A vision of the counterculture of the great Chola era

When Veena Muthuraman’s novel The Grand Anicut opens, it focuses its lens on minor figures – a girl and a boy diving into pearls in the Gulf of Mannar during the 1st century AD. The siblings witness something unusual: a large ship from Rome has entered the waters of Tamilakam. This deceptively beautiful opening, in which lives that are usually written out of history are brought to the fore, gives way to a more conventional narrative about the crown, country, and currency.

On board the ship are Marcellus, a yavana (as Westerners were called in Tamilakam or the region inhabited by the ancient Tamils), and Vallavan, the son of an influential merchant from the Chola country. The two share a complex dynamic: Vallavan travels as a guest, and is Marcellus’ lover, and more importantly, a language teacher – without the Tamil that Marcellus is learning on the ship, he couldn’t survive what follows.

At the mooring, Marcellus is briefly arrested, then handed over to the care of other strangers, while Vallavan slips away. It takes some time before they come together, but there is no shortage of adventure and danger before it happens, or after.

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Shortly after Marcellus’ arrival at Vallavan’s (having been arrested, kidnapped, etc.), the latter sets out on a mission to deliver an urgent message to King Chola, Karikalan, who is taking care of his most ambitious project, and therefore inevitably controversial. – the very real big title anicut, which stands today, over 2,000 years later, as the Kallanai Dam on the Kaveri River.

Marcellus – who was sent to Tamilakam by his father on a secret and personal mission that has nothing to do with commercialism – is now traveling across the country, seeking not only Vallavan but also a way to enter enemy territory and to complete what it has been. designated to do. Through this journey, he comes to understand what lies beneath the earth’s evident prosperity – ruthless caste hierarchies, bigotry, and the struggles of indigenous peoples and the poor to retain their land and rights.

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Le Grand Anicut: By Veena Muthuraman, Hachette India, 320 pages, ??499.

Corn The Grand Anicut sacrifices a lot in the service of a quick plot. Mysteries – trade secrets, kidnappings, family scandals, murder plots – propel every chapter, but it’s hard to invest in a story we haven’t had a reason to care about players.

It’s only halfway The Grand Anicut, when a major secret is revealed, the cogs of Marcellus become intriguing and he acquires a dimension. This lack of interiority is a curious flaw, because the book is about passionate choices, motivated by greed, envy, revenge, lust and regret. Strangely enough, some of the cameo roles – the unnamed doctor, the pearl diving siblings, and a woman who appears at the very end – are either pathetic or arouse our curiosity. In fact, when the yavana reveals his secret to the doctor, whom he should logically not trust, one does not wonder why. It is etched in a way that it is not, except in occasional glimmers.

Most of the main characters work under the weight of their roles, even where they have great potential. For example, there is Kuzhali, the scheming but lost widowed elder sister of Vallavan, who dresses as a man and dreams of gaining power. She is quickly cut to measure, denigrated by several characters like “Pattinam’s vixen”, rejected by the bandit Angavai as someone “who thinks he can rule the world by hiding in the safety of his mansion” and relegated to the background. .

Why queerness and romance are not sufficiently explored in such a strongly patriarchal context is unclear. The reader cannot take it for granted that ancient Tamilakam enjoyed permissive manners, especially not when Vallavan’s mother, Malathi Ammal, manipulates her daughters and passes out like a character in a modern Tamil television series. Vallavan’s relationship with the yavana, as well as his relationships with women beyond his social echelons, have an inconsistent emotional tone. Where it suits him, he exclaims that someone is “his only love” or laments that “he is destined to fall in love with thugs”, but shows very little attachment to anyone beyond that. such statements. Muthuraman writes in his author’s note, “… in a version he [the novel] even became an impossible love story, even though I knew I couldn’t complete it, ”but doesn’t say why.

What we do know is that societal restrictions are clearly defined: caste, gender, and religion determine a person’s position in life. Tellingly, even those like Angavai and the hill-dwellers who place themselves outside the realm and caste strata cannot escape it. So does Vallavan, like any rich man of any age, simply enjoy impunity because of privilege? Even so, what is he to feel?

There are many nods to classical Tamil literature: the sections open with verses from Silapathikaram, Kuruntokai and Pattinapalai (in the translations by R. Parthasarathy and AK Ramanujam), but the deep emotionality of the poems ends up offering an unflattering contrast to the absence of the novel.

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What The Grand Anicut successful is that it subtly and overwhelmingly undermines the glorification of state, nation, race, caste or religion. The book stifles, by reminding the reader of historicity, the chauvinistic notion of a monolithic Tamil identity. Ordinary people in Pandya and Chola countries hate each other. Meanwhile, the Chera country with its thriving port of Muziris forms strategic foreign alliances to fortify itself against the other two. The Cheras do not appear in this novel, but the distrust between the inhabitants of the three main Tamil kingdoms is evident.

King Chola Karikalan seeks to merge the kingdoms in order to defeat Satkarni of Amaravati; how it will be carried out, through a rhetoric of unity, is a story as old as time and still as relevant as ever. The imperialist invasions of Venni and Yalpanam (the Tamil name for Jaffna), the way in which the great anicut under construction deprives the inhabitants of the region of the right to vote and the casual way in which the king appropriates the struggles of the mountaineers as ‘he argues with the Brahmins are all striking elements of this representation. As Angavai said at one point, before listing the injustices that take place under a smokescreen of cultural and commercial prosperity, “You don’t know anything about this land.”

The novel’s counterculture perspective – which brings outsiders out of the shadows, challenges the supremacy of named or anointed rulers, and pokes fun at breathtaking displays of legacy – is as welcome in this century as it is. ‘he was in Angavai’s.

Sharanya Manivannan is a writer and illustrator. His latest, “Mermaids In The Moonlight” is a children’s picture book that was released in early 2021.

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