“We don’t ‘trust’ ourselves to understand history”

History needs imagination says writer Anu Kumar  

Adaptations and retelling of stories from epics and myths are aplenty, but historical fiction in India is still nascent. So Aditi Kay’s Emperor Chandragupta (Hachette India, Rs. 399) was an interesting read. Racy and told with verve and imagination, it follows the familiar trajectory of an illegitimate scion of the Nanda dynasty who becomes the pupil of Chanakya and establishes an empire.

A request for an interview threw up a surprise. Aditi Kay was the pseudonym of Anu Kumar, whose books for children and young adults have been based on Indian history.

In this e-mail interview, Anu talks about why she chose to write under a pseudonym, what led her to pitch the book on Chandragupta, historical fiction in India and more. Excerpts:

Let’s start with the pseudonym. Why not continue to write as Anu Kumar?

The name, Anu Kumar is itself a pseudonym. My own name has always made me uncomfortable; more so, since the name reveals so much — race, gender, caste. Why should all this matter?

It mattered more to me since I was in college when the Mandal agitation broke out and, later, when there was some opposition to my marriage because of caste/region factor. It was all very disillusioning.

I agree with Elena Ferrante that a writer’s name shouldn’t matter; it’s what the writer writes that should. Unfortunately, most readers want to sort the writer out first, before they get to his/her book. And choosing a pseudonym was a way out.

As for Adity Kay, this Emperor series is entirely new and different. It follows in the style of swashbuckling historical thrillers by the likes of Conn Iggulden, Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow, even Philippa Gregory. So my editor and I wanted a name that would not be easily ‘slottable’, as belonging to certain country, region, place but and one that would sound cosmopolitan as well.

What is it about historical fiction that attracts you?

I read history at Delhi University, and write a lot on it. History is so much misunderstood, and so maliciously used as well. It’s thus vital to promote, in any small way one can, a better understanding of it. There’s a certain science to understanding history and it needs plentiful imagination too.

How different was this from the children’s and YA books that you’ve done before?

This needed as much research as those books, even more. Emperor Chandragupta was longer, detailed and gave me wonderful scope to delve into one human life; to figure him out and imagine him with all his complexities, vulnerabilities, warts and all. There’s nothing more fascinating than in drawing up an individual, figuring out all about him (or her) and then drawing up the larger context of his times. The creative process is painful but immensely invigorating.

Can you talk a bit about the research for this book?

Strangely, there is a lot of historical writing on Chanakya and, usually, one adduces the story of Chandragupta’s life via that of his teacher and mentor. But there are old Jain and Buddhist texts that detail the story of Chandragupta’s origins. One of R.C. Majumdar’s edited volumes on Indian history is on the Mauryas. Accounts in translation of the ancient Greek writers on the Mauryas give you an idea of the expanse and stretch of Chandragupta’s empire. Books on ancient India such as those by Romila Thapar, Upinder Singh, Nayanjot Lahiri were of great assistance. And then, the books on his grandson, Ashoka — and there are quite a few of them — helped.

Why did you decide on the Mauryan era, and specifically Chandragupta?

Hachette wanted to do a series on India’s great Emperors, especially those who ruled in the ancient period on the lines of Alex Rutherford’s Mughal Emperor series. So, one, of course, began with Chandragupta. The Nandas who preceded the Mauryas in Magadha were an important dynasty, but the Mauryan Empire with its detailed administration system, its other defining paraphernalia such as coinage, the structures it built, and the policies it instituted (for instance, the Arthashastra, and Ashoka’s Dhamma) set several precedents for dynasties that followed.

And Chandragupta, the more one reads on him, was a fascinating ruler. He was a man who built a dynasty when he was just in his 20s, who won most battles he fought, and then renounced it all at the age of 42.

Chandragupta Maurya is definitely a hero. Even the shades of gray are very muted. Was this a conscious choice to present him this way?

It became so, especially so since Chandragupta is remembered as a great conquering emperor. While writing, I read the Caesar and the Khan series by Conn Iggulden, some works by Simon Scarrow and Rafael Sabatini. These are historical fiction and fast-paced, full of adventure and action and that was my aim too for Emperor Chandragupta.

Your Chanakya appears not as the wise savant of our legends concerned about the kingdom and its people but more as a man obsessed by revenge and need for control over Chandragupta Maurya.

I did want to make him more human, vulnerable, and complex. A man who had to think things over while on the run. Chanakya always had to look over his shoulder for assassins and traitors. And his need for revenge made him someone driven. I wanted to get these very human traits into someone largely seen as cold, calculating and robotically ruthless.

Your descriptions of the forested Ganga Doab and the plains of Punjab are very evocative. Were these born of your own travels through these spaces or from ancient texts or ...?

This part of India was in those days more forested, also the river courses ran somewhat differently. I had to figure that in, yes. And part of my research included looking up aspects of geography too.

The women in Chandragupta’s life are shadowy figures in the usual tales. How did you flesh them out as you have?

True, in standard versions, the women don’t have much of a role in Chandragupta’s life, so one had to work on this. For a man as driven and ambitious and complex as Chandragupta was, the women who would matter to him would be those who could ably challenge him and be a foil as well. I factored that in before creating Durdhara, the Nanda princess, and Helen, Seleucus’ daughter, who were Chandragupta’s two wives.

Lastly, what do you think of the historical fiction genre in Indian writing in English? Why is it that we don’t seem to see it in the same way as they do in the West?

Yes, this is such a pity. But this is a complex question and a bit hard to answer. There is, on the contrary, so much of mythical story-telling, which is good. But it suggests that we value our myths more and ‘believe’ in them. We are also more certain about our myths — the epics, for instance — which gives us the freedom, in turn, to experiment, to fictionalise and play around with our myths. Not so much with history.

I guess it’s because we, as a nation, believe ourselves to be divided by history. We don’t ‘trust’ ourselves to understand history; to reason with it or to think through our past or why certain events happened as they did. That ‘results’ or ‘repercussions’ may take several years before they manifest themselves.

History is, for very many of us, about wars and conflicts, great tragedies, bad kings/good kings, so we leave it aside, or else use history to feed our present grievances, which is dangerous.

And then, too little and too much is being done with history: There isn’t enough good history writing for the general reader and there is much entertainment history, in films, on television, at the same time. It leaves us with a poor, uneven sense of the subcontinent’s history.

It begins this way: if one has a proper historical sense, to be able to rationalise about the past, to be able to see ‘false history’ as just that, propaganda, only then can we amuse ourselves with history — write more fiction about it too.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 3:31:05 AM |

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