Author: Devi Yesodharan
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Empire by Devi Yesodharan is a skillful amalgamation of memories and dreams mixed with fiction and research into a not-so-well known era of ancient history. As a schoolgirl growing up in Bombay, the life and times of the Chola dynasty received no more than a mention in our history books. The author’s effort to bring this period to life is most welcome.
Anantha, the commander of the navy of the mighty Chola empire, wins an 11-year-old Greek girl, Aremis, as the spoils of battle.
From the beginning, she is groomed to be a warrior and archer. She receives training from Shrey, the best teacher. Years later, Aremis is an accomplished warrior.
She misses her home and her people, and feels herself a stranger in this land. Despite spending years here, people look upon her as Yavani, the foreigner.
It is a time when rivalries are vicious and no soldier likes being bested by a woman. Even when Aremis wins the archery competition, the rewards are given to Rajivan, a competitor. Instead, Aremis is named King Rajendra’s bodyguard.
The King reinstates a woman as his Queen Amaya, a woman that everybody thought had been dead for eight years. Everybody accepts her as the queen. Only Anantha suspects her of deceit. He shares his suspicions with Aremis.
When the Cholas learn that the Srivijayans have been taking undue advantage of them in the trade against the Song dynasty of China, they decide to declare war against the Srivijayans.
Meanwhile, Mandakini, Anantha’s mistress, suffers from poisoning as a result of poppy consumption. Sent to apprehend the man who smuggles the opium, Aremis kills him in self defence. She is thrown out of the palace, no longer a throne guard.
At Anantha’s request, the King reinstates her into the war effort. As they head to war, some of the men take ill. When they land at an island looking for herbs, Aremis is brutally attacked by Rajivan and the liege men of the opium smuggler.
The book is written in the 3rd person present tense point of view of Anantha and Aremis. In choosing Aremis and Anantha for the two voices, the author has chosen well. Both affect the King.
The author takes us into the past, to Nagapattinam in the 11th century, when the Chola dynasty has its glory days. We see the essential nature of politics in the strategising, the politicking, the relationship between the king and his subjects and vassals, all seeking to further their own agendas.
I commend the author for her keen research about life, seafaring and the wars and battles then.
As the novel begins, we learn of the might and sweep of the Chola empire. As it plods on, we are not so sure. We realise the scale of the effort it takes to maintain the power, the lives destroyed.
We get an idea of the magnitude of the kingdom’s glory through many ways. The Vagnivara, the author tells us, was a ship big enough for 30 elephants and 200 men. Some of the details of the glory of those times are quite breathtaking. They give us an indication of the heights of glory which the dynasty had achieved.
The error emerges when some of us believe India’s glorious past was all glory and no stink.
The author herself gives us evidence of what wasn’t quite right. How dogs, the leather saddle etc were considered unclean, but the combination of priests and coins could make everything good again.
Not much has changed over 1000 years. War still excites the unscrupulous with its opportunity for profit. Twisted minds still prey on people through their faith.
I saw this part of the book as a critique on the people. In the person of Aremis, we see how, for a nation that speaks of tolerance, we are horribly racist and wary of foreigners.
The writing was beautiful, often rising to the level of poetry in many places, and drawing you in. It is sensual and evokes all the five senses. I could almost taste, smell and feel Nagapattinam.
Aremis speaks of her rootlessness, like seasickness on firm ground. Her memories do not run roots through the earth.
Rajivan is like those thick thorn bushes in the forest that bristle at nothing.
There are taverns that serve drinks that make you immortal at least for an evening.
The Cholas have a powerful navy, whose strength the sea tests with shipwrecks, dead sailors, fleets of invaders with outlandish dreams.
Some of the truths still hold true. Peace is an elaborate fiction that kings tell their people, and to preserve it soldiers must die in skirmishes in the dead of night, and fields must be cleared of their bodies before the jackals turn up.
How quickly it is that things that we once wanted we now feel only a distant pull for… How many things we fight for are like that? Yet we give up so much for our treasures, like the silkworm pulling the threat out of her core, weaving the silk and dying at the same time.
The truth needs time to wriggle itself out from where it’s hiding.
Anantha has the best reflections. Here they are:
He says, We never look too closely at the people we are used to seeing. It’s strangers that we examine from mole to scar, from the ends of their smiles to the slant of their accents, before we allow them into our lives.
The sword is kinder than the sea.
Elsewhere, he reflects that It is easier to build things than to keep them from collapsing. From the moment of creation, decay begins.
He says, We are a people brought up on stories of ugly monsters and handsome heroes. He also adds, The gods are like tiny tyrants, both unreasonably loving and cruel, holding people in thrall.
They still do.
While I appreciated the poetry of the prose, I couldn’t say the same about the plot. I found it loose, more like a series of sub-plots that didn’t feel as if they were part of a composite whole. Good writing alone can’t hold a reader's interest forever.
Anantha’s worries regarding the new queen; Mandakini’s death from poisoning and the subsequent events, they all had a weak link. And the truth about the false queen didn’t come out at all. We receive no closure on that point.
Even the title, Empire seemed a loose fit.
The words on the cover, He is India’s mightiest king, She is his bodyguard, hint at some sort of a relationship between the two, which is belied through the course of the book. In reality, the book is more about Anantha and Aremis.
Also, the book blurb describes Aremis as 12 years old, while in the book, she is brought in at age 11.
In the beginning, Aremis begins a relationship with Nateshan, but at the insistence of Shrey, her guru, she ends it. Later, as a throne guard, she is required to deny her own femininity, condemned first as a warrior, and stripped of friends like Nateshan. She stands alone.
At this point, she begins a brief relationship with Kamakshi, one of the dancing girls. I couldn’t understand the motivation for Aremis’ relationship with Kamakshi – why do either of them allow it? Was it just to bring the element of bisexuality in? It seems sudden and forced.
In sum, I liked the writing, but the non-resolution of the weak links left me with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.
(I received a free copy of this book for the purpose of this review from Juggernaut.)