Going by how Aryan-obsessed the narrative of India is, many people in the country have little or no sense of the history of South India. Dynastic names such as Cheras, Pandyas, Chalukyas and Cholas swim vaguely in the consciousness, but the details remain largely unknown. Like the Vindhyas, this mountainous ignorance stands between the two halves of the country, splitting the north and south of India on social, political and cultural grounds.

Because the lay reader is unlikely to pick up history books, novels like The Conqueror: The Thrilling Tale Of The King Who Mastered The Seas, Rajendra Chola I might be the next best option. Rising to the challenge of historical fiction after his trailblazing works in the mythological genre, Aditya Iyengar brings to us a fascinating glimpse of the riches of the Dravidian past.

Indiafacts (of the right kind)

One of the common tropes peddled to establish the greatness of ancient India is that it has never attacked any other. Like many blatantly untrue Whatsapp forwards, this “fact” has been repeated over and over again by people, including the Prime Minister. The contention of India’s cohesive nationhood aside, there are a fair number of instances of kings from “Bharatvarsha” invading other kingdoms. This is most evident in the history of the Chola dynasty, which is known to have ruled from about 300 BCE right up to the 13th century CE.

The naval might of the Cholas is perhaps unparalleled in Indian history – both as a necessity for and a consequence of abundant trade on the Indian Ocean. With the Arabs on one side and the Chinese on the other, India and all South East Asian nations such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Singapore were engaged in heavy commercial exchange in the early to late medieval period.

The seafaring Cholas were among the most ambitious and successful of these kingdoms, with Rajendra Chola I extending his kingdom as far as Srivijaya – present day Sumatra in Indonesia. The Cholas peaked around 1030 CE under this king, and it is his story that forms the basis of Iyengar’s historical fiction debut.

Cool fiction, hard facts

One of the smartest things about this novel is its narrative device. The narrator-protagonist speaks to the scribe-audience, placing on their shoulders the responsibility of impartiality. It is an important lesson in historiography, and a reminder to the reader that accepted history is often the version written from the victor’s perspective, and coloured by the historian’s own beliefs and prejudices (and paycheques). The author reverses the gaze in this book, and chooses to speak in the voice of the vanquished. The protagonist, strangely, is not Rajendra Chola I, as the title of the book suggests, but Sangrama Vijayatunggavarman, the captured king of the Srivijaya Empire.

The story opens in a prison cell where King Sangrama Vijayatunggavarman is awaiting execution, giving his statement to the government scribe – a role assigned to the reader. The Srivijayan monarch’s tale begins with the invasion of the Cholas, and Iyengar is in his element here. The author’s fondness for war sequences is evident, for he describes the fight between the Cholas and Srivijayans with as much as ardour as he has about the Pandavas and the Kauravas in his earlier works. Only this time, his sequences are based on robust historical research.

The war sequences encompass information on war technology of the medieval period, with compelling visuals of cavalry ranks with elephants and artillery files with fire slingshots. In explaining the economic reasons behind the war, the author also gives the reader a fair idea of the trade and tax practises of the time. Further into the story, the reader is acquainted with the administrative, judicial, and socio-cultural aspects of Tamil society, as also political intrigue. These are surely treats for any history buff, and come topped with the assurance of at least some cultural authenticity, for Iyengar is Tamil himself. He only leans on fiction – as he clarifies at the end – where historical records are silent.

Devil in the details

The author pieces together much of the narrative using epigraphs and secondary sources, thus bringing alive a convincing picture of the 11th century India. By his own admission, he uses a language contemporary to our times, but the authenticity of his writing is none the poorer for it. For even when his choice of words is modern, his facts are straight, and his treatment is true to the period.

Wonderful little historical details pepper the pages of the novel, now in the form of the height of the majestic Brihadeeshwara temple, and later as the alternate meaning of the word Mahapralaya, or as a nugget on “Hinduwani steel”, which was considered even stronger than the steel of Damascus. The reader delights in learning how India was known by different names in that period: for instance, as “Hind” by the Arabs, “Tianzhu” by the Chinese, “Jambudwipa” by the Srivijayans.

Iyengar also weaves in several legends and mythical tales into the story, making it even more detailed. In an interesting plot setting, the king of the Cholas and the king of the Srivijayans rendezvous in the middle of the night, trading stories and building a unique friendship. Tales of bravery and treachery, of statecraft and the supernatural, of monarchs and ordinary men are exchanged, even as one sizes up the other. The author spares no opportunity to squeeze in stories – sometimes a story too many – into the narrative. Even the main plot is split into two parallel narratives, with one following the vanquished king and his experiences in Tamilakam, and the other tracking his daughter, who goes on to become the queen of Kahuripan after escaping the Chola siege.

Art over heart

But perhaps because Iyengar focuses too much on getting the facts right, he misses out in the soul department. Unlike his Mahabharata series, where the heroes exude emotion effortlessly, the people populating this book seem a little plastic. Blood is shed, families are torn apart, and hearts are broken, but none of it moves.

The length of this work is another small problem. Though 260 pages can hardly be called lengthy, especially in this genre, it seems stretched and repetitive in places. Wanting to cram in too much information also weighs the plot down. King Sangrama’s despair or King Rajendra’s loneliness are found constantly competing with information about either trade relations with China or the rivalry with the Chalukyans, and rarely reach a reader’s heart.

But given that this is the author’s first attempt at historical fiction, these minor flaws can be overlooked. Credible retellings of the past are of great importance to a generation of readers steadily being fed on distortions. Books like The Conqueror can take down at least a few warriors of the army that is the “IT cell”.

The Conqueror: The Thrilling Tale Of The King Who Mastered The Seas, Rajendra Chola I, Aditya Iyengar, Hachette India.