I met half of Alex Rutherford at the Park hotel in Connaught Place last week. Her name was Diana Preston, a sharp, nattily dressed woman of questionable age. "I'm afraid it's just me here. Michael doesn't do interviews", she said, accent clipped and very British indeed (and very rapid).
The husband-wife duo is the author of Empire of the World, a quintet of books about the epic rise and fall of the Mughal empire in India over 200 violent, turbulent years. They begin at the beginning - all the way from Babur, the first Mughal king - and plan to go all the way up to Shah Jahan in the final book, getting into the heads of Humayun, Akbar and Salim along the way in the eminently readable style of a gripping page-turner.
Both Michael and Diana studied at Oxford University, reading History and English respectively and have written historical non-fiction before the Empire… series. They are avid travellers and have journeyed to more than 140 destinations including India, Africa, Borneo and even Antarctica. They have gone gorilla-tracking in Zaire and camped their way across the Namibian desert.
Only three of the five books in the quintet are out right and the couple is hard at work on the next one. On a muggy July afternoon, they step out of Salim's head to talk to us.
Who's Alex Rutherford?
(Laughs) Who's Alex Rutherford?
Alex Rutherford is me, Diana, and my husband Michael Preston. We have a writing partnership of about… umm... we've always written together, mainly non-fiction books, sort of early 20th century big, political topics, until we did the Empire of the Moghul quintet. We spent two years of our lives in India, researching for a non-fiction book about the Taj Mahal (A Tear Drop On the Cheek Of Time, Random House) a couple of years ago and decided we wanted to draw on things we had seen and experienced here.
But to get back to your question, we chose a pseudonym to differentiate our non-fiction stuff from our fiction stuff. And it's exciting to be able to assume a new identity! I'd love to say there was a logical reason behind choosing the name, or that, it had any family connections! But there's nothing like that. We chose 'Alex' because it's androgynous and Rutherford happens to be one of our favourite atomic scientists, so I'm afraid we pilfered his name.
And to tell the truth, he has become such an entity in our lives (he's become a 'him' in our heads now). We talk about him, think about how he must think about certain things… we see him probably as quite a bit younger and more adventurous than ourselves.
What does he look like?
Oooh, let me think… he's quite rugged, muscular and big! Kind of like a younger version of Indiana Jones (laughs).
Or Robert Langdon.
What was so fascinating about the Mughals?
When we came on our first visit to India, I'm afraid we did the typical thing most foreigners do, which is go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. But when we saw the mausoleums, the palaces, we were so astonished; we wanted to know more about the people behind them. So we explored that in our non-fiction book on the Taj Mahal.
But you couldn't just start in the 17th century when the Taj was built - you had to have some background. So we did our research and realised that there were these extraordinary, interlocking stories, that, to understand completely, you had to go back to a blank piece of paper. You couldn't come up with something more dynamic, more exciting or more compelling than the Mughals.
Nothing was more magnificent than their courts in those days. The European ones were puny by comparison. And then again, at the heart, you have this absolutely irresistible story of family dynamics uncoiling with the horrible inevitability of a great tragedy.
How did you manage to get such intricate details about the lives of the Mughals in those times?
The sources are very rich, and anyone writing about Mughal history is very lucky in that aspect. For the first book about Babur, of course, we drew a lot from the Baburnama. It's so frank and direct and there's a lot of detail in there, not just about wars, but even his gardens, fruits and flowers. Also, you have a paintings and miniatures about that era, so the details were not really that difficult to get.
The difficulty, sometimes, was understanding a series of events rather than how people lived. The Baburnama, for instance, has almost a decade missing, probably a time when Babur was going through tough times.
In Akbar's period, you have accounts from Europeans who started coming to his court and writing back in absolute amazement to their countrymen about what they had seen. So the material is rich.
Your books, however, are a blend of fact and fiction…
Yes, for the purposes of keeping the narrative tight, we sometimes conflated time, condensed events and overlooked events because there's too much to cover. But all the main characters in the books, certainly the Mughal families are real, the main battles are real. We've extended some minor characters like Baburi (a market boy who goes on to become Babur's best friend) because it seemed to us that Babur would have had a brotherly presence like that in his life. We also created Salim's mother based on the fact that she was a Rajput princess.
We were always conscious of the fact that we were writing for general readers and not a heavy, academic audience.
When I was reading the books, it didn't seem like it was a foreigner writing for me. Wasn't there a mind jump, writing about a completely alien culture?
It's really great to hear that because that's what we were aiming for. It's a mixture of things: perhaps it's the amount of time we spent travelling here, the people we have talked to, the museums we visited, the pictures we looked at… we had a lot of help from the Archeological Survey of India. We also tested out chapters of the books on our Indian friends.
Basically, we forgot we were writing about the Mughals in India in the 16th century. We looked at it as a story with universal themes of the rise and fall of dynasties, human motivations and politics.
I presume the gore was pretty universal too…
(Laughs) That was a violent era! If you see Mughal paintings, you'll see clusters of heads tied to their saddles. I suppose it has something to do with how communication worked during those days. You killed someone to make a point, to warn enemies who dared to challenge you.
So of course when we write about the elephants with scimitars tied to their tusks and camels with burning piles of hay on their backs, you feel for the animals. But that's just us in the 21st century.
How does the writing process work?
We take about a year and a half to write each book. Both of us read all the research material so we can discuss and debate it. After that, it's like a film script. We know what's coming in each book, what's coming in each chapter. Once we go down from a macro level to a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene level, we divide them up between us. We debate every sentence, every paragraph and critique each other's work. So it's a painstaking process.
Why are you going to end the series with Shah Jahan? What about Aurangzeb?
We've been thinking about that a lot, actually. It was the Taj Mahal and Shah Jahan that inspired us to write the series, really, so ending with him seemed more natural and dramatic. That was also the point at which things were starting to go wrong with the Mughal Empire.
But it will require vast amounts of research and I don't think I'm in Aurangzeb's head right now (laughs). And now, we feel like we know these characters personally, so you do feel a sense of loss at the closure. It's like the end of Harry Potter or something.
Indians do have a proclivity of getting offended at everything, especially when it concerns history…
Our overriding objective was to be true to the characters, as we believed them to be from our sources and our research. We didn't have any intention of making any didactic point or a historical statement.
So no hate mail.
Not at all! In fact, we get far more letters challenging the non-fiction we've written! We get mail to clarify certain points, maybe, like whether Akbar was really called Akbar when he was born or given the name later (turns out he was, after his maternal grandfather). But that's it. We saw Jodhaa Akbar, by the way, and thought it was a movie to die for.
Why do we lack historical fiction in India despite having so much history?
A lot of Indian historians spent a lot of time reconstructing Indian history after Independence, thinks historian S Irfan Habib. "They were all too busy analysing political, economic and composite culture and pondering about how India could be reconstructed in a so-called socialist manner. Fiction wasn't high on anyone's priority."
It is only now that that the trend has started in India, the latest well-known examples being Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke in his Ibis trilogy. "So it is a nascent tradition", says Habib.
Author Madhulika Liddle, who dabbles in historical fiction herself, says that historical fiction has been ignored as a genre in the country. "I think Indians are a forward-looking people. We don't want to have anything to do with the past." The possibilities, she agrees, are exciting. "It would be so exciting to read a story set in Mohenjodaro or even during the times of Tughlaq! And I'm talking only about northern India. There's a wealth of local history in other parts of the country too!"