historical fiction Posts

Who will win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature? (13 January 2015)

DSC shortlistAccording to the vision statement, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature celebrates the rich and varied world of literature of the South Asian region. Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme. The prize brings South Asian writing to a new global audience through a celebration of the achievements of South Asian writers, and aims to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world. This year the award will be announced on 22 January 2015, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Shortlist 2015 consists of:

1. Bilal Tanweer: The Scatter Here is Too Great (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
2 Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
3. Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury, India)
4. Romesh Gunesekera: Noontide Toll (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
5. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Mirror of Beauty (Penguin Books, India)

( http://dscprize.com/global/updates/five-novels-make-shortlist-dsc-prize-2015.html )

The jury consists of Keki Daruwala (Chairperson), John Freeman, Maithree Wickramasinghe, Michael Worton and Razi Ahmed.

All the novels shortlisted for the award are unique. They put the spotlight on South Asian writing talent. From debut novelist ( Bilal Tanweer) to seasoned writers ( Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie) and one in translation – Shamsur Rahman Faruqui, the shortlist is a good representation of the spectrum of contemporary South Asian literature in English. Three of the five novelists– Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie–reside abroad, representing South Asian diaspora yet infusing their stories with a “foreign perspective”, a fascinating aspect of this shortlist. It probably hails the arrival of South Asian fiction on an international literary map. The three novels — The Lowland, Noontide Toll and A God in Every Stone are firmly set in South Asia but with the style and sophistication evident in international fiction, i.e. detailing a story in a very specific region and time, culturally distinct, yet making it familiar to the contemporary reader by dwelling upon subjects that are of immediate socio-political concern. For instance, The Lowland is ostensibly about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, India and the displacement it causes in families; A God in Every Stone is about an archaeological dig in Peshawar in the period around World War I and Noontide Toll is about the violent civil unrest between the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet all three novels are infused with the writers’ preoccupation with war, the immediate impact it has on a society and the transformation it brings about over time. The literary techniques they use to discuss the ideas that dominate such conversations — a straightforward novel (The Lowland), a bunch of interlinked short stories narrated by a driver ( who is at ease in the Tamil and Sinhala quarters, although his identity is never revealed) and the yoking of historical fiction with creation of a myth as evident in Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. All three novelists wear their research lightly, yet these novels fall into the category of eminently readable fiction, where every time the story is read something new is discovered.

Bilal Tanweer who won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 for his wonderful novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great. Set in Karachi, it is about the violence faced on a daily basis. (Obviously there is much more to the story too!) Whereas Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel The Mirror of Beauty, translated by him from Urdu into English is primarily about Begum Wazir Khanam with many other scrumptious details about lifestyles, craftspeople, and different parts of India. It is written in a slow, meandering style of old-fashioned historical fiction. The writer has tried to translocate the Urdu style of writing into the English version and he even “transcreated” the story for his English readers—all fascinating experiments in literary technique, so worth being mentioned on a prestigious literary prize shortlist.

Of all the five novels shortlisted for this award, my bet is on Kamila Shamsie winning the prize. Her novel has set the story in Peshawar in the early twentieth century. The preoccupations of the story are also those of present day AfPak, the commemoration of World War I, but also with the status of Muslims, the idea of war, with accurate historical details such as the presence of Indian soldiers in the Brighton hospital, the non-violent struggle for freedom in Peshawar and the massacre at Qissa Khwani Bazaar. But the true coup de grace is the original creation of Myth of Scylax — to be original in creating a myth, but placing it so effectively in the region to make it seem as if it is an age-old myth, passed on from generation to generation.

13 January 2015

 

Sarah Waters, “The Paying Guests”

Sarah Waters, “The Paying Guests”

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests“…men never do want women to do the things they want to do themselves, have you noticed?” 

( p.80)

The Paying Guests is Sarah Water’s sixth novel. It is about a middle class family, the Wrays — a mother and daughter, Frances— who have fallen upon hard times and are forced to taken in lodgers or as they would prefer to call them “paying guests”. Mrs Wray is pained when her daughter refers to themselves now as landladies. The story is set in the inter-war years, so the Wray household like many others around them have lost their two sons in the Great War, and soon after the war, Mr Wray passed away, leaving a mountain of bad debts. Mrs Wray continues to manage her life, a pale semblance of what she was used to but her young twenty-six-year old daughter has no qualms behaving like a char woman, if required, to maintain the house and manage expenses. All though Frances had begun to recognise “the look very well–she was bored to death with it, in fact–because she had seen it many times before: on the faces of neighbours, of tradesmen, and of her mother’s friends, all of whom had got themselves through the worst war in human history yet seemed unable for some reason to cope with the sight of a well-bred woman doing the work of a char.” ( p.25) The young couple who arrive are Lilian and Leonard Barber are obviously from a different social class ( “Len said you’d think them common”), but have the means to pay the weekly rent ( “fifty-eight shillings for two weeks”). Mr Barber is described as having a “clerkly neatness of him”. Mrs Barber on the other hand is “all warm colour and curve. How well she filled her own skin! She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle.”

