Anu Kumar’s A Chola Adventure catapults its reader back in time to 990 CE, Thanjavur. The prologue is an intriguing one: we’re introduced to twelve-year-old Raji through a recurring nightmare, in which there’s a relentless storm and a woman wailing piteously. The reader soon learns that Raji’s mother, the distinguished dancer, Menaka, has been banished from the kingdom for allegedly poisoning Prince Madurantaka, son of the now-dead King Uttama Chola. One morning, Raji wakes up to find that her grief-stricken father, Kesavan (a famed sculptor), who vanished soon after her mother’s exile, has returned home. Raji watches eagerly as her father begins to sculpt an astounding Nataraja to life, but remains as haunted as he is by her mother’s absence. What happened to the dancer who was abandoned at sea?
But spirited Raji is an architect too. In an abandoned cottage, she builds her own toy kingdom, a lovingly crafted mini replica of King Rajaraja’s empire, and dreams of sailing away and finding her mother. Her hideout is accidentally discovered by the king’s son, Rajendra Chola, and his cousin, Ananta, the bird-whisperer, who has suffered a loss of his own. Impressed by her craftsmanship and natural intelligence, Ananta and the prince persuade the queen mother to have Raji educated. But, even while she is kept busy at lessons, the nightmares return. One stormy night, she saves an injured Chinese sailor, little foreseeing what this rescue will result in…
Writers of historical fiction walk a tightrope, traversing the thin line between historicising fiction and fictionalising history. While they have to contend with the knowledge that the ‘truth’ in their narratives may be contested or even criticised, they have the added challenge of credibly recapturing a particular time period and its people, while understanding the contemporary sensibilities of the young readers they are writing for. After all, books which have historical accuracy without imaginative leaps are likely to leave their audience unmoved, even if they do end up in school syllabi for the value placed on the former.
The reign of the Cholas is an undoubtedly exciting time period and Anu Kumar has a vast canvas to work with. A Chola Adventure is a pacy read. There’s theft, murder, disappearance, and the mystery and suspense that fills the narrative takes its cue from recorded history: the numerous wars the Cholas waged within the subcontinent and overseas, the enterprising trade relations which stretched as far as Indonesia and China, and the suspicion and rivalry that is believed to have existed between the two wings of the family.
Interesting information – like the building of lightweight ships to navigate the seas, the construction of irrigation networks, and the conception of the elephant army that Rajaraja Chola the First is famed for – is woven into the background, never overwhelming the plot. The iconography of the Nataraja, as we know it today, is believed to have evolved under Chola rule, and through Kesavan the sculptor, Anu Kumar creatively imagines its birth in stone. At the end of the book, there’s a short, but useful note on the Cholas followed by a write-up that paints the backdrop against which the story is set.
The most attractive aspect of Raji’s personality is her aliveness to her own instincts. It is this that makes the changing nature of her nightmares more plausible. From being mere premonitions, they slowly alter, offering her insightful flashes – clues that the reader, like Raji, must decipher to make sense of a disjointed whole. As the narrative progresses, dream and reality meet in unexpected ways. The end is satisfying and fitting: Raji embarks on a new adventure.
A few editorial lapses. There is an error in the English translation of the Tamil lines spoken by Liu the sailor (page 31). While the Tamil text means “I cannot see you again”, it has been translated as “I will see you again”. On page 73, there is a reference to the Silappadikaram, where Kannagi’s husband, Kovalan, has been wrongly referred to as Kovalam. There are two references to the “Far East” (page 99, page 123), and while the term is anachronistic in the present, it sounds even more out of place in Rajaraja’s time! It’s also odd (not to mention confusing) that Raji and Prince Rajendra Chola call their respective grandmothers “Aji”, while Kesavan is referred to as “Father”. At times, Raji and the young princes tend to sound older than they are, but they are engaging, likeable characters and with a plot line that’s tight, Anu Kumar has her reader’s attention where she wants it.
A Chola Adventure is part of a series called Girls of India, presumably targeting tween girls. Yes, the chief protagonist is a girl, but boys will enjoy this book as well. While there is nothing overtly ‘girlie’ about the book’s cover design (including the series title, which is typeset in an elegant, unobtrusive font), this pitch might deter boys from reading it. The book definitely merits a wider readership.
By Niveditha Subramaniam
Author: Anu Kumar
Illustrator: Hemant Kumar
Puffin Books, 2012
Subject category: Contemporary/Historical Fiction