Anu Kumar explores the contradictions that shape historical fiction, how it’s written and also read.
Sometime ago I had an intriguing experience as a reader, related not to the book I was reading but the reviews relating to it. Being a reader (and also writer) of historical fiction, I picked up Arunava Sinha’s excellent translation of the well-known Bengali novelist Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s Tungabhadra Teere (By the Tungabhadra). My father had introduced me to the book, so I knew of it in the original Bangla and picked up Sinha’s translation — despite and notwithstanding the reviews.
Reviews are often the way most readers arrive at a book. This work of fiction is set in the early 15 century when two princesses of Kalinga make the difficult journey by boat across the sea and then down the river Tungabhadra, for one of them, the princess Bidyunmala, is betrothed to the Vijayanagara king, Devaraya. The boat encounters a storm, the princesses are saved by a brave warrior who can cross vast distances effortlessly on his bamboo stilts and they reach Vijayanagara to another world of conspiracy, strife and adventure of a totally different kind and, at last, a happy ending of a kind.
Bandyopadhyay, no mean master of historical fiction, set the context wonderfully, as is a must for any writer of this genre. A journey rendered inevitable by boat, because the two kingdoms, geographically close, are divided by inhospitable terrain. And of course, the men on bamboo stilts were never an unusual feature along seasonal rivers of the east and south.
The reviews meanwhile told a different story, one that brought home to me the complexities associated with this genre of writing. The Vijayanagara kingdom, it was described, was the only Hindu kingdom amid the hostile Muslim kingdoms around it, and to the brave Arjun, the inevitable prefix of Kshatriya was attached. This description is true, but historical truth has to be always contextualised. The identity of a kingdom had to be perforce political, and religion and other identity markers had a political role to play. At the same time, the nobility of the Vijayanagara kingdom came from diverse regions. It had for example, Persian nobles and also gunners in its army drawn from Turkmenistan.
There is a dearth of good historical fiction, a friend said recently, and then she corrected herself, only for children. For in the world of adult fiction, there is a fascinating range of historical fiction, from Amitav Ghosh’s impressive books (part of a trilogy) that speak of many languages, forbidden trade and communities forever on the move, to Biman Nath’s story of rebel fakirs, to stories of detectives in Shah Jahan’s time. Besides this demarcation, there is also that inevitable divide in the worlds of regional literature and that of English publishing, for there has always been a rich tradition of historical fiction in Marathi, Bengali and Tamil literature, and a corresponding paucity in English.
These divides just reflect the contradictions that shape historical fiction and how it’s written and also read. Arguably writers like Dwarkanath Pitale (Nath Madhav) in Marathi or Kalki in Tamil wrote of histories in a mythical way or drawn from their immediate setting. Unfortunately, history in our times is taught in a broader, more national sense. The history of our textbooks has been by and large the story of empires, of kings who united a nation, and so the lesser known, regional or marginal, are ignored. Historical fiction for younger readers is then related to the very way history is taught, and its paucity thus is the lack of historical understanding itself, where context matter more than concepts. It has to be said that the NCERT social studies textbooks, developed as part of the 2005 curriculum framework, constitute a valuable divergent reading and are vital even for the older reader.
Fiction for children fulfils in part an educational role, and this is more so in the instance of historical fiction. But the discomfort with rendered history is the caution that must prevail. History is specially contested in our textbooks, as it has been ever since history-writing about the subcontinent developed in a major way in the 19 century, with John Mills’ egregious periodisation of Indian history. Correctness is fine but in the end it renders us unthinking and unperceiving for history, of all subjects, requires us to have a perceptive understanding of different time periods — the different value systems, the preparations entailed by every season, the perils, and also the different modes of daily living, for night without artificial lights was a different world altogether.
In their book, Children’s Literature Briefly, Michael O’ Tunnel and James Jacobs spell out four different kinds of historical fiction: Events that occur before the author’s lifetime; a contemporary novel that becomes historical with time; memoirs and, of course, time travel.
However, a better division that echoes the challenges posed by writing historical fiction is that which follows a reader’s understanding. The myths and legends that, as my friend said, makes up the bulk of most children’s writing in India are entertaining though there is a careless, easy conflation of myth with history. Children after all have no sense of “time”. A more complex category for a somewhat older reader (10+) is that of historical adventure, in the tradition of writers like Nath Madhav and even Saradindu himself. But it is “realistic historical fiction”, for lack of a better term, that makes for complex writing, and where the division between writing for young adults (12-14+) and the more mature reader vanishes. The term itself is perhaps fallacious for historical reality is partly a historian’s craft at work. This writing assumes an understanding of how the past works, and so makes certain demands of the reader. The British merchant traders in Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke are fiercely resentful of Chinese attempts to stop the opium trade and also their own government’s steps to curb it, for they believe eloquently in freedom of trade, a freedom that, as Ghosh makes us believe as we follow the arguments made by his characters, overrides other freedoms such as that of a nation’s desire to regulate harmful trade. Freedom of trade, in the days of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, resonated with many and Ghosh assumes this understanding from his readers.
For younger readers, this understanding is only possible from a critical reading and constant questioning of history. All this is of course easier written about than taught or written. Even a writer of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s calibre makes a slip. Would princess Bidyunmala be so against marrying Devaraya, just because she dislikes the idea of polygamy and resents becoming his fourth wife? What other option was then available for a woman of privilege? She could aim to be his chief queen, or his favourite and thus acquire power in her own right. Nur Jahan, who appeared in history two centuries after the fictional Bidyunmala, got it right.