Mukul Kesavan Posts

Jeet Thayil “The Book of Chocolate Saints”

If this is a story about art then it is  a story about God and the gifts he gives us. Also the gifts he takes away. God has it in for poets, that’s obvious, but the Bombaywallahs hold a special place in his dispensation. Or so I believe, with good reason. Much has been taken from the poets of Bombay. Bhagwan kuch deyta hai toh wapas bhi leyta hai. 

Let me ask you a question. Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two and vanished without a trace? It had never happened before, poets writing Marathi, Hindi, English, and combinations thereof, writing to and against each other, such ferment and not a word of documentation. Why not?

The fiction has been done to death, features and interviews and critical studies and textbooks and not one of the novelists is worth a little finger of the poets. They were the great ones and they died. All of them died. If you want a moral, here it is: what god giveth, he taketh away. In this story art is god. And if god is art, then what is the devil? Bad art of course. But we’ll talk about that in a minute or we won’t. Kuch bhi ho, yaar. 

Award-winning writer and poet Jeet Thayil’s second novel The Book of Chocolate Saints  is about the fictional character Newton Francis Xavier  ( perhaps loosely modelled on Dom Moraes to whom the book is dedicated). It is also a commentary by an insider on the Bombay poets — Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla and Arun Kolatkar. The novel is a witness’s testimony as much as that of a practising poet’s acknowledgement to the rich literary tradition he belongs to. Recently one of the surviving members of this group, Ashok Shahane, in an interview while referring to the medieval Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar, spoke of him

…regarding the relationship between the word and the world. Dnyaneshwar said that when we look for the sliver of the moon, the branch of a tree becomes useful as a guide to our eyes. Words are that branch, not the sliver of the moon itself.

“What is literature? Literature has nothing to do with the real world. I mean, at the same time it has everything to do with the real world,” he said. “You need readers who can maintain this balance. Literary matters will stay in literature, and the interpretation will stay in your mind. You won’t come out and fight in the street. At least this much I expect. But I don’t think I can expect that. Someone will take offence, and then, things will unravel.”

Likewise with The Book of Chocolate Saints which has taken the art form of a novel to new heights and yet is undeniably grounded in reality. There are very real people such as the poet Philip Nikolayev, and Jeet Thayil’s father, the author and journalist, T.J.S.George, or seemingly fiction which are thinly veiled references to actual incidents and people. It is a novel that marks a milestone in modern Indian literature particularly the Indian novel in English. This form of writing had begun to make its presence felt in 1980s with the publication of novels by I, Allen Seally, Shashi Tharoor, Rukun Advani and Mukul Kesavan; but it was with the publication of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy that truly cemented the arrival of the Indian novel in English worldwide. No longer did it seem out of place to have a smattering of Hindi words in English prose— it was considered as acceptable as reading the French phrases in a Wodehouse story, the story itself about an ordinary person selling shoes for a living and looking for the ideal marriage partner was familiar to readers as someone like them and not fiction set in some faraway land. More than two decades later The Book of Chocolate Saints bursts upon the scene with its detailed literary landscape taking the Indian novel in English to another level — of high culture. It focuses on a literary group that is known for its unique style of literature, influenced by international culture, and writers like Baudelaire, James Joyce, the Beat poets including Allen Ginsberg who came and spent time with them, Auden and the Hungryalists instead of navel gazing as much of local literature was tending to become — each form has its relevance but by breaking the traditional shackles of “Indian literature” and bringing different strands together to create something new was revolutionary. The Bombay poets were producing literature well before the Internet happened  so accessing different cultural elements and learning from them was a far more challenging process than it is now. They travelled, they conversed, they learned from each other, they had weekly addas, disagreed and yet remained steadfast companions whose influence upon literature is going to tell for generations to come. Jeet Thayil exemplifies this in his novel by paying homage to the Bombay poets by experimenting happily with the art form to create unique piece of literature that can only give the reader joy by engaging fully with it. At times the prose seems like poetry, there are portions that are like investigative journalism, at times it flows beautifully like straightforward classical prose and at other times seems broken — yet all the while masterfully controlled by the genius of a storyteller.  Coincidentally the same editor and eminent publisher, David Davidar, published both the novels — A Suitable Boy and The Book of Chocolate Saints.

This cross-pollination of art and reality is what literary craftsman Jeet Thayil attempts in The Book of Chocolate Saints while chronicling a significant time in contemporary Indian literature and history. It is a magnificent pastiche!