The story moves at a leisurely trot. There is a very slow build up to the crux of the plot– the love affair between Lilian and Frances. But once there the novelist focuses upon these two character, shutting out all other interactions and references to the outside world, save for the occasional visits by the butcher boy, fishmonger, milkman and news headlines from The Times. Then suddenly the outside world is very present in the story, with a murder, police investigation, media reports, a courtroom drama as the story develops into a murder investigation with many unexpected twists and turns.

The Paying Guests is a wandering and an exploration of women’s lives, what it means to be a lesbian in 1922 when it was barely discussed or even acknowledged openly. The empowerment of women was happening in small ways, the Suffragete movement had happened, at the Wray house such as “Nelly, Mabel, or any other live-in servant since the munitions factory had finally lured them away in 1916”, Frances’s friend Christine was living in a building run by a society offering flats to working women — all very revolutionary for a society that was emerging from the prudish and conservative shadows of Victorian England and the socio-economic devastation wreaked by World War I. In a recent interview with The Independent, Sarah Waters acknowledges paying attention to women’s secret lives and history. ( The Independent, 6 September, 2014. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/sarah-waters-interview-i-pay-attention-to-womens-secret-history-and-lives-9715463.html ) In the same interview, Sarah Waters admits that writing about a lesbian relationship was a conscious decision since she “missed writing about love”.  This novel is a good example of historical fiction meticulously researched, another fact the author acknowledges. As the news about her new book filters through social media platforms, conversations are erupting on various platforms focused upon the well-written sex scenes that Sarah Waters is known for writing. In The Paying Guests she has apparently surpassed herself for creating scenes “electric with passion”. ( I use the word “apparently” advisedly, since this is the first book of Sarah Waters I have read.)

For period fiction written by contemporary authors to focus upon lesbian relationships, a murder mystery and engagement with the law is not new at all. Most notably Emma Donaghue’s novels especially Frog Music released earlier this year tackle similar issues raised in The Paying Guests. Ultimately it is the treatment of the story, the atmosphere created, the plot development and an understanding of the period where the writer’s strengths lie. While comparing these two novels — The Paying Guests and Frog Music — it is evident that the pace of storytelling and settings are very different, but The Paying Guests requires huge dollops of patience to read and appreciate.

Sarah Waters The Paying Guests Virago Press, London, 2014. (Distributed by Hachette India) Pb. pp. 580. Rs. 599

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Sami Ahmad Khan( On 21 February 2014, during the World Book Fair, New Delhi, Sami Ahmad Khan was in conversation with thriller writer Aroon Raman and Sangeeta Bahadur. Aroon Raman had just released his latest novel, a historical thriller – The Treasure of Kafoor and Sangeeta Bahadur had published Jaal.  Both the authors are published by PanMacmillan India. Here is an account of the event sent by Sami Khan. ) 

Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History

We’re a nation built around myths. Or maybe we’re just a myth built around a nation. Whatever the case may be, can we ascribe historicity to myths and study such mythologies as running parallel to certain socio-historical processes spawned by the material realities of their times? More importantly, where does mythology end and where does history begin?Aroon Raman

Similar questions raged in my mind as I strode towards the Authors’ Corner at Hall 10-11 of Pragati Maidan on February 21, 2014. The Delhi World Book Fair 2014 was in full swing and I was moderating a session scheduled to begin at 2.30 pm. Wading past Siren-esque stalls (that featured books on sale) and Charybdian crowds (replete with delightfully engrossed bookworms), I odysseyed to my destination to converse with two brilliant minds and wonderful writers – Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman.

I knew Aroon Raman from before, having read him earlier with much gusto. Raman had obtained his masters degree from JNU, Delhi, an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and was now an entrepreneur based out of Bengaluru. The Shadow Throne was Aroon Raman’s debut – an electrifying thriller involving the R&AW, ISI and an India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. The Treasure of Kafur, his second published novel, was incidentally written first. A fast-paced, historical thriller set in Mughal India, the novel fictionalized the treasure of Malik Kafur being sought after by contemporary figures such as Akbar, Rana Pratap, and (quasi-historical?) characters such as Asaf Baig (of Khandesh) to wage war for the control of Hindustan.

