Ponniyin Selvan Book 1: Fresh Floods: – “A Southern Epic for a Northerner’s craving”

After 4 years in South India, THE GUILT of not knowing enough about its History, Culture and of barely having any basic knowledge of it’s languages, almost overwhelms you. And you finally resolve that this cannot continue. How is it that you know more about the English Kings than the Travancore ones.  How is it that you have unlimited admiration for the Vikings but know next to nothing about the Chola(Chozha) Empire, which was the greatest naval power in South Asia at its peak.

How is it, pray tell, that you consider yourself in love with history and stories, when you barely have any knowledge about one of the longest ruling dynasties of India,  or of the  three crowned kings of Tamilkam. How is it my dear dear man, that you have never tried reading about Ponniyin Selvan(~Beloved Son of the river Ponni) Raja Raja Chola I, who united almost all of South India under his Tiger flag. And under whose son, The empire stretched as far as Indonesia.

Chola 1030
Chola Empire (1030 CE) (Source : Wikipedia)

No, this slight has to be corrected, and as you have an insatiable thirst for fiction, what better way to impart on this discovery of the southern lands and kings than by following one of the most celebrated  Tamil authors Kalki Krishnamurthy , and his magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan, translated (blessedly!) by Pavithra Srinivasan (yes, a translated version, yes I know it won’t be the same thing, but give me a break huh!, I am trying here.)

Ponniyn Selvan B1

3.5/5 Stars GoodReads Rating System

Its the late 10th century, our hero ‘Vandiyathevan’, a dashing warrior of the prestigious Vaanar clan has been given an important mission by his leader and dear friend the crown prince of the great Chola empire, Aditya Karikalan. And so, our hero departs from Kanchi towards the capital Thanjavur on his adventurous journey through the Chola empire.

The story Kalki weaves is marvelous and as I have just started (one of five), I eagerly look forward to the others. An epic is not an epic unless it combines almost all the possible genres of fiction in one fine intricate tale. And that, this marvel written in the 1950s does splendidly, it has mystery, of conspiracies being hatched against the empire and its current rulers, the threat of invasion by enemy forces, romance with woman equated to celestial nymphs, thrill of a fast paced chase, and the glory of an adventurous & exploratory  journey across the proud and plentiful Chola Empire, with cities bustling with people and produce, temples and palaces to shame even the heavens, and greenery and rivers at their brimming best. The Romance in Kalki’s writing is palpable. The story undeniably invokes a sense of pride, “This was Glorious, This time, This age, These places, These achievements, This was Us, Our Ancestors Did This” the book almost seems to say. Me, being from Northern India, still had an urge to join in the “Vaazhga vaazgha!” chants of the people wishing “Long lives” to the Chozha emperor, the Chozha empire and the Tiger flag. Quite a rosy picture indeed, the comparison he draws between the Chozha princesses and celestial nymphs like Urvashi, Menaka, Rambha etc etc brought a smile to my face, ‘with skin as smooth as marble, as fragrant as sandalwood and lips as soft as lotus petals’, I mean, Goddamn this man had flair.

The story had many dynamics, and needless to say many interesting characters. The one disadvantage (among many) I had was of, not knowing the Tamil tongue, and thus I missed out on the various Tamil songs and prayers recanted in this story. Of the ones, that were duly translated, I understood but I missed out on the word play that must have been in their chaste Tamil version. And the names, oh Gods, the names, such complicated names (or so it seemed to me, again, not a Tamil speaker) like “Periya Pazhuvettarayar” or “Azhwarkardiyan Nambi”, again and again I went to my Tamil speaking friends, seeking clarifications and correct pronunciations (unsuccessfully I am sad to say, oh well). Another aspect that Intrigued me was the bit about religious tension, this was 10th Century, Allah and Jesus had yet to enter South Indian politics, Hindu deities ruled supreme in people’s mind, but that is no reason for them not to fight among st themselves, oh no sir, so they fought over who is more strong and supreme “Lord Shiva” or “Lord Vishnu”. The arguments between Shaivites and Vaishnavites, made me roll my eyes more than once.

