Turning the pages of history

Chintan Girish Modi

Preetha Leela Chockalingam is a lecturer at London Metropolitan University who loves writing historical fiction set in Kerala. Her novel A Chera Adventure is part of the “Girls of India series” published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This series includes A Harappan Adventure by Sunila Gupte, A Chola Adventure by Anu Kumar, and a Mauryan Adventure by Subhadra Sen Gupta. These books would be of interest to teachers of history as well as literature who are looking to collaborate and teach interdisciplinary lessons.

A Chera Adventure, which is recommended for readers of “ages 9 and above”, offers an engrossing picture of life in the Chera kingdom of Kerala in the 11th century BCE. The author makes this period comes alive through the observations and curiosities of a girl named Sharadha, who lives in a tharavadu (ancestral family home) called Vishwasam in Marayur. Sharadha’s mother and aunts live under the watchful eyes of her grandmother, Devaki Amma, who happens to work as a healer for the king. Read this book to find out how Sharadha lands up in Mahodayapuram, the bustling capital of the Cheraman Perumal Empire.

“It is widely believed that Mahodayapuram was located in modern-day Kodungallur in the Thrissur district of Kerala,” writes Preetha Leela Chockalingam in a note about the Chera dynasty that appears at the end of this book. She adds, “Being the main trading port of the Cheras, it was an extremely busy, robust place where people from all over the world would come to bargain and barter.” In the course of her research, she learnt that one could hear several languages in the markets of Mahodayapuram – Tamil, Aramaic, Persian and Hebrew.

“Chera bhasha” or “the language of the Cheras” was “possibly a mix of Tamil, Sanskrit and words that foreign traders brought in.” The author writes, “It was around the 13th century that it evolved into what we now know as Malayalam.” She emphasizes the diversity of languages to help us understand that the Cheras “did not regard foreigners with suspicion”. At the same time, she also looks at the “tense relationship” that Cheras had with the Cholas and Pandyas. A book like this might help teachers motivate students who are bored of history textbooks.

We bring you an interview with the author. She responded to our questions over email.

Have you been a history nerd since childhood? If yes, which historical periods and personalities did you find most fascinating? If no, when did you fall in love with history?
Although we had a wonderful history teacher, I can’t pretend that I loved it as a subject. But I loved listening to my grandfather – Major E Bhaskaran – talk about what life was like in the Indian National Army (Azad Hind Fauj). He was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Personal Assistant, and full of fascinating stories of how they hid from the British and the places that they lived in. Another thing that influenced me was Shashi Deshpande’s book The Narayanpur Incident. Although I was possibly only 10 or 11 when I read it, it made me obsessed with the freedom movement. That book, and my grandfather’s stories, sparked my interest in Indian history. When I started researching it, I saw that much of Indian history had been written by biased colonial politicians with an agenda to push and I was keen to dig deep into our history to uncover things in our past that I felt we needed to learn about.

Could you tell us about the research that went into writing A Chera Adventure? What books did you read? What films did you watch? What places did you visit? What museums did you go to? What archival material or artefacts did you look up?
Without exaggeration, I would say about 30 years of research went into it! I once randomly came across the fact that the Nair community, where my mother’s family and paternal grandmother are from, were once matrilineal and that the property and family name passed from woman to woman. This piqued my interest. As a young feminist, I needed to know everything about it and went about collecting research about the Nairs in Kerala and the history of Kerala. Initially, I just chatted with the elders of my community and then I conducted research in libraries at Chennai, the university libraries in London, and the Edappally Museum in Kerala (now called the Museum of Kerala History). Later, I read the books of the renowned historian, A Sreedhara Menon; for example, Kerala History and its Makers. I also read lots of journal papers and looked at history websites. I am a little wary though of relying on historical movies as there are often inaccuracies. When I wrote A Chera Adventure, I went back to some of what I had collected through the years and also used new research that I came across. Mostly though, I used Sreedhara Menon’s books for reference points. In terms of museums, the Edapally museum, the British museum and the London Museum of Jewish History, greatly helped with my research of life during those times.

How did the process of working on this book enrich your understanding of your own heritage as a Malayali woman, especially since you now live far away from Kerala?
I have always been extremely proud of being Indian and Malyali. There is so very much to be learnt from our culture, but it was while doing the research for A Chera Adventure book that I realized just how vibrant and multicultural Kerala was under the Cheras and how peaceful it was as well. Researching the matrilineal aspect of the culture also made me realize just how significant women were to the family and how much importance was accorded to women and their children always having a place to stay. Children born into a tharavadu could remain there for life and no one could take away their right to live there in peace. I only wish the tharavadu system had continued. Modern tharavadus do not have the same infrastructure to support families like before.

