Perhaps, the most significant of the events that moulded Indian history would be Portuguese
explorer Vasco da Gama’s second expedition to Calicut in 1502. His journey had a clear motive:
monopoly over the rich cargo, including pepper or the black gold as it was called then.
Though the Zamorins, rulers of Calicut, welcomed him whole-heartedly the first time, his second expedition was met with hostility. Gama’s efforts to establish dominance over the Indian spice route by massacring Arab traders and thereby straining the secular fabric, incited war with the Zamorins. The ‘Samoothiri Raja’ took up arms against Gama’s soldiers, and the Cochin Kingdom entered into a pact with the Portuguese.
It is on this premise that Anuradha builds her The Saga of Black Gold. This work of fiction, or better a historical account, relives a bygone era which first experienced the bitter truth of colonisation.
In the early 16th century, the Kingdom of Malanad was ruled by four powerful feudal kingdoms—Kolathunadu in the north-end, Zamorin’s land, the Cochin Kingdom and the Travancore dynasty in the south.
Richly endowed with spices, the wealthy Zamorins asserted their dominance over neighbouring Cochin and Kolathunadu kingdoms. The book begins on this note.
Its protagonist, Kerala Varma Thampuran, wants to win back Kolathunadu’s lost prominence and trade, and sets out to the Zamorins’ land as a spy under disguise. On reaching Calicut, he is soon welcomed by the news that the Portuguese captain has anchored his fleet on the shores.
Weaving fiction with history can give a work a certain credibility and this one obviously benefits from it. The Zamorins and the Cochin Kings in The Saga of Black Gold are hence solid and as real as they can be. There is also a staple romantic stream between the under-disguise Thampuran and Kunjulakshmi, but the sub-plot stays away from the natural course, making little impact.
A meticulous research has indeed gone into the work. According to the writer, she had referred to almost 35 books, including K P Padmanabha Menon’s Kochi Rajya Charitham and A Sreedhara Menon’s A Survey of Kerala History, though her work mainly deals with the incidents between 1502 and 1504.
“Many of the incidents, like the one where Vettath Raja severs Zamorin’s leg for the disrespect he showed to the deceased enemy king Nanu Thampuran, are said to be real incidents,” says Anuradha.
Unsurprisingly, the author doesn’t attempt a coup in re-telling events. She safely adheres to our version of history. The Kolathunadu and Cochin Kings remain heroes, while Gama is the eternal plunderer. The Zamorins and his allies are main players in this battle of dominance.
The Saga of Black Gold ends on a predictable note with little conflict. But the real saga, as we learn later, had only begun then. The Portuguese trade relations soon metamorphosed into governance, spelling the end of all kingdoms and the beginning of colonisation.
As Anuradha rightly analyses at the end, was it the enmity and rivalry between various dynasties that caused the decline of Malanad? Whatever may be the reasons, as she aptly says, the greed for black gold caused it all.