When Veena Muthuraman’s novel The Grand Anicut opens, it trains its lens on minor characters—a pearl-diving girl and a boy in the Gulf of Mannar sometime during the 1st century CE. The siblings witness something unusual: a large vessel from Rome has entered Tamilakam’s waters. This deceptively beautiful opening, in which lives that are usually written out of history are foregrounded, gives way to a more conventional narrative about crown, country and currency.
On board the vessel are Marcellus, a yavana (as Westerners were known in Tamilakam or the region inhabited by ancient Tamils), and Vallavan, the son of an influential merchant of the Chola country. The two share a complex dynamic: Vallavan travels as a guest, and is Marcellus’ lover, and more importantly, language instructor—without the Tamil Marcellus learns on the ship, he wouldn’t be able to survive what follows.
Upon docking, Marcellus is briefly arrested, then released into the care of other foreigners, while Vallavan slips away. It is a while before they reunite, but there is no dearth of adventure and danger before this happens, or after.
Shortly after Marcellus arrives at Vallavan’s house (having been arrested, kidnapped, and more), the latter departs on a mission to deliver an urgent message to the Chola king, Karikalan, who is occupied with his most ambitious, and therefore inevitably controversial, project—the very real grand anicut of the title, which stands today, over 2,000 years later as the Kallanai Dam on the Kaveri river.
Marcellus — who has been sent to Tamilakam by his father on a secret and personal mission that has nothing to do with mercantilism — now travels travels across the land, seeking not only Vallavan but also a way to enter enemy territory and complete what he has been designated to do. Through this journey, he gets to understand what lies beneath the evident prosperity of the land—unforgiving caste hierarchies, bigotry, and the struggles of indigenous people and the poor to retain their land and their rights.
But The Grand Anicut sacrifices much in service of a fast-paced plot. Mysteries—trade secrets, kidnappings, family scandals, assassination plots—propel every chapter, yet it is hard to invest in a story in which we haven’t had reasons to care about the players.
It isn’t until mid-way into The Grand Anicut, when a major secret is revealed, that Marcellus’ inner workings become intriguing and he acquires dimension. This lack of interiority is a curious flaw, for the book is about passionate choices, driven by greed, envy, vengeance, lust and regret. Strangely, some of the cameo roles—the unnamed physician, the pearl-diving siblings, and a woman who appears at the very end—have pathos or tug at our curiosity. In fact, when the yavana reveals his secret to the physician, whom he logically should not trust, we don’t wonder why. She is etched in a way that he isn’t, except in occasional glimmers.
Most of the primary characters labour under the weight of their roles, even where they have great potential. For instance, there is the intriguing but wasted Kuzhali, Vallavan’s widowed older sister, who dresses in men’s attire and dreams of acquiring power. She is quickly cut to size, disparaged by several characters as “the vixen of Pattinam”, dismissed by the bandit Angavai as someone “who thinks she can run the world hiding in the safety of her mansion” and relegated to unimportance.
Why queerness and romance are not adequately explored against such a heavily patriarchal backdrop is unclear. The reader cannot take for granted that ancient Tamilakam enjoyed permissive mores, especially not when Vallavan’s mother Malathi Ammal manipulates her daughters and swoons like a character from a modern Tamil TV serial. Vallavan’s relationship with the yavana, as well as his relationships with women beyond his social echelons, have an inconsistent emotional tonality. Where it suits him, he exclaims that someone is “his only love” or decries that “he is destined to fall in love with lowlifes”, but shows very little attachment to anyone beyond such declarations. Muthuraman writes in her author’s note, “… in one version it [the novel] even became an impossible love story, though I knew I couldn’t carry that one through”, but doesn’t say why not.
What we do know is that the societal strictures are clearly delineated: caste, gender and religion determine one’s standing in life. Tellingly, even those like Angavai and the people of the hills who place themselves outside of the strata of kingdom and caste can’t escape it. Does Vallavan then, like any rich man of any era, simply enjoy impunity because of privileges? Even so, what does he feel?
The nods to classical Tamil literature are many—sections open with verses from Silapathikaram, Kuruntokai and Pattinapalai (in translations by R. Parthasarathy and A.K. Ramanujam), but the profound emotionality of the poems wind up offering an unflattering contrast to the novel’s lack thereof.
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What The Grand Anicut succeeds at is that it subtly and damningly undercuts the glorification of state, nation, race, caste or religion. The book snuffs out, through reminding the reader of historicity, the chauvinistic notion of a monolithic Tamil identity. The ordinary people of Pandya and Chola countries detest each other. Meanwhile, the Chera country with its thriving Muziris port forms strategic foreign alliances to fortify itself against the other two. The Cheras do not appear in this novel, but distrust among the people of the three major Tamil kingdoms is evident.
The Chola king Karikalan seeks to amalgamate the kingdoms in order to defeat Satkarni of Amaravati; how this will be executed, through a rhetoric of unity, is a tale as old as time and as relevant as ever. The imperialist invasions of Venni and Yalpanam (the Tamil name for Jaffna), how the grand anicut under construction disenfranchises the people of the area, and the glib way that the king appropriates the struggles of the hill people while in argument with the Brahmanas are all noteworthy elements of this portrayal. As Angavai says at one point, before she lists the injustices that take place under a smokescreen of cultural and commercial prosperity, “You know nothing of this land.”
The novel’s counterculture view—which brings the underdogs out of the shadows, challenges the supremacy of appointed or anointed leadership, and mocks chest-thumping displays of heritage—is as welcome in this century as it was in Angavai’s.
Sharanya Manivannan is a writer and illustrator. Her latest, ‘Mermaids In The Moonlight’ is a children’s picture book that came out in early 2021.