Sangeeta BahadurOn the other hand, it was the first time I was going to meet Sangeeta Bahadur, writer of Jaal and Vikraal. I was told she had graduated from Sophia College (Mumbai), an institution I admire a lot. Bahadur is an Indian Foreign Service officer who is currently posted as the Director of the Nehru Centre, London.  If Raman writes about politics, coming-of-age, and action, Bahadur too weaves a deep, engrossing web of inner conflict – this one around mythological fiction. She utilizes Indian spirituality and metaphysics, fuses them with the world created by her own mind, and comes up with a whole new mythos. Bahadur’s Jaal is the first of a trilogy – set in a syncretic, eclectic past where a young boy must train himself to become the ultimate fighting machine to combat the forces of Maya, the novel is a more spiritual version of LOTR set in a land that resembles India. A sequel called Vikraal will be out soon.

How do we comprehend, decode, and analyze mythological and historical fiction written by people from such varied backgrounds and visions? As Bruce Lincoln defines myth as “ideology in narrative form,” one of the first questions I asked Bahadur and Raman was how mythology and history interacted in their minds and in their texts – and if they chose their respective genres to enable them to fuse their narrative styles with the content, i.e. what (and how) they wanted to say.

Their answers were complementary to each other (an aspect that continued throughout the duration of the conversation) – both made me realize something I had so criminally overlooked – writers make genres, genres do not make writers. Both regarded writing as an act of unbridled creation – unfettered by the limitations of any genre. Yes, they wrote about mythology and history, but as fiction writers, they perceived both as two sides of the same coin. Both clarified that rather than being true to the narrative conventions of any genre, culture or style, they rather wanted to be true to the reader and to themselves. The end-result, for both Bahadur and Raman, was to use any template close to them that could give the readers a fast-paced, layered and interesting narrative for the reader.

I then raised the question of spirituality – both Bahadur and Raman draw upon Indian classical traditions. While Bahadur’s primary lens to synthesize different mythologies and traditions and further the plot is primarily aastik in its outlook, advaita-vedanta in particular (which becomes explicit at times), Raman has his implicit groundings in the naastik traditions of Buddhism. Both Jaal and Kafur have a dense spiritual/philosophical subtext that not only drives the plot further but also seeks to define why characters do what they do. It is their belief in fixed ideological structures that make these characters come alive – and shapes their behavioral patterns.

For individual questions, I asked Aroon Raman why his second book was markedly different from his first, and why he chose to jump across genres despite the commercial success of his debut venture. The Shadow Throne is a contemporary military/political thriller, whereas The Treasure of Kafur is historical fiction. Apart from reiterating that genres do not matter for a creator, and that thoughts and ideas rarely come to writers filtered and censored via the sieve of pre-existing notions and genres, Raman made me realize that the end-goal was to write a book that was fun to read, and that a writer should concern himself with creating without worrying about genre pigeonholing – and that the two books weren’t that different after all. Both his books have a central character caught in hostile surroundings and his constant striving to prevent evil from triumphing – the temporal dislocation does little to blunt this action-oriented narrative.

I then asked Bahadur that while Raman may write about ISI and RAW, she, as a serving government officer, cannot. So was this mythological fiction, replete with betrayals, realpolitik, machtpolitik, coups, warring kingdoms and political federations, actually a political allegory meant for the contemporary times? In response, while Bahadur graciously acknowledged that although historicity did shape some parts of Jaal, the novel was in no way a political allegory. She was not merely utilizing an already established ideological narrative, but creating a whole new ideating philosophy, politics, sociology and world in her head.

The two also talked about how, as writers, both were aware of the social implications of the outlooks of their characters. Raman talked about spending time in Tihar as a student-activist (and a member of the JNU Students’ Union) almost 30 years ago – but then accepted that now he was a capitalist entrepreneur, though that did not render him politically unconscious or reactionary. His characters, to prove a point, are strongly feminist, anti-casteist, pro-hoi polloi, progressive, and anti-parochial – people who speak up for the masses. Bahadur also has some similar characters who seek unity in diversity (rather than differences), and raise their voices against injustices and hegemony. This forms the basis for a layered characterization by both the writers.

The session concluded with both Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman giving the audience some tips about writing fiction. They urged budding writers to break free from the shackles of form and classification – and just go write a good story that was fun to read and did not spoon feed the reader what the writer thought.

It was great talking to these two thinkers – they just proved that to write one sentence, one must think an hour at least! Lastly, all this is based on my understanding on what the writers said and meant, not to mention a failing short-term memory – it may not wholly coincide with what they actually meant, but I hope I’ve been able to be true to their ideas.

I look forward to more such opportunities.

