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Historical fiction unearths forgotten heroes

Who hasn't grown up listening to tales about the Rani Jhansi, Babur or Ashoka? From Homer's Illiad to Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan, past has been the muse for some of the greatest writers. Here're some historical fiction authors talking about the genre.

books Updated: Jul 05, 2011 11:30 IST
Sonakshi Babbar, Hindustan Times

'The past is never dead. It is not even past,' quotes, Rikin Khamar, author, The Lotus Queen, as he waxes eloquent about this fascinating genre of writing - historical fiction.

And how true are his words. From Homer's Illiad to Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan, the past has inspired some of the greatest works of modern and classical literature.

Subtly weaving past and fiction together, this genre of writing has removed cobwebs from the rickety legends and brought to life the forgotten heroes.

Whether by paying tribute the forgotten heroes or taking jibes at their eccentricities, the historical fiction writers have dusted the myths, sprinkled it with imagination, and served us a gripping tale from the times gone by.

As a genre, there's an obvious blurring of lines between history and fiction, with no telling when the author's imagination takes over. In The Lotus Queen, Khamar has unearthed a gem from the history of whom little 'facts' are known. He has put together the jigzaw from stories, poems, and songs to bring alive Rani Padmini of Chhittor, "Indian historical fiction offering seemS to be limited to uprisings during colonial times or stratagems around the Taj Mahal. There are so many heroes, men and women who had led fascinating lives and adventures across our country, so many stories of adventure or drama, that are virtually unknown by the modern audience today - who are instead inundated with 'throw-away' literature and films."

J.E.Steur, translator, Ashoka The Great (written by Wytze Keuning) echoes the same sentiment, "I was surprised to find a Dutch novel on the Indian Emperor and even more so when I discovered that the author had never been to India. I wondered whether the tale was all fiction, though it felt authentic. In fact, it took me almost a decade to get the answer to those questions. A historical novel is always a combination of both, of course."

With the characters from a different era, the authors manage to get under the skin of the character and you wouldn't even notice whether you're reading the fictional dilemmas of Trotsky or the real strife of Ashoka after the war of Kalinga. These authors speak through their characters by imagining themselves on a battlefield or ploughing the field. While Ken Follett, whose latest book was Fall Of Giants, "reads history and fits characters in historical situation", Khamar believes that "characters are just extensions of the author's imagination, experiences and personality".

"First and foremost it has to be said that historical fiction is still fiction after all. Ultimately it has to entertain. What I wanted was to retell the story as it unfolded in my mind. There are very little actual 'facts': most accounts are biased and written a long time after events. Once you go back a few hundred years, history and fiction begin to one can really even prove that a Padmini even existed!," he says.

Scared of making glaring historical errors, the authors leave no stone unturned to make their research thorough. While Khamar visited the place, scouted the net and read stories, Follett got the book cross-examined by eight historians. But still, they understand that there can never be the one version of history. As Khamar says, "I am sure there are historical inaccuracies in the novel, as in any novel or movie of the genre; but what is most important is telling a good story within a believable and verifiable historical context."

The old word charm of historical legends, the fears, joys, and dilemmas of the characters have always touched a chord with the readers. In fact, a well-written work of historical fiction can create an affinity between the reader and the past. As Steur sums it, "If you recognize the characters, are touched by them, the past becomes here-now. It enriches your own being. You can bring your roots home and discover that what looks like history is at the same time of all times. By going then-there you can reflect upon the here-now.

First Published: Jul 05, 2011 11:30 IST