Written by Vikramajit Ram whose first book Elephant Kingdom: Sculptures from Indian Architecture was followed by two travelogues, The Sun And Two Seas marks his debut in fiction writing. A graduate in art from the National Institute of Design, Ram combines his knowledge of art and architecture with excellent narrative skill to tell—‘not the sad story of the death of kings’, though several deaths do occur in the novel—something that is more than an exceedingly readable tale. The Sun temple at Konark forms the nucleus around which the novel’s parallel but connected narratives are structured. Sculpted as a giant chariot, the vehicle of Arka/ the Sun God, with twelve pairs of giant wheels and pulled by seven horses, the temple is believed to have been built by King Narasimhadeva I of the Ganga dynasty in 1255 CE. Apart from these links to archaeology and history the narrative is a heady concoction of fiction laced with myth and folk tale.
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Divided into four parts, the novel has a dramatic, almost climactic beginning with easy chronological shifts—the description of the great fire that destroyed the royal palace of Cadambagiri is followed by the narration of the events that led to it; the appearance of the Oracle before the Raja, the construction of the grand pavilion, the arrival of the Crown Prince of Parijatapuri supposedly to study statecraft, and the younger princess’s infatuation for him. Thereafter the locale shifts back and forth between three lands, Kataka, Parijatapuri and Cadambagiri, interspersed with the chronicle of the ten month long voyage to the kingdom of Kilwa and back, and of course the fulcrum of it all, the site of the temple on the mouth of the Chandrabhaga river as it flows into the Bay of Bengal. In keeping with the penchant of medieval kings to build temples and palaces to commemorate major events of their reign, Narasimha Ganga embarks on the ambitious project of building the Sun temple to mark his coronation. Six years have gone by since then; the privy treasury is depleted and the structure is nowhere near completion. Barring the first chapter, the novel is situated at this point in time and moves forward.
The writer exhibits commendable skill in delineating character and portraying interpersonal relationships employing varied strategies like characters that act as foils and deft minimalistic sketches. If Narasimha is depicted as a dynamic king and a brave warrior, impulsive, restless, one who enjoys living dangerously, his friend the Crown Prince of Parijatapuri is his very antithesis. Quiet, diffident, sensitive, one who has no political ambition and prefers books to statecraft, he is no match for his scheming, ambitious consort; rather an obstacle whom she plots to eliminate. Contrast is employed with even greater effect in portraying the unwed sovereign of Cadambagiri and her older sister the Crown Princess of Parijatapuri. The former is described as beautiful, courageous, intelligent and witty. The closing line of her first letter to Narasimha, ‘With the assurance that we no longer employ fire to express our sentiments…’ (p. 41), a luscious instance of the writer’s (real and fictional)wry humour, is also an excellent means of character delineation. Initially the reader might view her unthinking impetuous act at the start of the novel as the causal factor that sets in motion the series of events that end in tragedy but soon the realization dawns that such an interpretation is too simplistic. The Crown Princess who pretends to be the victim is in truth envenomed by jealousy and ambition, vindictive and cruel, totally amoral, an opportunist whose self-interest knows no boundaries.
A remarkable and charming feature of the novel is the instances of female bonding that it provides.The correspondence that springs up between the Sovereign of Cadambagiri and Sitadevi when the latter recognizes in the former’s letters to her husband, ‘…no illicit intent…Rather an impassioned heart…’ who seeks refuge in the written word and finds ‘… in Kataka a sympathetic eye’ (p. 106). Sitadevi initiates the correspondence, hoping to gain a friend for life. The meeting between Sitadevi and the courtesan is again a delicate and heart-warming instance of sensitive understanding and empathy with one’s own sex, especially between two women who belong to different social orders. In contrast Narasimha and Parijatapuri are creatures of mood and whim, alternating between sensitivity and callousness. If this is evident in Narasimha’s almost dismissive treatment of Parijatapuri it is equally evident in the latter’s behaviour towards the consort’s orphan cousin. ‘The ways of the powerful as I am learning are truly inconstant’ (p. 155) the youth observes. Interestingly, the cousin—unnamed like several others—is one character who grows in the course of the novel. The near illiterate ‘beautiful’ youth whom Narasimha scorns as a slithering wastrel, undergoes a veritable transformation during the voyage when circumstances force him to become the proxy envoy and later proxy master of the ship. An interesting touch as mentioned earlier is to leave several characters, even important ones, unnamed. This in no way impairs representation. The teacher cum lover scrivener, the humourless and dry secretary, the courtesan, the one-eyed shipmaster, are all etched with an artist’s eye for detail, vivid and memorable. In fact the technique of referring to the assassins by their office is a particularly piquant touch.
