Despite its numerous literary achievements, India continues to produce subpar historical fiction. Devi Yesodharan’s Empire doesn’t offer any hope either. It reads like a Bollywood saga where the hero, against all logic (and at times against gravity!), single-handedly saves the day. Except that this book claims to be “based in an actual place and time in history” and has a heroine, making matters worse.
Set in the 11th century Chola country, Empire leaves no stone unturned to eulogise the Chola dynasty. The Cholas seem to be doing no wrong, their society unimaginably just and ahistorically calm. What irks one further is how even the common folk in the novel are addressed as “My fellow Cholas” and take pride in being “a Chola”, much like the people of India today are called Indians. The name “Chola” not only represented a dynasty but also carried with it a great genealogy stretching as far back as the Sangam Age. Therefore, Chola was an exclusive term referring only to the royalty; a fisherman or a noble appropriating the same name for himself would invite a good amount of royal rage.
This false utopia where the big and the small are all addressed as the same papers over a society ridden with caste and class biases. It superimposes the concept of a nation on to a time period where the concept would have been so out of context.
Despite ignoring the love for Cholas so glaring in the book, one cannot avoid the author’s mixing up of the early Cholas (1st century CE) with the medieval Cholas (9th century CE). There are references to the Satavahana clan, Satkarnis, whose great king Gautamiputra Satkarni would have been a contemporary of Karikala Chola ruling in 190 CE. But the book, based in the 11th century CE, makes the Satkarnis contemporaries of the medieval Cholas. The confusion is heightened when the protagonist, Aremis, a Greek war captive of the Chola kingdom, worships Zeus even in the 11th century, when more than half of Greece was Christian.
Nothing like history
However, the unmissable historical inconsistency of the book is its gross misrepresentation of women in the Chola Empire. The book’s protagonist, despite being a war captive, is more empowered in the 11th century than most women in India today. For a living she works in the royal household as either a padimagalir or an anukki, where the former was a female bodyguard of the Chola king attending to him in times of war and the latter guarded him inside the palace. Aremis does both the jobs – so one is not sure which one of the two bodyguards she is.
Glossing over the fact that the historical evidence of the two categories of female bodyguards is not only flimsy but also questionable, one can imagine that these jobs would be highly coveted and given to women of high birth and not to a foreign “mlechha”.
Yet, Yesodharan’s Aremis belongs to that rare breed of female war captives who gets to have a lazy chat with the Chola king himself holding court. Daud Ali’s study on the women of the imperial Chola household could help Aremis find a more realistic situation for herself in the medieval Chola setting.
Bartered in war, Aremis would have most likely entered a velam, which Ali defines as “an institution of those who had been natally alienated through violence”, or in other words captives of war. If Aremis was not one of the lucky ones she would have been defaced by either having her nose or her ear cut. In the imperial household Aremis would either do servile labour such as clean or cook, or offer sexual services to the king or his princes.
A woman of the velam was known as a pentatti and would often also serve the kaikkolar units of the Chola army. Residing in quarters close to the palace, the kaikkolars could either receive sexual services from the pentattis or have them do other household jobs such as cooking/cleaning etc. Thus, in the actual imperial Chola setting that Yesodharan claims her novel depicts, Aremis would either be a sexual or a domestic slave.
Even if one accepts Aremis as an exception to the general rule of treating war captives as non-military slaves, she has more power in the book than any padimagalir or anukki would ever have. R Lalitha in her study on the economic status of women under the imperial Cholas comments that “women as a general rule were excluded from state secrets or high level meetings of the courtiers and the king”. Aremis’s character is so ahistorical that she is attending the war council in the Chola king’s stead and is getting top-level information on strategies for an impending war.
In a country like ours, where lay people get their information on history from shoddy whatsapp forwards, badly made television sagas, and over the top Bollywood period dramas, it is important that popular historical fiction literature set the record straight. So far the genre has only disappointed. Empire is one in a long line of historical fiction works produced in contemporary India that romanticise the past and misrepresent history in historical fiction.
Empire, Devi Yesodharan, Juggernaut Books.
Read the author Devi Yesodharan’s response to this review here.