As a nation grows confident, its people become more interested in their own history. That may be a good premise why historical fiction is a raging fad in India today

It’s not easy to classify a book as historical fiction in India today. A look at the current bestseller lists in India are sure to throw up a few famous names: The Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi, and The Empire of the Moghul (series) by Alex Rutherford, Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi, The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and almost always something by Amitav Ghosh. Two out of five of these names are retellings of mythological themes, while the others, which have been on the lists for at least a year now, are all, in one way or the other, set in a time and place in Indian history.

Authors such as Amitav Ghosh, (famous for The Sea of Poppies and the ongoing Ibis Trilogy, The Calcutta Chromosome and The Glass Palace), according to the Blossom bookstore, are staples for the city’s book-reading crowd. “His works are steady sellers. But recently, I see that mythology-based books such as The Immortals of Meluha and The Palace of Illusions are selling a lot more,” says Mayi Gowda, proprietor, Blossom book store. He credits the sales to the ‘modern format’ that the authors follow.

Formulated in a phrase

It’s difficult to put works such as The Immortals of Meluha and Chanakya’s Chant under the historical fiction category. Even their authors, Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi are not happy classifying their works, exclusively under the category. But they do agree that they have made a conscious attempt to keep their writing style ‘modern’.

“By setting my books in the Indus Valley Civilization and calling it that rather than the tradition name ‘Jambudweepa’, I have tried to make them more relevant, so that people can connect to them,” admits Amish. But the real reason why his books fly off the racks, he feels, is because Indians are now keen to explore their roots.

“As a nation grows more confident, its people become more interested in their own history. At the same time, people are not interested in taking a history lesson, so they like to read something which draws from history and crafts an engaging story out of it,” he argues. “Twenty years ago historical fiction was written either from a subservient or a defensive perspective, both of which come from a space of insecurity. But today’s historical fiction comes from a space of relaxed confidence, which people are drawn to.”

Though, he says, his works are more political thriller rather than historical fiction, Ashwin Sanghi also makes similar observations about the genre’s popularity. “For the longest time writers have been writing for a global audience. But today’s books are written for an Indian audience. A Western audience might not appreciate Chanakya’s Chant because of its dependence on history and ancient statecraft,” he explains. “My book is a modern-day thriller that draws on a bedrock of history. My primary object is to entertain, not educate.”

Contemporary stories with historical plots, seem therefore, the order of the day and Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s The Taj Conspiracy is one of its latest additions. Steeped in Mughal history, the thriller is the first of a trilogy. And Manreet’s reason for writing a book that falls broadly under the genre of historical fiction, is quite straightforward.

“I am a history buff. My second book, The Long Walk Home, published in 2009 is the first fictional examination of the 20th century history of Punjab. ‘Earning the Laundry Stripes’History, therefore, has been a part of my story telling and is an inextricable part of The Taj Conspiracy. I guess this fascination for history has to do with the small town that I grew up in, Ferozepur, which is located on the border with India and Pakistan and has witnessed Partition, three Indo-Pak wars and the Khalistan movement. It is impossible not to be touched by history when the air of the place you grow up in is suffused with its stories.”

Much of Indian historical fiction is set in the Colonial or the Mughal era or during Partition. For instance Amitav Ghosh’s work in set in Colonial India or Salman Rushdie’s Booker prize winning Midnight’s Children is set in the period of Indian independence (post-Colonial and partition). ‘The Empire of the Moghul’ Is there now a moving a way from traditional historical fiction, that is blurring the lines between similar genres like fantasy, mythology, crime and politics?

Paul Vinay Kumar, Editor of Westland books has a refreshing take. “Historical fiction as a genre has been vastly underdeveloped in India, which is ironical considering how interesting and diverse India’s history is, and also because our glorious past is systematically invoked by everyone as a pointer to our glorious future. I am a big fan of Amitav Ghosh, and Alex Rutherford. I wish there were more writers writing like that,” he says, observing that a variety of sub genres like Madhulika Liddle’s historical detective novels, and historical romance are developing.

And Manreet adds “The immense success of some recent books — the Meluha trilogy for instance — might give that impression but it could also be a fad. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the genre grows.”

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