And now to Pavithra Srinivasan, She I hope, had done as much justice to Kalki’s writing as she could. This I have to believe, as the words I have read, I assume, are as close to his as they can be in English. The book is well written and only Tamil speakers might be able to find possible trouble, I as a neutral party found nothing to complain about.

This is a worthwhile series to follow, specially if you are an Indian or South Asian, these are stories that are lost to other stories, they are there but ignored, looked over. The only mention that I could remember about Cholas, Cheras, Pallavas and Pandayas were about their architectural marvels, the legacies that they left in stone which the world couldn’t ignore were the only ones that found mention. Why, even that legacy is eroding, save a few temples which are maintained and looked after. So, lets go back to their stories I say, lets go back to the court intrigue of the south. This historical fiction written in 1950’s should be picked by  every reader across the length and breadth of this country, because along with imparting the pleasure of a well written historical fiction, it serves a greater purpose, it keeps these stories alive, it keeps the wonder of the south for all to experience.







River of Smoke : -“…of Greed,of Corruption,of Broken will and of Tales that would last Centuries”

River of Smoke

3.5/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“The flowers of Canton are immortal and will bloom forever”  ~Amitav Ghosh

And so i hope they shall, as long as they are not Opium poppies of course. The second installment in the Ibis Trilogy, had a lot to live up to. Understandably so, as Sea of Poppies had set the bar impossibly high. But to me at least, it delivered almost everything that was expected of it. The Opium Wars both 1 and 2, have had a very profound effect on the world, so much so that its ripples could still be felt even now, not only for China but also for India and for most of south east Asia. They can be felt in the Chinese anti west stance, or in India’s struggle to boost up its economy. But this event so critical to history is often neglected, as to the questions of, why it happened? could it have possibly been avoided? Did diplomacy play no part? this story provides ample answers. Opium harmed both the producer and the consumer, only the seller, as it seems profited from its trade.

And its traders are the people that we follow in this story. In Sea of Poppies, we traveled across Bihar to Bengal, in India, the regions abused by the Honorable (Ahm! Ahm!) East India Company for Opium production (against the wishes of the farmers, against any basic human decency), until finally the Ibis traveled down the Ganga to the Bay of Bengal and into the Indian Ocean. Investors and producers of Opium were, primarily, the people we dealt with. In, River of Smoke we travel eastward still, though not on the Ibis, to the Nicobar islands, to Malacca, Singapore, Macau and finally Canton. And who better to travel these waters and ports with, than the traders and traffickers who made this route famous in the first place. And so we reacquaint ourselves with “Paulette” our french orphan on her journey from ‘Mauritius’ to ‘Hong Kong’ in search of a fabled flower, With “Neel” our doomed raja and his life as a freeman. In addition , to a host of new characters, like “Behram Modee”  father of our opium addict “Ah fatt” , “Robin Chinnery” an old artist acquaintance of ‘Paulette’. And see the world of Canton from their eyes, one a Parsi opium trader of renown from Bombay and the other a ‘bastard’ painter from Calcutta. Some of the old characters from the first book are passingly mentioned, or make brief appearances without ever taking the center stage. Their stories I suspect have been saved for book 3 which I think would focus on soldiers and the actual armed Opium conflict. This book however gives you the build up to it. To the events in ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 factories.

13 factories
Canton Harbor and the 13 Factories with their respective flags

This book too like the previous one, is, exceedingly well researched and written. Without taking too much liberty with history, a lot of historically accurate events and people play a central part in the story. The use of these authentic characters gives the story a life of its own. But unlike the previous one, this tale was a slow burner, you feel no rush to reach the end as quickly as possible. On the contrary, you live through the journey, basking in the author’s very detailed descriptions of the landscape of our various destinations, a glimpse into their societies, even the fl-aura and fauna these places had. More than once, I went online to read about a particular flower or shrub (like the Golden Camellia), or researched about a historical figure mentioned in the book (Lin Zexu obviously, but many others as well like George ChinneryCharles Elliot etc etc). The point is, the book used a LOT of information which seems quite obvious, it being a Historical fiction and whatnot, but it used it in such a way as to make you curious about them. The bulk of the tale takes place in Canton, the single entry point available to foreigners for trading with China. The city fascinated me, more so ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 Factories, these places, the focal point of the story, were amazingly detailed.

