A few days after my book Empire went to press, I woke up late at night with a niggling feeling: that I had missed something. I had tried to make the story more sensually appealing through descriptions of food and places, and it takes research to find out what food and herbs you can mention and what you cannot, because of what would have been available in the subcontinent at the time.

Tobacco was an early cause of concern between my editors and me, but I found some historical references that suggested it could plausibly be left in the story. But what woke me up that night was peanuts – which I am allergic to in real life and which I should have avoided in the story as well, because peanuts were not around in India in the 11th century.

So that’s an anachronism I missed, and that will likely haunt me until the corrected edition is out. However, Ruchika Sharma’s review was something that troubled me in a different way, because, besides her review errors, she commits a larger mistake that I will come to later.

Research and reading

There are in the review, errors of research and also of reading. In an early part of the review, Sharma suggests that I confused the roles of the padimagalir and the annukis, the guards who accompany the king to battle and those who guard the king in the palace. I was well aware of these two variations, and Aremis is clearly the king’s bodyguard in the palace and the grounds, not someone who accompanies the king to battle. When she pleads to be allowed to go into battle, it is made clear that she is asking for it as a chance to prove herself. When she does eventually go to war, it is while accompanying Anantha, not the king, after she has already been relieved of her bodyguard role.

Another error: While the Cyclades Islands saw most of their temples converted into churches by the sixth century, praying to Zeus persisted among Hellenes well into the 12th century.

Similarly, when I refer to the Satakarnis, I was careful to mention them in the story as “an old tribe that claimed it was once a kingdom” (hypothesising that while that empire had fallen, their descendants and traditions may have survived). But again Sharma misreads this, saying that I have confused two time periods, and erroneously writing that I am making the Satakarni kingdom a contemporary to Rajendra Chola.

Perhaps Sharma assumed that my avoidance of Tamil terms in the book meant a lack of knowledge of Tamil history. That’s not the case – I spent two years researching Empire, including travel to libraries to find out of print essays and texts, such as alternate translations of the Ainkurunuru.

Selective citations

But besides these review errors, there is a broader problem with Sharma’s approach to history. Various historians of the Chola empire have theorised about its realities from the inscriptions and literature, but her references here are selective. For example, Sharma refers to Daud Ali’s work to describe the status of imperial and palace women, but she ignores Leslie Orr and U V Swaminatha Iyer, who suggest that women in the Chola period were more empowered than others claim, based on trends in temple inscriptions that mentioned rising donations from women. This, combined with their associations with velams, would have meant wealth, economic independence and inheritance.

The Chola period is also not a static time in terms of female power – temple donations by women for example, peaked during the Rajaraja and Rajendra Chola period and fell later, suggesting that the status of women was a shifting one. Daud Ali’s work includes his analysis of inscriptions from the 13th century, when the status of women was in decline.

Additionally, Tamil poetry such as the Perum Kathai, written in the eighth century, suggests that women also functioned as ambassadors for the king, a reference not found in the inscriptions. In my non-fiction pieces, I have referred to the servitude many women endured during this time – but I have also pointed out that the wider literature suggests a subtler reality.

A matter of definition

And this brings me to the larger mistake Sharma makes – of what historical fiction should be.

Fortunately, here I have many writers on my side. In Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, it is not just the biographical details of the 18th century surveyors that power the story, but the fictionalised characters and the many flourishes that mix with actual events. What historical fiction attempts to do is to combine historical events with fiction: else one might as well just write a historical textbook and be done with it.

The fake queen in my story for example, does not exist in the real history, and nor does anybody quite like Aremis. In I, Claudius, Livia is transformed in Robert Graves’s book into a villain responsible for multiple murders, quite unlike the reality of what historians say. Similarly, in the case of Aremis, I wanted her to be more soldier than slave. She is of course an unlikely character, but she is, like Livia, looking at actual events with a fictionalised eye. In the afterword I noted as much – that Aremis as I have described her is a work of fiction placed in history. No captive would rise so far.

Another aspect of Sharma’s review deals with how the book speaks of the Cholas and how they refer to themselves. The Cholas didn’t address themselves in such broad terms, but this is a liberty I took for the modern reader of an ancient history. I made some references to caste and hierarchies, including the hereditary nature of titles, but I didn’t get into too much detail of a stratified society because I didn’t want to throttle the story.

Read Ruchika’s Sharma’s review of Empire here.

Read the reviewer’s response to this criticism here.