Jeet Thayil The Book of Chocolate Saints Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. Rs 799 

31 Oct 2017 

 

Vikram Seth, “Summer Requiem”

Vikram SethVikram Seth’s poetry is exquisite. Always was and is. Years ago I recall my mother being handed a copy of The Golden Gate by a friend, a journalist, who had interviewed Seth. Mum received an autographed copy of a paperback edition. It had a boring blue cover with a photograph of the Golden Gate but the excitement about reading a novel in verse by an Indian was far greater than nitpicking about the ordinary production quality of the book.  It was the nineteen eighties when Indians were barely recognised globally for writing original fiction and poetry in English. Literary discussions were still confined to the legacies of R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao and the emerging “St Stephens School of Writing” to which male writers such as Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Rukun Advani and Mukul Kesavan belonged. Arundhati Roy’s Booker success with her debut novel, The God of Small Things, was still a few years away. Since then Vikram Seth, his aforementioned contemporaries and a handful of others have been elevated to the literary elite of the subcontinent and for good reason too — their creative ingenuity in making literature that is a pure delight to immerse oneself in for its craft and its gravitas.

Vikram Seth’s new collection of poetry Summer Requiem validates his status as being a well-deserved member of Vikram and Davidthis exclusive club of writers. In this slim offering of poems published by Aleph Books Vikram Seth experiments with the poetic form. Try scanning the lines and you will be constantly surprised by what you glean. From the traditional form to blank verse of the title poem to translations of poems to creating an extraordinary sonnet in No Further War. The latter poem is not only technically sound but is absorbing to read for its devastating critique of modern day politicians who create mayhem with war, destroying Nature and the beauty of earth, leaving artists a wasteland. In this collection of poems Vikram Seth touches upon a range of issues — commentary, reflecting upon his own body of work including working on a novel ( a reference perhaps to the work-in-progress A Suitable Girl? ), engaging in literary criticism such as discussing the importance of translations  and discovering new writers. Coincidentally when I was reading Summer Requiem I had T. S. Eliot reciting The Wasteland in the background. ( Here is the link:  http://www.openculture.com/2009/11/ts_eliot_reads_the_wasteland.html ) . It is a powerful experience. Two poets, writing decades apart, commenting on the deeply disturbing man-made catastrophes.  A couple of toxic madmen sting mankind. (Vikram Seth “No Further War”) .

With the permission of Aleph Book Company, I am reproducing some lines of poetry from Vikram Seth’s new collection Summer Requiem.

 

The liberated generation lives a restrained youth.

Memory is a poison; it has sickened my body.

The cleavage of attachment has frayed my mind.

( Summer Requiem)

 

Abstractions have their place, the concrete too.

(A Cryptic Reply)

Two oval portraits, prints in black and white,

Lean on a shelf; one of them, Pushkin, who

Never stepped out of Russia in his life,

Let alone roamed around this town, but who

Belongs to you who know his works by heart

And, yes, to me, who, though I cannot read

A word of his by eye, know him by soul.

I wouldn’t be here, we’re it not for him.

He gave me me….

Translation though it was, though every Russian

Yes, you included, when I met you first,

Before the concert in that cavernous room 

Shakes her head slowly when I mention this 

In wistful sympathy ( ‘What can they get 

From Pushkin who can’t understand our tongue?’),

Yet what I got, I got — and it got me

Out of myself, into myself, and made me

Set everything aside I’d set my thoughts on,

And grasp my time, live in his rooms and write

What even today puzzles me by its birth,

The Golden Gate, that sad and happy thing,

Child of my youth, my first wild fictive fling.

(In a Small Garden in Venice)

 

Vikram Seth Summer Requiem Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp.66. Rs 399

Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

Print

 

Literati is the book-club at SAP Labs India, and India’s largest corporate book-club.

Headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, with locations in more than 130 countries, SAP is the world leader in enterprise software and software-related services. SAP logo

 

Literati aims to bring together books, readers and writers. Here’s a list of authors who have spoken at Literati:

