Thank you for your response, Ms Yesodharan. In the epilogue to your book, you mention how one can “imagine someone like Aremis living in the palace grounds”. I tried but failed massively. I could not reconcile the intersectionality of Aremis’s gender and her untouchable status in the medieval South Indian society with her meteoric rise in the Chola kingdom since the day Pelias bartered her in war. This is why it puzzles me that, as you state in your response, if Aremis is neither a padimagalir nor an anukki, why is this war captive allowed the liberty to accompany one of the largest naval fleets in the medieval subcontinent going to war?

Stripped of her royal position, Aremis continues to perform some really enviable tasks in the 11th century South Indian context. A mlechha (regarded as untouchable), she holds a coveted position in the imperial household, has a casual tête-à-tête with the Chola king, and gets to be in the presence of a Brahmin priest in a war council. This erasure of caste boundaries and biases that dictated (and sadly, still dictate) Indian society takes a lot away not only from the society you purport to depict but also from the identity of your protagonist. In my view a stratified society (which is what all human societies are!) would have only added more depth and complexity to your story, and not lead you to “throttle it”.

Not quite historical

The Cyclades Islands were one of the first few to come under the grip of Christianity (as early as the 5th century CE), their pagan temples brought down and reused to make churches. I am sure there are a few exceptional Hellenes worshipping Zeus even till date. This brings me to my biggest complaint about your book: the protagonist is an exception to the general nature of her natal and post captivity societies. Not only is she the only mlechha ever to be in close proximity with a kshatriya king, she is also one of the rare Hellenes praying to Zeus in the 11th century CE.

Furthermore, your hypothesis about the Satkarni metronym tradition perpetuating well into the 11th century CE (the Satavahana clan of Satkarnis declined in 250 CE) is wrong. Their successors (not called the Satkarnis) in the Andhra country did not assume metronymic naming (page 15, Gopalachari, K. Early History Of The Andhra Country). In the book you mention, Nateshan comes across an old tribe whose members call themselves Satkarnis. There is no historical evidence of any such tribe in the 11th century CE.

When insinuating that while reviewing your book my references were “selective” you seem to be still confused about Aremis’s character in the book. The reason I chose Daud Ali’s work over Leslie Orr’s is that the former has written about women in the Chola imperial household (which is the group Aremis belongs to) while the latter looks at temple women (Aremis is not a temple woman). Both sets of women had vastly different roles and powers in the Chola kingdom. It perturbs me that Daud Ali’s excellent scholarship, which pertains more to your protagonist’s character, finds a secondary mention to Orr’s work on temple women (your novel barely talks about them).

However, since you have mentioned Orr, it is important to stress that nowhere does he regard temple women “empowered”. In fact in his book, Orr quite clearly says: “…in some cases temple women were assigned menial tasks, for which they were relatively poorly remunerated, and in other cases they had honorary functions, for which they received no remuneration at all. No tasks were exclusively female, and many forms of involvement in temple affairs, including almost all responsibility functions, appear to have been closed to women” (p. 162).

In lieu of their donations to temples, these women “often acquired honours in the temple for example, the privilege of proximity to the deity – than a ‘position’ or regular support from the temple.” (p. 163). Your statement that “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” is inherently flawed for it proclaims temple donations as a key to women empowerment in the 11th century CE context.

Your own source, Orr, refutes this by stating, “this period [the period of Rajaraja and Rajendra Chola] also sees a rise in the numbers of temple women who were given as slaves to the temple and who performed menial functions” (p. 163). Orr’s observation is backed by a table in his book titled “Chronological distribution of the roles of temple women” (p. 66) which shows how there is a sharp rise in the number of temple women becoming slaves in the period 1070-1178 AD (which is the period you refer to).

The source you quote for the royal ambassador, which is also the only source for the padimagalir and anukki categories, Perunkathai, is itself questionable since it is written in the 8th century CE while the period of the imperial Cholas (that your novel considers) starts from the latter half of the 9th century CE. This is also the reason I mention in my review that the “historical evidence of the two categories of female bodyguards is not only flimsy but also questionable.” But technicalities aside, your own quoted source Perunkathai states “women were as a general rule excluded from state secrets or high level meetings” (Lalitha, R, “The Economic Status of Women Under the Imperial Cholas”)

Too much about the exception

However, as I mentioned earlier, your protagonist is exceptional and hardly the norm. She is a fantasy and therefore it is hard to situate her in the medieval Chola empire milieu.

My intention behind this exercise was not to pick out errors for the sake of it. The problem with representing an exception as a rule, especially when the exception is an untouchable woman, is that it erases years and years of oppression that untouchable women have struggled against in a given period of time (the Chola period in this case).

When the protagonist is a female in a patriarchal society you expect that her struggle will be highlighted. Aremis, being a war slave, would have had to struggle even more. Caste struggles, class struggles, and the obvious gender struggle. But Aremis is leading a life more comfortable being a war captive than low caste men from Negapattinam in the 11th century. It will be great if women’s struggle in the past are highlighted and not papered over.

As for genre historical fiction, I, Claudius is a bad example. When Robert Graves wrote his text (1930s), Livia was largely believed to be Augustus’s killer. It is only recently that historians have found the hypothesis untenable. Furthermore, characters in history have been aplenty. Each one of them with their myriad identities of caste, gender, class, race, etc. shaping their lives and making them human. Devoid of these identities such characters would be out of place in any historical setting. This is when historical fiction becomes only fiction.

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

Read Devi Yesodharan response to the review here.