What makes them probe history and what inspires them to interpret it imaginatively? Anusha Parthasarathy asks the new breed of historical fiction writers
History is a record of the past and yet some parts of it continue to seep into the present as a constant reminder. Historical fiction, too, has held its own in Indian writing for a while, with writers like Amitav Ghosh, Indu Sunderesan and Timeri Murari weaving startlingly believable tales where they fill in the gaps with their imagination. Many among the new breed of writers have also chosen to fictionalise tales of their ancestors or look at historical incidents and transform them into exciting stories.
Chennai-based writer Rudra Krishna’s debut novel was a fictional biography of his ancestor Tharupukkal Ramaswamy Aiyar. The Onus of Karma was his fascination with the fortitude of Aiyar. “For someone to have the gall to break conventions and do what made him happy was what drew me to him,” says Rudra.
R. Venketesh, who is known in the Tamil literary world for his Kaviri Mainthan, a sequel to Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, recently debuted in English with a historical fiction on the Pandyan kingdom called Gods, Kings and Slaves – The Siege of Madurai. “I was drawn to Kalki’s writings and was inspired to write Kaviri Mainthan, a 1,200 page sequel to his classic,” he says. “I chose to write on the Pandyas to pay homage to a forgotten era.” Entrepreneur Aroon Raman’s The Treasure of Kafur seems to, ironically, start where Venketesh’s story ends. It delves into Malik Kafur’s exploits in the south and the legend of his hidden treasure, combining history and adventure into a fast-paced read. “While the book is fiction, with some elements of magical realism, some of the characters are based on historical facts,” he says.
Pramod K Nayar, a professor in the English Department, University of Hyderabad, has edited a series of historical fiction on the 1857 mutiny called Mutiny Novels. “These are books I have collected over a long time. The series emerged during a conversation with Saraswathy Rajagopalan of DC Books who was very enthusiastic about it,” he says. Together, they shortlisted six from about 30 novels and agreed that it was important to see how fiction recorded historical events. “The aim was to introduce history not as academic commentary but as fiction.” The real challenge in writing historical fiction is knowing where to rein in your imagination, says Rudra. “Stick to facts and fit your fiction into the gaps. The history we know is only what the victors have portrayed. I love exploring other possibilities, the tales of losers.”
Venketesh says that one has to be passionate about the past. “It’s tough to write historical fiction but you are awarded a longer shelf life. Every detail has to be painstakingly researched. You can’t take anything for granted.” The trick is in choosing a time frame that does not have much information. “It’s a challenge to write about periods on which there is a lot of information.”
Nayar believes that the dramatisation of historically verifiable events (like the World Wars) makes for very thrilling reading. It gives us heroes and villains from the dust and ashes of historical narrative. “The point is that historical knowledge of some sort is definitely made available in these novels — even though purists might quibble about facts and interpretations. Balance is very important. Fictionalising a king’s intentions can, of course, render the contemporary interpretation of that king very different. Caricaturing historical figures can also lead to this. The balance is between attributing particular intentions and behaviour traits to historical figures and the need to dramatise them to make them more interesting for contemporary readers.”