The plot as I mentioned, was not as exciting as the first book but the charm of the book lies in its rediscovery of forgotten worlds and lives. And the best part, the book doesn’t leave you hanging, you could gobble it up and rest with contentment before you feel hungry again. I was impressed by Mr. Ghosh’s style of making the abrupt ending of the first book seem a proper ending during the first few chapters of the second one. His style of jumping between timelines before engrossing in the story is intriguing. The book deserves all the praise and nominations it has been awarded.  I recommend this series to any and all history buffs, these were exciting times, these are intriguing stories and to experience them with the pleasure of fiction makes it infinitely more fun.

Book Review: Sea of Poppies : – “Darkly addictive as Opium itself.”


4/5 Stars GoodReads Rating System

Amitav Ghosh, to my shame was a name that I knew only as the receiver of the ‘Padma Shri’ the 4th highest civilian Honor in India. Despite the shower of awards and recognition bestowed upon his famous works, specially in my beloved genre of Historical Fiction, I had not read any of his books before this. THAT, I assure you is surely gonna change because I have never seen Justice done to history as intricately as in “Sea of Poppies”.

This saga, being the first of three, initially tests your patience, you have to give it time which is not the easiest thing to do in a book spanning close to 500 pages. It introduces you to a host of characters in 1838 India, when the British gluttony for the opium profits knew no bounds, and in Bihar and Bengal where once the farms were green with rice or gold with wheat, there now resided a Sea of poppies. And thus our band of misfits consist of a village woman victim to such harvest in every sense possible, a mulatto American freedman who by a chance of fate finds himself among Gentleman of the empire, A raja reduced to nothing, a french orphan with an Indian heart, a Young boatman with dreams of the sea, an eccentric ‘munshi’, a half Chinese half Parsi opium addict and others as diverse and interesting as the era itself. The character building in this novel is phenomenal, Mr. Ghosh takes his time with each and every single one, shaping it page by page, this sometimes feel a bit cumbersome as you restlessly wait for the journey to begin aboard the ship, as you know it will. But no, he makes you pay attention, to invest in the characters before they do anything of note. This book sets the board for the coming story and thus as I have said earlier demands a bit of patience. But the wait is ultimately rewarding. Mr.Ghosh’s attention to detail is commendable,  his research I believe would have been quite extensive and it shows in the book. The language used by many of the characters is a mix of Hindustani and English, With each character having their own style and way with words, from the Irish laced sailor slang of the first mate to the Bhojpuri of ‘Deeti’, the village woman, though being an Indian I had considerably less trouble following what was being said but to a foreign audience that style of writing might take some getting used to,  though the author has I believe tried to ease this issue by cleverly including “THE IBIS CHRESTOMATHY” at the end of the book , providing a glossary of words used in the tale, their meaning and origins. But even so, it could sometimes hamper the reading experience, but the thing to appreciate even in this, is the writer’s total dedication to the authenticity of the era , and the characters. This I believe adds an extra quirk to the story and takes nothing away.

The only issue that bothered me was the abrupt end of the book, after my initial “What the..” reaction, some restless moments were spent feverishly searching my kindle and laptop making sure that I have the next installment ready for consumption, much like an “afeemkhor” (opium addict) I imagine, confirming I have the means for the next fix. As I have read this in 2017 and all the three books are out, this again was not much trouble, but to a reader in 2008, the exasperation level would have been quite high. So, yes, that cliffhanger ending was a bit uncalled for, nothing was resolved, nothing was even close to closure. But it is what it is.

The book overall is splendidly written, the hypocrisy of the raj has been portrayed as is. No watering down, the narrative from a third man’s perspective as we experience through ‘Zachariah’, our mulatto freedman, adds substantial clarity and effect to the story. It is a great historical fiction in all aspects, checking every box essential for an epic tale and series. I will be moving on to the next one immediately, out of compulsion, curiosity or admiration I cannot say, maybe all three and why not, as William Styron aptly said  “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading”. This book fits that description to a T.