  • Amit Chaudhuri
  • Alex Rutherford
  • Alice Albinia
  • Amish Tripathi
  • Amitabha Bagchi
  • Amitava Kumar
  • Anand Giridharadas
  • Anjum Hasan
  • Anita Nair
  • Anuja Chauhan
  • Anuradha Roy
  • Arun Shourie
  • Ashok Ferrey
  • C P Surendran
  • Chetan Bhagat
  • Geeta Anand
  • Harsha Bhogle
  • James Astill
  • Kiran Nagarkar
  • Manil Suri
  • Mark Tully
  • M J Akbar
  • Mita Kapur
  • Mridula Koshy
  • Mukul Kesavan
  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi
  • Namita Devidayal
  • Navtej Sarna
  • Omair Ahmad
  • Pallavi Aiyar
  • Pankaj Mishra
  • Partha Basu
  • Pavan K Varma
  • Peter James
  • Poile Sengupta
  • Raghunathan V
  • Rana Dasgupta
  • Sam Miller
  • Samantha Shannon
  • Samit Basu
  • Samhita Arni
  • Sarnath Banerjee
  • Shashi Deshpande
  • Shashi Tharoor
  • Shehan Karunatilaka
  • Shobhaa Dé
  • Sudha Murthy
  • Suhel Seth
  • Sunil Gupta
  • Sudhir Kakar
  • Tabish Khair
  • Tarun J Tejpal
  • Tishani Doshi
  • Vikas Swarup
  • Vinod Mehta
  • Vikram Chandra
  • William Dalrymple
  • Yasmeen Premji
  • Zac O’Yeah 

Contact: Sumeet Shetty (sumeet.shetty@sap.com)

Sumeet Shetty is a Development Manager at SAP Labs India, and is the President of Literati, India’s largest

corporate book-club.

 

PubSpeak: Total Recall

PubSpeak: Total Recall

My column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online focuses on the Wendy Doniger book controversy. Here is the url to it:   http://businessworld.in/news/economy/total-recall/1266222/page-1.html   . ) 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose On 11 February, Penguin Books India reached a compromise drawn up in a Delhi Court that insisted it cease the publication and sale of American Indologist, Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in India within six months. Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samitri had filed a civil suit against the publishers to withdraw from circulation all copies. Given that Batra had filed the case four years ago and it was still subjudice, the news of this compromise spread like wildfire. Later that day, Doniger issued a press statement “I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit. They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece — the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”Wendy Doniger

PBI logoPenguin Books India released a statement on 14 February stating “a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can…. The settlement reached this week brings to a close a four year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger. We have published, in succession, hardcover, paperback and e-book editions of the title. International editions of the book remain available physically and digitally to Indian readers who still wish to purchase it.”

What followed the announcement perhaps was only a natural outcome given the speed at which social media helps communicate information. There was public outrage at this development— newspapers, print, digital, and, of course, social media forums. A number of commentators, journalists, and even Penguin authors wrote passionately against Penguin Book India’s decision to destroy the book. Arundhati Roy in an open letter spoke of her distress and said “You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least”. Nilanjana Roy, author and member of PEN Delhi wrote on censorship and how to remain free; Jakob de Roover in an outstanding essay “Untangling the Knot” discussed the complexities of governance, judiciary and free speech; journalist Salil Tripathi commented perceptively on the issue on many platforms ; Stephen Alter wrote, “Both as a writer and as a reader, I am deeply offended that anyone should dictate what I may read or write”; Penguin author and essayist, Amit Chaudhuri reiterated that “It’s important that the law protect all texts”; and Antara Dev Sen, Editor, The Little Magazine, wrote that the Indian Penal Code “Section 295A targets ‘deliberate and malicious acts (which include speech, writings or signs) intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’. In an age of identity politics and hurt sentiments, this has been used frequently by politically motivated people to stifle free speech. But back in 1957, the Supreme Court had ruled that only when there is a ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings’ is it an offence under this law. Higher courts in India have consistently ruled in favour of freedom of speech and have protected books and people hauled to court under this law.”

In fact, two Penguin authors, Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma, asked for their contracts to be terminated. Another Penguin author, Arshia Sattar (who has translated Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara from Sanskrit to English) expressed her dismay at the “complete capitulation” of the firm and how her “pride and that faith has been shaken…of being with a publishing house that protected its people and the books they wrote”.

A counter legal initiative perhaps was expected. According to the website, Legally India, advocate Lawrence Liang, part of the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum, has issued a 30-paragraph legal notice to Penguin India, claiming that the publisher has violated freedom of speech laws and readers’ rights by agreeing to destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’. The notice sent on behalf of Liang’s clients, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarthi Sethi, argues that because Penguin has agreed to withdraw the book from India and destroy all copies, after a legal dispute with a religious group, it has “effectively acknowledged that it is no longer interested in exercising” its ownership in the work and should surrender its copyright to the Indian public. Sengupta is a Delhi-based artist and writer, while Sethi is an anthropologist with a “deep interest in Hindu philosophy”, according to the legal notice. Both are “avid bibliophiles” and were apparently “delighted” when Penguin published Doniger’s book, “and as people who have closely followed the scholarly contributions of the said author they regard this book to be a significant contribution to the study of Hinduism. They consider Ms Doniger’s translations of Indian classical texts and her work on various facets of Hinduism from morality in the Mahabharata to the erotic history of Hinduism as an inspiration for their own intellectual pursuits.”