Did you approach Puffin Books with a manuscript, or did they commission you to write the book? How did the editorial process help you hone your writing?
I had previously been published by Puffin India in an anthology called The Puffin Book of Animal Stories for Six-Year-Olds. I knew one of the editors, Sohini Mitra, who was very warm and approachable. She told me about their ‘Girls of India’ series. At that time, one of the other books in the series was just being written. It was called A Mauryan Adventure. I told her about my background and pitched the idea of a book being set in ancient Kerala. She was very interested in it, but for some reason, the book didn’t happen then.

As the idea was in my head, I decided to go ahead and write it. I set a three-book series in a busy tharavadu (family home of the Nairs) called Vishwasam in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. I decided to pick the one that I thought was the strongest of the three, and sent it to Puffin India. They liked the idea and we took it from there.

Regarding the editorial process, I loved my editors Arpita and Afeefa. They were very friendly and approachable. The editors suggested that I modernize, cut, and clarify the book in places to appeal to a younger audience and I followed their suggestions because I felt they knew best. I felt very welcomed by Puffin India. The entire team treated me with a lot of respect.

Which character in this novel has a special place in your heart? Could you take us through the process of conceptualizing this character, and how you worked on all the finer detailing?
Sharadha is of course the character I like best! She reminds me of my daughter Arthi. I enjoyed writing all the other characters too, but apart from Sharadha, Devaki Amma who was named after my own paternal grandmother and Ruthie’s grandmother, Savta (the Jewish word for grandmother) have a special place in my heart. The children and adults in the book are all very much my own family recreated (albeit in a different time zone), so I would say writing about the Vishwasam family came naturally to me. In addition, the Fatima in my book is a blend of my friends Rania and Farah, so writing about her and the other characters wasn’t hard. When I write historical fiction, I go into the time setting but I always take the fact that while people may have lived differently to us, basic human emotions and dilemmas remain the same. Situations are often repeated time and again, but under different landscapes.

I get the impression that promoting harmony between people of different religions is important to you. How does writing historical fiction help you accomplish this goal?
On a personal level, it is important to me and even more so because people often use negative examples from history to drive divides between people. I strongly feel we should look at positive examples from history where different faiths lived harmoniously together and learn from how they lived. Having said that, while it is important to me personally to have positive reinforcements of harmony, I let the characters choose how they want to be. Using emotions and qualities like anger, happiness, jealousy, loyalty, etc., and bearing in mind the history, I create the story and let the characters forge their own way in the book. For example, the friendship between Sharadha and Ruthie was unplanned. It just happened naturally.

School history textbooks tend to focus on men who made history, and they end up diminishing or erasing the contributions of women. Do you think that your book might encourage students as well as teachers to think more critically about women’s histories?
I certainly hope so, but as wonderful as that would be, I think there are already powerful movements in place that are looking critically at how history is written and what has been erased. One of the main policies of colonialism was to paint women as either stoic domestic workers or delicate, simpering memsahibs. Very intentionally, the role of women in the everyday world outside of domestic duties was ignored. Universally, there is a huge move towards decolonizing the curriculum and one of the things being looked at is women and history. I hope my book contributes towards getting young girls to believe in themselves by reminding themselves that like Sharadha, they can be brave in the face of adversity. I am also of course hoping that the book sheds some light on the matrilineal system and family life of the Nairs.

At the end of this novel, you have added an explainer called “The Life and Times of the Cheras”. Is this meant to help readers distinguish between fact and fiction, or to support literature and history teachers who want to teach collaborative lessons?
Ah! Now while it is a summary of my research through the years on Kerala, it also follows the pattern of the previous books in the series, where there is an author’s note on the customs and traditions of that era and dynasty. I am hoping that parents will read that bit along with their children and discover things that they perhaps weren’t aware of before. While I hadn’t thought of teachers using it in classrooms, your question has made me think of it. That would be fabulous!

If you could go back in time to 11th century BCE, and spend a day in Mahodayapuram city, which you call “the melting pot of the Cheraman Perumal Empire”, what would you like to do? Do you see any similarities between Mahodayapuram and London where you live?
I would love to sample the food sold by Ruthie and buy the jewellery made by Sharadha. I would find the market stalls of Mahodayapuram fascinating. When I write about Kerala, I use only two things as inspiration from London, a cup of tea and a tree that a window of my flat overlooks. The tea makes me want to write and the tree takes me straight to the green of beautiful Kerala. I don’t think of London otherwise. In fact, I even forget where I am writing from until something like having to get up from my desk and go to work happens!

What do you teach at London Metropolitan University? What’s your next book about?
At Londonmet, I teach Business and Social Sciences. In terms of my next book, I have several other stories set in Vishwasam (the family home in A Chera Adventure), which I would love to explore. I am also writing a British based story called ‘A Very Different Fossil’ about Vishnu, a boy with autism who navigates the world through the stories told to him by his fossilologist aunt Latha, who is herself fighting the discrimination faced by a ‘person of colour’ in a very male dominated science field.

The author is a writer, journalist and educator based in Mumbai who can be reached at chintan.writing@gmail.com or @chintanwriting on Twitter.

Leave a Reply