 Sami Ahmad Khan read Literature at Hindu College, Delhi University, completed his master’s in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and then went to the University of Iowa, USA, on a Fulbright grant. Currently, Sami teaches at IIT-Delhi, apart from being a Doctoral Candidate at JNU, where he is working on Techno-culture Studies. He has engaged in theater, writing, and teaching. His debut thriller Red Jihad won the “Muse India Young Writer (Runner-Up) Award” at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2013 and Ministry of Human Resource Development/NBT’s “National Debut Youth Fiction Award – Excellence in Youth Fiction Writing” at the Delhi World Book Fair 2013. He is now working on a SF sequel to Red Jihad. He can be reached at sakhan1607@gmail.com

( On Sunday, 24 August 2014, Sheila Kumar wrote a lovely review of the novel in the Hindu Literary Review –  http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/more-than-just-a-treasure-hunt/article6344815.ece . On 26 August 2014, Aroon Raman will be in conversation with Sumeet Shetty at Literati, SAP Labs Book Club, Bangalore. http://bit.ly/1pazgf4 )

26 August 2014

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

the-miniaturist-978144725089001The Miniaturist is Jessie Burton’s debut novel. It is set in seventeenth century Amsterdam. It is a tale about the young bride Nella Oortman, wife of the illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. She is given a wedding gift of a replica of their home which is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist. Nella tries on many occasions to meet the miniaturist but fails, only catches fleeting glimpses of the woman artisan — Petronella Windelbreke. Nella is mystified and at times terrified by how accurately the miniaturist depicts events in the Brandt household. She seems to be privy to secrets which even the family members are oblivious of. 

This is a novel that purports to be historical fiction but is not exactly one. It has the details and atmosphere of seventeenth century Holland, but for all purposes of storytelling it caters primarily to a modern reader. Some of the issues are about homosexuality–considered to be a criminal offence; out-of-wedlock mother; interracial alliances; women being the head of the household or not; emancipation of women etc.
Jessie Burton was inspired to write this novel after a weekend visit to the Rijk Museum where she spotted Petronella Oortiman’s miniature doll house. ( Here is more: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/works-of-art/dolls-houses and http://www.themagicaldollhouseblog.com/petronella-oortman/)  Soon thereafter she attended a creative writing course run by a literary agency. All this while she , was a struggling actress. So what she has achieved is a balance between an unusual story, creating the atmosphere, tackling something new, making it relevant to a modern audience and through it all kept her eye on strong storytelling. Even so this novel was five years in the making. Now it seems to be giving even Ms. Rowling a run for the top slot of bestseller lists of Europe. The Silkworm has slid below The Miniaturist on Booksellers charts within days of it being released.
01-11-2001; rgb 19-02-2007For many struggling writers, Jessie Burton’s dream run is like a fairy tale. She sold the novel for a six-figure deal to Picador. It has already been sold in over 30 countries and now a film option is being considered as well.

Oh well! It is a book meant to be read and enjoyed. It certainly is!

PS It has an incredibly stunning cover. Here is a wee bit more about how it was designed. — http://www.picador.com/blog/february-2014/the-miniaturist-book-cover-design

Jessie Burton The Miniaturist Picador, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 450 Rs. 599 

8 August 2014 

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. ) 

Author Emma Donoghue.

Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview: 

Why do you like writing historical fiction?

Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?

How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?

Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.

How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?

In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.

When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?

For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.

How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?

Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.

Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.

Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.

Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?

No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?

Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.

Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?

I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).

Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?

They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.

Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.

As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.

Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.

Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.

Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?

I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.

Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?

I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every StoneA God in Every Stone is Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel.  It is set at the time of World War I and before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan. It is about an Englishwoman archaeologist, Vivian Rose Spencer, and her meeting with her discovery of the Temple of Zeus and Ypres war veteran, twenty-two-year-old Qayyum Gul who is returning home to Peshawar. But the story is much, much more than that.

A God in Every Stone will be classified as “Pakistani Literature”. It may have been written by Kamila Shamsie but it could even work as literature of the subcontinent or South Asian literature, with sufficient sprinkling of historical facts that makes it intriguing and interesting for a global audience. It is so clearly positioned in a time of history that it is sufficiently far removed from the present times for the writer to be able to present, analyse, teach and comment–uninhibited. Placing the story during World War 1 and in undivided India is fascinating. It is a story based on some historical facts like the massacre of Qissa Khawani Bazaar (the Storytellers Market) on 23 April 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgars and of the freedom fighter, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. More importantly I liked the placing of it in a time of history when people of undivided India are shown fighting together against the British. ( In this telling of history/fiction, it is immaterial whether they were Pakistanis or Indians, they are fighting against the colonial rulers.) It is as if the novel is showing a “history from below” much like Subaltern Studies did in academics. For instance giving characters such as Najeeb, the assistant at the Peshawar museum; the soldiers hired by the British to figure in the Great War such as Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul; the young prostitutes–girls of mixed lineage; the storytellers; the letter-writer — are people who would barely have figured in previous fictional narratives.