At the recent Globalocal event (German Book Office, New Delhi’s annual B2B conference on publishing), a regional language publisher wondered if it was possible for any other publisher to option this book and publish it, after all it has not been legally banned in this territory. Echoing this sentiment, Shamnad Basheer, IPR lawyer, writing in Spicy IP, reflected upon the pros and cons of compulsory licensing, and whether it was possible if a publisher decides to stop publication, one could apply for a compulsory license.

Globally Penguin has been in the news related to their peripheral businesses and their merger with Random House. In 2012, Pearson PLC (of which Penguin Books India is a part of) acquired the self-publishing firm, Author Solutions, for $116 million. But in 2013, this deal soured as a number of disgruntled authors filed lawsuits against Author Solutions for its poor service. In the landmark case pertaining to ebooks and agency pricing, in April 2012, the US Department of Justice sued Apple and five publishers, including Penguin, for conspiring to raise prices and restrain competition. This was done after Amazon filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, Penguin was obliged to pay $75 million. George Packer observes in the New Yorker, “an enormous sum in a business that has always struggled to maintain respectable profit margins”. On 1 July 2013, the global merger between Penguin Books and Random House was announced. It was a strategic alliance, forged as a response to the growing presence of Amazon in the publishing industry. The formation of Penguin Random House (PRH) has created a group that has 25 per cent of the market share. A merger comes at a cost of resources that have to be taken into account for the new firm to begin work on a strong footing.

In Oct 2013, Penguin Random House announced the completion of its purchase of Ananda Publishers Private Limited’s minority stake in Penguin Books India. It plans to invest Rs 55 crore or $8.6 million for this stake buy. As banker-turned-author Ravi Subramanian, with whom in June 2013 Penguin Books India signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) wrote on his blog with respect to Doniger’s case, “publishing is a business”. For any firm, particularly in publishing, this is a lot of money being moved around its balance sheets.  Naturally the ripple effect of these financial adjustments will be felt even in the local markets—it is like conducting business in a global village where in the context of a globally contacted world, the minimum consumption that people desire is also influenced by what is going on elsewhere.

Similarly, with the Doniger case, Penguin Books India has probably taken an informed business decision, based upon a global strategy when it signed this deal on 11 February, in order to preserve a healthy English-language publishing market in India.

Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Books India, in a guest blog post in 2012 during the Banned Books week, had this to say: “Injunctions make things costly, time consuming, and take our energies away from the work we are really meant to do. And so we try and avoid them as much as possible. Apart from the fact that we don’t fight hard enough for them, I wonder whether it means we impose a kind of self-censorship on ourselves.”

Ironically this latest controversy broke exactly twenty-five years after the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for his ‘Satanic Verses’ published by Penguin. At the time, his publishers stood by him and did not pulp the book. The fact is publishing is a business that is built upon the creative energies and emotions of people. India is also a functioning democracy. Freedom of speech is the right of every citizen. With the General Elections less than a hundred days away, the need for openness, frank conversations without any inhibitions, and certainly not a capitulation to any ideological position is imperative.

Scholar-journalist and historian Mukul Kesavan points out that that selling books is not like selling any other commodity. Publishers have moral responsibility and a publisher voluntarily agreeing to withdraw a book has previously been challenged with the case of James Laine’s book on Shivaji in 2007. Oxford University Press voluntarily agreed to withdraw the book. An FIR was issued against the publisher and printer of the book in Pune (one charge, under Section 153 A, was ‘inciting class hatred’) and the printer was actually arrested. When the case (‘Manzar Sayeed Khan vs State Of Maharashtra, 2007’) came up before the Supreme Court, however, the government of Maharashtra’s case against the author and the publisher of the book was found to be wanting. So, there is a precedent by the Supreme Court to rule in favour of free speech.

Nevertheless, the Wendy Doniger book controversy raises a bunch of issues pertaining to the publishing industry. Questions about legislation and the freedom of speech, what are the ethics involved in publishing, do readers and authors have a right that they can exercise, what does it mean for licensing, do possibilities exist in a mixed environment of digital and print publishing such as do readers have a choice?

Finally does this self-censorship by a publishing firm mean an inadvertent promotion for self-publishing, encouraging authors to be responsible for their books completely? Interestingly in a space of less than six weeks I have heard John Makinson, CEO, Penguin Random House and Jon Fine, Director, Author & Publishing Relations, Amazon talk about their publishing businesses and both have stressed upon the importance of discoverability of an author. This controversy could not have come at a better time for Doniger and even Penguin. They have achieved the Streisand effect whereby in an attempt to censor a piece of information, it has had the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely. It has achieved what no PR could have—a boost in sales.