The language is contemporary, except for the coinages. The writer alternates narrative techniques, from the formal to the colloquial, at times mimicking the cadences of folk narrative and indigenous sentence structures. Occasionally the latter has a tongue-in cheek effect as in the case of the oracle’s utterance: ‘Rain it will that night. Begin work in haste or forever live to regret…’ (p. 5). The novel provides innumerable examples of brilliant insightful observations and one liners. For instance, ‘…only her water clocks and sundials knew how much she craved a confidante’ (p. 107) is a remarkably poignant line about Sitadevi. Many memorable lines are ascribed to the scrivener like the observation, ‘How adroitly a myth can be spun to feed laziness, how little it takes to sustain a myth’ (p. 174). Again saddened by the imminent departure of his lover he thinks he had been a fool to have ‘… dived off the safe island of lust into the murky waters of love;…’
(p. 132). Or take his comment on the plot against Parijatapuri: ‘It is all most uninspired. Wickedness often is’ (p. 140).
One liners reflecting ironic humour abound. However, the comment on Narasimha and his consort’s relationship, that they had ‘…nothing in common—the true secret of marital bliss…’ (p. 23) is unwarrantedly cynical and could have been avoided. For the most part however, painstaking attention to detail, visual and verbal, marks the novel. The cover illustration by Onkar Fondekar that has the flute playing cousin nymph-like in the centre, just below the temple with the scrivener and the king on either side, the majestic Arkaja with its unique cargo in the foreground and above it all Sitadevi viewing the constellations is vivid and has a tableau effect. The cover design by Maithili Doshi Aphale differs from the ordinary. The title is kept tantalizingly vague. If the aim was to whet the appetite of the prospective reader it is indeed good strategy.
The writer’s knowledge and passion for sculpture surfaces in the elaborate description of the work site: the partially completed structure as it sprawls overlooking the creek and the sea, the vast plinth, the immense cuboid (yet to be covered by sculptures) that occupies a third of the terrace, the draughtsmen busily etching preparatory drawings on stiffened muslin, etc. However, what makes the description unique is that the reader is granted her/his first impression of the structure and setting not from Narasimha’s but Parijatapuri’s perspective. As he stands awe-struck by the true scale of the structure he sees something else; the human figures with their cankered faces and extremities bathing in the water. The myth of Samba could not have been introduced in a more dramatic way. Such an inclusion of the physically damaged humans who are the models for the perfect sculptures is a powerful instance of the use of the sculptural technique of ‘relief’ in narration. Cursed to be a leper by Sage Durvasa, Samba was cured by the Sun God after twelve years of penance on the banks of the Chandrabhaga. However, the lepers who pose as models for the sculptors are there not for the cure but for what they will earn—salt, oil and rice that they get at the close of each day. They bathe in the river knowing well that ‘…not all the mud and waters of the Chandrabhaga could reverse …’ (p. 95) their plight. The echo of Lady Macbeth’s famous words can hardly be missed. The lines that follow: ‘The old myth was just that: a myth. Only at night in their hutments … did they permit themselves to believe they were human, perfect’ (p. 95), are hauntingly tragic. Again, the glimpse into the future: ‘In centuries to come, the structure that squatted on the seafront will darken and tumble into disarray; the creek will shrink to a trickle and then leave no trace of having existed;…the sea itself will ebb a mile east. But later. Today…’ (pp. 89–90). It is lines such as these that elevate the text from the level of an exciting one time read. It succeeds in conjuring up for the reader a vivid picture of court life in medieval times; the extravagant, luxurious life style of the powerful, illicit relationships, debauchery, intrigues and conspiracies, danger, ruthlessness, as well as the sordid emptiness, sadness and inhumanity that lies beneath the overt pomp as evidenced in the flourishing slave trade. Ram produces a version of the period that is multidimensional and more holistic than a narrowly ‘historical’ depiction, in the process generating what Georg Lucas referred to as ‘historical consciousness.’
Catherine Thankamma, a retired Associate Professor of English, has worked in various government colleges under the Government of Kerala. She has a Ph.D in theatre from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has translated Kocharethi: The Araya Woman (OUP 2012).