It is a story set so firmly in the city of Peshawar, but makes the wonderful connect of this region with Greece, the rich history of Peshawar and Gandhara art. The forays into Europe of World War 1, the “betrayal” of Tahsin Bey by Viv, the recuperation of soldiers of Indian origin in Brighton, the VAD etc. Even the subtle transformation of Viv’s mother from being horrified by her daughter dispatched to an archaeological dig in Turkey to encouraging her to make a trip to Peshawar. ( ” The truth was, the war had sloughed off so many rules that no one seemed to know any more what counted as unacceptable behaviour in women.” p.75)

Positioning the story in Peshawar is stunning since much of the problems of early twentieth century such as tribal warfare, being a part of NWFP, Swat valley continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century. What also shines through in the novel is that this region has been alive, settled and of crucial geo-political significance for centuries, something that locals tend to forget or maybe are too absorbed in their daily life. What comes through in the novel is that the locals may be active participants ( willing or unwilling is not the question right now) but local dynamics have a powerful impact on their lives. This is evident through the fascinating badalas that are shared. Of these the one that attracts the most crowd is that of the Haji. Well it could be just a comment of the times but it assumes a different dimension if read with a knowledge of what is happening today in world politics –the Islamisation of Terror.

Even the descriptions of the Gandhara artifacts, the archaeological digs etc criss-cross history marvelously. They bring to play not only the political significance of important regimes of the past such as Darius, the Mauryan empire, Alexander etc but of more recent developments such as what is happening in Afghanistan and the Taliban ( i.e. blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas). But the inextricable link between culture/cultural expressions and politics. The politicians and kingmakers may no longer be alive but their presence is marked by sculptures, pottery shards, etc that have been left behind or excavated. The connection between Gandhara and non-violence is also striking when one recalls that Ashoka who quit fighting after the battle of Kalinga, became a Buddhist and a staunch believer of non-violence, his first “posting” was at Gandhara. Whereas this novel involves Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who too believed in non-violent forms of action. Centuries apart sharing similar beliefs in the same region.

The flitting between the imagined and real worlds. Creating the myth of circlet of Scylax so convincingly could only have been done by a person who is passionate  about Greek mythology and loves research. It meshes beautifully in this story.

A God in Every Stone is exquisite. With this novel Kamila Shamsie has set a very high benchmark for literary fiction–worldwide.

                                     *****
( After reading A God in Every Stone I posed some questions to Kamila Shamsie via e-mail. )

Q1 Have the film rights been sold to this book? Who chose the extract for the Granta special?
No. And I chose the extract.

Q2 How did do you decide upon this story?

I didn’t. I had decided on a very different story which started with the massacre in Qissa Khwani/the Street of Storytellers in 1930 and continues until 2009. But my plans for novels always end up going astray. It did have both archaeology and the anti-colonial resistance in Peshawar as elements right from the start so the germ of the novel was always there but finding the story was a slow winding process which involved lots of deleting and quite a bit of re-writing.

Q3 Where was the research for this book done?

Mostly in the British Library where they keep colonial records – and also have a wonderful photography collection. I also went to some of the novel’s locations in Peshawar. And the Internet is an invaluable tool for research, of course.

Q4 How did the idea of a woman archaeologist,  Vivian Rose Spencer, strike you? I wish she had more of a presence in the book.

The idea of an English archaeologist struck me first – originally the archaeologist was going to be male but while reading a piece of travel writing by the Englishwoman Rosita Forbes who was in Peshawar in the 30’s I became interested in the experience of Englishwoman in Peshawar. At that point the structure of the novel was very different and there were more primary characters. I’m pretty sure that, regardless of Rosita Forbes, I would have made the archaeologist female once it became clear that the soldier and archaeologist were the two primary characters. I wasn’t about to write a novel in which both the main characters are male. Male writers do more than enough of that!

As for wanting her to be more of a presence – she has more pages in the novel then anyone else. But her story is more the focus of the first half of the book. The anti-colonial story has to shift it’s focus to the Peshawaris.

Q5 How much history did you delve into? Did the historical research come before the writing or specific research happened after the story took root?

Lots. And lots. I research and write as parallel processes – and the research doesn’t really stop until I’ve finished the book.

Q6 This is literary fiction similar to what Subaltern Studies is in academics–telling the histories from “below”. You made heroes of figures who were considered rebels in “mainstream” narratives. Did this happen consciously?

Whose mainstream?, would be my first response to that.
What I am interested in, which relates to your question, is the stories that have received less attention than other stories. Whether it’s women archaeologists rather than men archaeologists, Indian soldiers in WWI rather than English soldiers, the non-violent Pashtun rather than the one who picks up a gun.