21 Feb 2014 

Mukul Kesavan, “Homeless on Google Earth”

Mukul Kesavan, “Homeless on Google Earth”

Homeless on Google Earth

( My review of Mukul Kesavan’s book Homeless on Google Earth was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement today, 5 Jan 2014. The online version is available at:  http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/lucid-yet-forceful/article5538031.eceThe review is c&p below as well.) 

Mukul Kesavan Homeless on Google Earth Permanent Black, Ranikhet Cantt., India, 2013. Hb. Pp. 315. Rs. 595

 In India we bank on time and forgetfulness to paper over the great rents in our history. They help but can’t do the job by themselves.  (p.252)

As a consumer of news, you could be forgiven for thinking the Indian elections are ideology-free. Pundits in the press and on the television news channels are always saying that votes are bought, coalitions are constructed out of caste fractions, politicians defect, political parties swtich sides with frictionless ease, and the policies contained in party manifestos are irrelevant to the democractic process because they are never seriously discussed. Add up these defects and what India seems to have by way of elections is the mechanism of representative government without the large ideological contestation that is, or ought to be, a democracy’s reason for being. (p. 237)

“The electoral impact of the controversy over the reinstatement of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code might be small, but the political significance of the positions that parties have taken on the decriminalization of homosexuality is considerable.” The opening lines of Mukul Kesavan’s latest column—“A political prism – What the different parties’ positions on 377 reveal”. In one sentence, clearly and sharply, scholar-journalist and historian, Mukul Kesavan, has encapsulated the furore that has dominated recent news but also pithily analysed it, forecasting the impact it will have politically; powerful words, especially on the eve of General Elections in India and after the four state election results were announced. Hence it is not surprising to discover that the web link to this article has been shared, reposted and discussed furiously in social media platforms. In fact, during the last elections, he was often spotted on television channels as a panellist, offering his independent, strong, thought-provoking and well-articulated opinion.

Homeless on Google Earth is a collection of 58 essays, most of which seem to have been written recently, judging by their subject. Mukul Kesavan teaches history at Jamia Milia Islamia, a university in New Delhi. In these opinion pieces, he covers a range of topics—his identity in “No place like home”, book launches, literary festivals, travelling to Kruger National Park with Amitav Ghosh, Bollywood, technology, gender issues, travelogues, education and political commentaries that cover topics like Israel, Gaza, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Tibet, Kashmir, naxalism, the pogroms in India of 1984, 1992 and 2002, communal violence, elections and terrorism. The essays in the book are well arranged. They start from the easy-to-read, light and sometimes hilarious essays like “Consuming wildness in Kruger”, to the grim, sober and chilling commentaries on police encounters at Jamia Milia Islamia (“Presumed Innocent”); on naxalites (“Operation Green Hunt”); and communal hatred (“Vox Pop and Varun Gandhi” and “Accounting for the Dead”). He is a genuine historian who marshals his evidence to bolster his arguments in tautly structured essays manifesting his splendid  command of English. Without undermining the intelligence of his readers, his arguments are is lucidly and simply expressed.

Homeless on Google Earth is about important events in contemporary political, social events in  India and aspects of society that usually go unnoticed, like the women taxi drivers or the peculiar social space of society that in which MSM exists in. But read at a sitting, the essays can become very tedious. They are a collection of writings published at various times, originally meant to be read one at a time. When collected as a book, their rhythm and organization can seem to have a dull sameness. But unless one has followed Mukul Kesavan’s columns and other writings, one will not know that the essays were written at different times as there are no dates for them in this book, an unexpected oversight from a historian.

At a time when mainstream papers are slowly going out of business or moving actively and aggressively to online spaces, the vaccuum steadily being replaced by citizen journalists, online and at times armchair activism,  voices of opinion makers like Mukul Kesavan are valuable.  He is rational and sound. He does not seem to be swayed by majority sentiments, and is acutely aware of his academic discipline which he brings to bear on the issues dealt with here. One may not agree with his point of view but it is presented forcefully yet courteously and without shrillness.  It is important for such voices to be heard more often. They reach out to a range of people and ideological groups. The historian E.J.Hobsbawm said in his public lecture in Delhi 2004, that earlier society used to change at a pace that allowed people at least a generation to respond and adapt to it. But recently change has been so rapid that we are having to do this adjusting and adapting in the space of a decade or less. At this speed it becomes imperative to have rational thinkers to actively participate in civil society, as Mukul Kesavan has done in these essays.

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