Author Ravi Shankar Etteth on putting together a historical thriller
Like most things on the market today, novels fly out thick and fast from the printing presses of big publishing houses. Among the better known Indian novelists writing in English, Ravi Shankar Etteth, though, is an exception. He has not served us a book a year since 2002 when his first novel, “The Tiger by the River”, came out. But now Penguin has released “The Gold of Their Regrets”, a handy paperback, based on the mystery surrounding the last moments and death of Indian National Army leader Subhas Chandra Bose. Etteth says the book took a long time because he was “professionally very challenged.”
In between there was “The Village of Widows” in 2004. And even though at that time the author stated he didn’t have the discipline to put together a researched factual book, he has strayed perhaps into even more slippery territory with historical fiction.
“The historical thing I find fascinating, because my interest with India and World War II has always been strong — because of family ties and reasons like that,” he explains. During research on the topic he came across the story of an Indian battalion that had fought with Mussolini, and “was completely taken aback.” He also found out about an Indian battalion that had fought for Hitler.
“There is so much we don’t know. It’s not in history, and the media is not as deep as we’d like it to be,” says the veteran journalist and cartoonist— who, incidentally, shifted from political cartooning when he felt the media environment and Indian society were no longer suited for passionate political satire. “History is full of people. And people live in situations and die in situations. They make fascinating stories.”
Good stories are what good literature is all about, feels Etteth, who objects to the Indian idea of what construes serious literature. “Why can’t you write a ripping good yarn,” he demands. Eventually, what differentiates a successful writer from others is “the effectiveness of your work.” So he disagrees with the way Dan Brown’s writing is disdained as not serious, since “he turned the Church on its head.”
Many aspects of “The Gold of Their Regrets” are based entirely on imagination, purely because so little information is available on Bose. Yet the diehard devotees of the legendary freedom fighter take umbrage at the slightest tampering with prevalent beliefs. “I have not abused Bose in any way,” notes Etteth, though he has offered an advance apology in his author’s note for any inadvertent hurt. “I have kept strictly to the historical context. I have not shown Bose in a derogatory context.”
The bottomline, though, says the novelist, is that “whether Gandhi or Bose or Abraham Lincoln, they are human beings.”
And humans, as we know, make for some ripping good yarns.