Q7 What is the difference between literary fiction, historical fiction and fiction set in history?  Would  A God in Every Stone even fit into any of these categories?

It’s not something to which I give any thought when writing a novel. Which category will make people want to read it?

Q8  There are many women characters in your novel, who only serve purpose for that particular moment in the story, no more. Yet their fleeting appearances are powerful, almost like a painting, they leave a deep imprint on one’s mind. For instance the infant bride and the teenage prostitute, are they figments of imagination or based upon sketches that you came across?

I certainly see then serving a purpose beyond a single moment. Everything in a novel has to serve the entire novel. (The infant bride grows up to be a very important part of the novel – she’s the green-eyed woman.) They aren’t based on sketches. I know there were prostitutes in the Old City and I know very young girls were given away in marriage. Beyond that, I worked out the particular stories that best suited my purpose.

Q9 Why did you choose to write about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or “Frontier Gandhi” ?

I grew up barely even hearing his name which is why I wanted to write about him. He’s been written out of Pakistan’s history, except in KP, which is a terrible shame. Also, he was such an important figure in his own right that it seems only correct that we should call him by his own name or honorific – Ghaffar Khan or Bacha Khan – rather than by reference to anyone else, regardless of who that anyone else is.

Q10 Are the badalas yours or recorded?

Mine.

Q11 Have you ever worn a burqa. The confusion that you show the young girl to be in can only come from an experienced moment.

No I haven’t. Novelists imaginations fortunately often thrive quite happily without experienced moments!

Q12 Now that you have British citizenship, how do you see yourself? British-Pakistani writer, Pakistani writer, of South Asian origin?

Pakistani. I’ve only been British for 6 months!

13 April 2014

“Girls of India” series

“Girls of India” series

A Mauryan Adventure, Subhadra Sen GuptaPuffin, an imprint of Penguin Books India, launched the  “Girls of India” series. The idea is to introduce young readers to history, make it come alive and accessible, without confining it to history textbooks where history is dry, dull and boring. Far from it! The first three titles in A Chola Adventure ( Anu Kumar), A Harappan Adventure (Sunile Gupte) and A Mauryan Adventure ( Subhadra Sen Gupta) are the adventures of twelve-year-olds, Raji, Avani and Madhura in 990 CE, Tanjore; 2570 BCE, Bagasara village, Harappa and 3rd Century BCE, Pataliputra, India respectively. Well-told tales that immerse you immediately into the stories, the period and the antics of the girls. Of the three, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s A Mauryan Adventure is the finest, evident in the ease with which the story is told, details of the story come together and so do the facts from history– but then she has years of experience in making history accessible for children through tales.

I am delighted to see historical fiction being made available for younger readers. It definitely has its uses for the sheer pleasure of reading or being introduced as supplementary readers in schools, thereby giving trade publishers access to an age group of readers who usually fall of their radar, since exams and textbooks hog all their attention, only to re-emerge as readers in their early twenties. In fact Prof Narayani Gupta wrote “It is very important to have teachers use this as well as referring to dauntingly clever theses. My husband [ well-known historian Prof. Partha Sarthi Gupta] used to recommend specific Sherlock Holmes stories for European diplomatic history!” ( A comment she sent via email upon reading my article on Historical Fiction — http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/03/26/on-historical-fiction-my-article-published-in-hts-brunch-9-march-2013/  )

While I am all for encouraging young girls to be readers too, I do have reservations about restricting the series to “Girls of India” or having girls on the book covers. These are books that will be enjoyed by both boys and girls. Given that they are targeting the 12+ age-group, this is a very sensitive lot of youngsters. Details like making the book covers more amenable to girls for reading can quite easily deter the boys from picking up these titles. It is a fine balance to be achieved.  In March 2013, Dame  Jacqueline Wilson had commented upon publishers stopping the pink tide, of creating books dressed up in pink to lure young girls as readers. Her argument was based on the premise that “a boy is going to have to feel really quite confident if he is going to be seen in front of his mates with a book that is bright pink because it is immediately code for this being ‘girlie’.” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10039848/Dame-Jacqueline-Wilson-challenges-publishers-to-halt-the-pink-tide.html ) A valid argument for accessing boys as readers, I think, holds true here as well.

Bottomline. My verdict for the series. A thumbs up. Read. Recommend.

Girls of India Series, published by Puffin, Penguin Books India. June 2013.

