social change to the change in the course of the Periyar River, where once again the course of history was indelibly altered.

The author’s insistence on telling so many stories concurrently often left me struggling to keep the various skeins and characters from getting entangled and to keep myself from losing the narrative thread. The tale is further complicated by Arinandan’s own musings about how migration is still a fact of life in contemporary Kerala.

Aravindan seeks to bring the multiple characters that stretch across 2000 years to a conclusion. He also ties up the search in which he and his schoolmates were engrossed by letting us know what happens to each of them when they leave to return to their lives. Clearly the journey has indelibly redefined each of them. To tie so many threads in a compelling fashion was not quite achievable, and it does not happen here. Yet there is no doubt that Sethu has been able to convey a colourful and fascinating tale of Muziris and the many diverse communities which settled in that area. The mythical port and the sparkling history of his hometown still have a magnetic quality to draw back those who left its shores – the place being very much alive in their interior worlds.

The Saga of Muziris, Sethu, translated by Prema Jayakumar, Niyogi Books.

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