Jaishree Misra settles down under a warm winter sun eager to know if reading her novel, Rani, was “a drag”. Apart from assuring that it wasn’t, Damini Purakayastha talked to the author about writing historical fiction, her protagonist and a ‘Titanic’ ending.
Excerpts from the interview:
Are you worried about a backlash to your fictionalised version of history?
I half expect some public litigation case to come up. I am a little worried that someone will think that I have set out to tell the truth. But If that was the plan, I would have written a work of non-fiction. Nor did I set out to create a figure of inspiration. If that was the case I’d have chosen a character like Begum Hazrat Mahal who I feel did a lot more to fight and ultimately died a pauper. Yet, she never became a figure of inspiration. So who knows how heroes get chosen. Nothing has happened yet though. Maybe if it is translated into Marathi... who knows?
I was interested in how she actually tried peaceful negotiations with the British before taking up arms. There was one letter from the East India Company that spoke about Robert Ellis’ [her political agent] conduct in Jhansi, and the accounts of what really happened were so different that I was fascinated.
Was it difficult sifting through the facts and conflicting opinions?
When I met William Dalrymple he advised me on a cataloging system for research. But ultimately there were so many different views that I had to take a call between the contrary things I had read. Certain characters like Nana could have gone either way. It was the freedom of choice fiction allowed me.
The novel is very visual. Did you spend a lot of time in Jhansi?
Actually, I had a more accurate sense of Jhansi before I went there. My trips to Jhansi didn’t really help that much. But yes, for little things like the distance between Panch Mahal and the town, being there helped.
The ending reminds me of the ending of Titanic, where the dead lovers meet again.
I hadn’t thought about the Titanic connection. But I read a book by one of my favourite writers soon after sending the manuscript off and realised that my ending was very similar to hers. Mortified that she would think I had copied her, I called her and she laughed it off saying she’d been inspired by an old classic herself. I couldn’t just let it end on that note. When someone goes missing, you want to believe that they are not dead. There are songs in Jhansi that indicated that she hadn’t died and I sort of played on that emotion.