17 Sept 2013

On historical fiction ( My article published in HT’s Brunch, 9 March 2013)

On historical fiction ( My article published in HT’s Brunch, 9 March 2013)

http://www.hindustantimes.com/Brunch/Brunch-Stories/Once-Upon-A-Time-In-India/Article1-1023602.aspx

Once upon a time in India
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Hindustan Times
March 09, 2013
First Published: 12:11 IST(9/3/2013)
Last Updated: 19:27 IST(9/3/2013)

1860s London was agog with the Codrington case. It was a juicy story involving vice-admiral Codrington and his wife Helen, accused by her husband of having had an affair with Colonel Anderson, that was unfurling in the divorce courts. During the proceedings, front-page news at the time, the skewed slant of the legal system towards women became apparent. One of the key witnesses was Helen’s friend, Emily Faithfull or ‘Fido’, a leading member of the first wave of the British women’s emancipation movement and owner of The Victoria Press. Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter recreates the events in her novel. She relies on contemporary accounts of the period, but for the sake of story, compresses the events spread over some years to a few months of 1864. She uses artistic licence to reveal the contents of the sealed letter that were used in the courtroom but never made public.

Madhulika Liddle
The author of The Englishman’s Cameo, set her detective, Muzaffar Jang, in 17th- century Delhi. “Commercial fiction dependent upon mythology is mistakenly clubbed with historical fiction,” she says. These are the joys of reading well-told historical fiction – a rollicking good story, but pinned in facts (hugely dependent on meticulous research) combined with attention to detail.

What is historical fiction?
A historical fiction society website says, “To be deemed historical, a novel must have been written at least 50 years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).” Writer Sheba Karim (whose forthcoming novel revolves around Razia Sultan) describes them as “novels set in a past time period, which feels different from our own in terms of aspects like technological advancement, scientific understanding, political systems and modes of transport so that the author must include rich, descriptive detail to give the reader a strong sense of time and place.”

The scene in India
In Britain, it is a hugely successful genre, spawning an association, awards and wide acclaim. Jenny Barden, author and organiser of the Historical Novel Society (HNS) conference held in London in September 2012, comments that of the 13 titles longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011, more than half were in some sense ‘historical’. Of the six titles recently shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2012, four were historical. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and last year, the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, won the prize again. Now, the historical fiction genre is doing well here too.


Diana Preston One half of the husband-wife team behind the Empire of the Moghul series says the conflicts of the Mughals’ lives caught their imagination. “And historical fiction offered the best scope for conveying that excitement.”

The Grand Mughals
Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Moghul series has also been a big success in India. ‘Alex Rutherford’ is the pseudonym of husband-and-wife team, Diana and Michael Preston. “We chose to fictionalise the story of the Mughal emperors after reading the source material beginning with The Baburnama – the first biography in Islamic literature – through to the court chronicles of the later emperors,” wrote Diana in an email. “The conflicts of their lives caught our imagination and historical fiction seemed to offer the best scope for conveying the excitement of what happened, since the it offers greater freedom to create dialogue, explain motivation, interpret silences in the sources than non-fiction.” According to the Rutherfords, one of the great pleasures of historical fiction is delineating the characters. “What caught our attention particularly was how the Mughal dynasty, outwardly so opulent and successful, carried the seeds of its own destruction within it. Their tradition – brought with them from West Asia – was for familial rivalries expressed in their saying ‘taktya, takhta’, ‘throne or coffin’. The Mughals’ greatest enemies were not their external foes but each other. Exploring their jealousies and feuds was absorbing.”

Who was Mira Bai’s husband?

Kiran Nagarkar Nagarkar’s Cuckold is one of the best known in the genre. “The book has a narrative epic. At the same time it tends to be philosophical,” says the author.
Kiran Nagarkar’s brilliant Cuckold (a tale told from Mira Bai’s husband’s perspective) leads among local historical-fiction novels by being continuously in print since it was first published in 1997. “I do not see Cuckold as historical fiction but as a very modern book,’ Nagarkar says. “I wasn’t trying to write anything factual, but luckily it fell into place. The book has a narrative epic. At the same time it does something very underhand, it tends to be philosophical – personal ruminations, state craft, and the science of retreating.”

More tales from the past
Indu Sundaresan, author of the popular Taj Mahal trilogy (The Twentieth Wife, The Feast of Roses, The Shadow Princess) about Mehrunnisa aka Empress Nur Jahan, the most powerful woman in the Mughal empire, says she always daydreamed a lot. “My love for history, and storytelling, came from my father,” she explains. “Dad was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, and at every place he was posted, he’d take us to visit the forts and palaces and fill our heads with tales of the kings and queens who inhabited them. That’s why, I think, I write historical fiction.”
In her book The Englishman’s Cameo and The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries, Madhulika Liddle sets her detective hero loose in 17th-century Delhi. One reason it’s so popular is that it lets you time travel in the city you thought you knew.

