‘When it comes to history, Indians want spice, not fact’ | books$guest-writers | Hindustan Times
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‘When it comes to history, Indians want spice, not fact’

Madhulika Liddle, best known for her novels featuring the 17th century Mughal detective Muzaffar Jang, on what ails Indian historical fiction.

books Updated: Jun 07, 2017 08:05 IST
A still from the historical drama Bajirao Mastani (2015), which was loosely based on the life of the Maratha general Peshwa Bajirao I.
A still from the historical drama Bajirao Mastani (2015), which was loosely based on the life of the Maratha general Peshwa Bajirao I.

Several years back, a book set in early Mughal India came my way. Akbar’s womenfolk attended banquets, seated at dining tables alongside courtiers. The men drank wine while eating olives, lemons and cheese, wheeled in on trolleys. The royal ladies talked to men unrelated to them in their private chambers.

The plot of this book was good, its characters well-etched. Even the writing, considering the general standard of Indian writing in English, was good. But where it fell flat was in its historicity. One does not expect a historical novel to be utterly faithful to history; some degree of license is allowed. But a near-complete disconnect from reality?

Mughal women constantly flouting the strict rules of purdah? Very European foods and modes of dining (including dining tables and trolleys)?

Details, some may say, but when writing fiction, it is the detail that makes all the difference. It is the knowledge of how people lived in an era, what they ate, how they dressed, how they behaved in society and so on, which brings a period alive.

This is where much Indian historical fiction falters. On the one hand, in the painfully obvious lack of research, leading to gaffes such as potatoes, chillies, custard apples and other South American botanicals being cheerily consumed by people in pre-Columbian India. Another is the blurring of lines between myth and reality, folklore and fact. While in the hands of a literary giant like Kiran Nagarkar writing Cuckold, this can be fascinating. But it can prove the downfall of less accomplished writers.

A still from the film Jodha-Akbar (2008)

The main reason for these problems, I think, lies in the way most Indians perceive history. History, perhaps because of the dry way in which it is often taught in schools, is reduced to a subject with little or no connect to the present. A bunch of dates, or at best, a boring description of politics, with a few facts about socio-economic or cultural scenarios thrown in. No wonder, then, that – at least at school level – few students develop a love for history: there’s little of the personal, the daily life of people in another period, for instance, to draw them to it. This, in turn, leads to a populace that is largely ignorant about history.

Then, there’s the vast amount of folklore that has, over the centuries, built up around historical figures and places. Blood and gore, enduring romances, incredible architecture: all are grist to the mill of gossip-lovers. And they make for far more interesting narratives than dry fact, for everybody – from tourist guides at heritage sites, to authors eager to jump onto the historical fiction bandwagon.

Lastly, there’s the fact that we, as a society, have scant respect for history. The desire to be seen as modern and progressive, has created an odd paradox: a respect, not for history in its true sense, but for what passes for it: so-called ‘tradition’. Tradition is revered, history is ignored.

The sum total of all of this is that history, and anything connected to it, takes a back seat. This includes historical fiction – a genre that flourishes in the West, and could be potentially popular in India, if only authors and readers realised what it truly implies. Not an incoherent mix of mythology, ‘popular history’, and folklore. Not a culling together of random ‘historical’ details. Not history for the sake of history, but history as a live, breathing, now. A setting as true as, say, 21st century India.

What this requires is research. Good, solid research, research that is reliable. Not folklore, not mythology, not Wikipedia. Sadly, even among the literary heavyweights, there tends to be a tendency to compensate for poor research by focusing on dazzling prose.

The fact that, despite this lack of veracity, so much ‘historical’ fiction still makes it to bestseller lists reinforces my belief that when it comes to history, Indians want spice, not fact. And are more than willing to lap up anything disguised as ‘history’, no matter how ahistorical, as long as it’s entertaining.

It’s about time more writers like Adity Kay or Omair Ahmad, who are serious about history and storytelling, stepped up and made their presence felt.

Madhulika Liddle is a novelist and a short story writer. Her books include Crimson City (2015) and The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries (2011).

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