Book of the week: Devi Yesodharan’s Empire

If you’re a history lover and simply can’t get enough of delving deep into records of the past, this new historical fiction book will be right up your alley. Authored by Devi Yesodharan’swho used to work as a speech writer for Infosys co-founder Narayana MurthyEmpire is her first novel that tells the story of the Chola period by capturing an era when Tamil power was at its peak. However, it’s the 12-year-old Greek girl Aremis who will pique your curiosity. Taken as a prisoner of war by the Cholas, Aremis slowly becomes the kingdom’s greatest warrior and a bodyguard to the emperor Rajendar Chola. The book is thorough in its research and explicit in its historical details, and will transport you back to one of the most powerful empires of the time. 

You say that Empire was an accidental novel, not the one you wanted to write.  

That’s trueI love reading history, but didn’t plan on writing historical fiction. But while reading about the Rajendra Chola period, I came across so many fascinating detailsthe lamps that burned all night in the ports to guide incoming ships, the female guards for the king and the palaces, the cosmopolitan culture of the townsthat I couldn’t resist the story that was taking shape in my head. It felt inevitable. 

What inspired you to pick the Chola period particularly?

Indian history fascinates me, and I find the Cholas uniquely compelling: they were an outward-looking, curious culture, and their art, dance and literature is stunning and very skilled. Their poetry in particular gave me an insight into their emotional livesthey were a deeply passionate people, writing freely about romantic love, social restrictions, loneliness. Once I read their literature, I couldn’t let them go. I wanted more people to know about them.  

How did you make the character sketch of the female protagonist, Aremis?

I am a great fan of stories, both in books and film. But while reading or watching these, I often found myself relating more to the male protagonists than the female characters, who are typically not given that much to do. The women in the great majority of our Indian stories are often just the girlfriend or the virtuous wife, or the mean mother-in-law, or a seductress—usually a stereotype. I think this happens to many women who love storytelling: there are few female characters we can identify with. 

So I wanted Aremis to be a full-blooded, flawed character, someone who gets to do a lot in the story and is also, like any human being, imperfect, non-ideal, prone to making mistakes. And she is still somebody you can hopefully empathize with. When we first see her, it’s in the middle of a defeat, and after that she veers from crisis to crisis, making good as well as bad decisions, falling for the wrong people, being impulsive. I wanted people, both men and women, to relate to her as a person. Someone who is not necessarily a template-hero, but recognisable. 

What’s your favorite part of the novel? 

I enjoyed writing the battle scenes—the pacing of those scenes was a lot of fun, and also gave me the opportunity to show battles beyond the pomp and the glory: show it from the perspective of people in the fight, who can die at any moment. I also enjoyed writing the scenes between Anantha and Aremis, because of the complex history and emotions they share. They are two very different characters trying to understand one another, and there is a lot of guilt and resentment there, that slowly transitions into an unlikely friendship. 

Did you face any problems in finding historical records?

Fortunately, there were historians and scholars who have done an amazing amount of translation work that made records accessible. Translations by George Hart, Hank Heifetz and Vaidehi Herbert helped enormously. A compilation of research in the book Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa had translations of Tamil and Sanskrit inscriptions and copper plates, as well as Song Dynasty texts. And there were a lot of academic essays that were incredibly useful.  

Were there any historical facts you discovered that amazed you?

The power women had during the Chola period was definitely unusual in the medieval world. Women owned property and independent wealth that they could decide what to do with. They also participated in certain professions, and even served as ambassadors for kings. This declined later, as the Chola empire retreated. Gender equality seems to improve when economies are doing well. 

Rajendra Chola was also the only Indian king who ventured far out of India to capture new territory, invading and conquering Indonesia and parts of East Asia. He had a naval force large enough to transport his armies across the sea, and fight in foreign lands. This I think is a pretty incredible achievement. 

One thing you’re sure will hook the readers?

This is an all-out adventure based in a very interesting time in our history, and the story switches between the narrators Aremis and Anantha—one an outsider on the margins, the other a senior commander.  

So you see what’s happening from two parallel perspectives, with the action intersecting when they meet. I found the style a lot of fun to write. I hope it is fun for the reader as well. 

Empire is published on Juggernaut books.

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