The young-adult niche
Subhadra Sen Gupta, known for her historical fiction set in ancient and medieval India, says that recreating the time and life of people is the real challenge when it comes to hooking younger readers. “I also travel to historical places in search of locations because the descriptions of places are crucial.”

Subhadra Sen Gupta The author of Let’s Go Time Travelling likes to visit historical places. “Recreating a time and the life of people is the real challenge,” she says

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the author of Neela: Victory Song, a young-adult novel set during the freedom movement, says there isn’t that much available for younger readers. “It is very important for young readers to understand history and their heritage,” she says. “It helps them make sense of the contemporary world. It teaches them about the link between cause and effect. Historical fiction, often full of action and excitement and suspense, draws young readers into that time and teaches them history in a fun way.” She rubbishes the theory that historical fiction is easier to write. “Much more research has to be done about the period. For Neela: Victory Song, I interviewed my mother, who was a young girl during that time.” The common factor binding these writers is not necessarily the genre, but their attention to detail and rigorous research. They are meticulous in getting their facts right about their protagonists and reading around the period including contemporary accounts but presenting it differently in a non-textbook fashion.

History or Mythology?
Unfortunately in India, mythology-driven fiction is often mistakenly clubbed with historical fiction. Some instances of this confusion are David Hair’s young-adult trilogy Return of Ravana (Pyre of Queens, The Ghost Bride and more); Ashok Banker’s The Forest of Stories, Krishna Udayasankar’s Govinda, and Ashwin Sanghi’s The Krishna Key.

But historical fiction is everywhere. Publishers are nurturing this genre and it has steady sales. Maybe the current outburst of publications on the Indian literary landscape such as Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer; Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie; Biman Nath’s The Tattooed Fakir; Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s The Taj Conspiracy and Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour bode well for those who like a good historically accurate yarn.

Prizes and readers
The market for the historical fiction genre is growing. Previously the Historical Writers’ Association (HWA) together with Goldsboro Books set up the £2,000 HWA-Goldsboro Crown for Debut Historical Fiction written by a previously unpublished-in-fiction author; now the HNS has founded the £5,000 Historical Novel Society International Award for an unpublished work of historical fiction written by any author (whether previously unpublished or not). Add these to the prizes already well-established for historical fiction, and there are now a good range of awards for any writer in the genre to aim for.

Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, has a suprising slant on the genre, which may well account for its popularity: “Historical fiction probably has a more balanced audience in terms of gender than much other fiction: men as well as women enjoy historical fiction.”

The writer is an international publishing consultant and columnist

Reading up the past
Here is a list of historical fiction novels that you could go for

Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Street
Robert Grave’s I, Claudius
Leon Uris’s Exodus
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace
Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn
Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient
Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold
Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows
Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter
Indu Sundaresan’s The Shadow Princess, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses.
Alex Rutherford’s The Empire of the Mughal series
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five
Barabara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible
Subhadra Sengupta’s Kartik’s War; Kartik & the Lost Gold; Waiting for Tansen (adults); Sword of Dara Shikoh; History, Mystery, Dal, Biryani; A Clown for Tenali Rama; Give us Freedom; Bishnu the Dhobi Singer; Once Upon a Time in India plus many biographies – Akbar, Ashoka, Gandhi and fictionalised bios of Jahanara & Jodh Bai.
Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo and The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries
Mukul Kesavan’s Looking Through Glass
Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Victory Song
Arupa Kalita Patangia’s Dawn
Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger Claw and What the Body Remembers
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies
Andrew Miller’s Pure
Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues
Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray
Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies

From HT Brunch, March 10

Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka

Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka

I read The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka last night. I could not put the book down. A brilliant example of historical fiction from contemporary writing. It is about the Japanese immigrants chasing the American dream in the early 1900s. Told from the perspective of a collective group of Japanese women, who remain nameless. But it tracks them from the time they board the ship in Japan as the modern day equivalent of mail order brides to land on the hallowed shores of America, the birth of their children, the various menial jobs they hold or travel in search of better jobs till the time of WWII when the “Japs” are looked upon askance. These women are caught in a terribly painful situation of being ostracized by society, treated like worse than filth by their patriarchal husbands and what is worse, distanced by their own kids who do not want to really have anything to do with their parents, who are so obviously alien to the American culture, modes of lifestyle and language. Julie has written this slim (it is only 117 pages) novel after loads of research. She lists some of the books that were consulted for her writing. It is the perfect little gem of historical fiction. Brings you immediately into the story (the hallmark of a good storyteller) and creating a moment in history evocatively, putting in sufficient background details to place it in a period setting, but without crowding the text or obstructing the narrative/story/plot. Read it, if you can.