The past is a foreign country

He hadn’t even seen the place when he set his new novel in ancient Greece. But when writer Aniruddha Bahal did go there, he found that geography is a big part of history.

india Updated: Oct 02, 2010 16:24 IST
Hindustan Times

The Acropolis dominates the landscape at Athens. In a way it sucks out all other views available till your eyes keep going back to it. For a long time it had only been something I had read about in the works of the ancient Greek historians – Herodotus, Arrian, Thucydides and others. But in July this year I flew to Greece on a whim.

Sometime back I had finished my novel, The Emissary. It is a work set in ancient Greece, during the time of Alexander the Great. Since finishing my first draft I had had a tremendous urge to see with my own eyes some of the historical places that were a setting in my novel. Specially Athens and the islands in the Aegean Sea.

Set on a hill in the middle of Athens, the Acropolis was the citadel of the city. Packed with temples and sacred sites, it had a defensive perimeter around it and a walled pathway extending all the way to the harbour at Pireus. When the Persian army of Xerxes was in Greece in the 5th century BCE, it ravaged Athens. Though the bulk of the citizens had deserted the city, a few Athenians had barricaded themselves in the sanctuary at the Acropolis.

the past is a foreign countryThe Persians, according to Herodotus, "wrapped their arrows with hemp fibre and after setting them on fire, shot them at the barricade." When the Persians proposed terms of surrender to the barricaded Athenians they rolled boulders down on the Persian soldiers. However, the Persians climbed the Acropolis from one of the steep sides, a way that had been left unguarded as it was thought that no one could climb the hill from there. When the Athenians saw what had happened, some of them threw themselves down from the edge of the Acropolis. The Persians, on reaching the summit, murdered the Athenians in the sanctuary and set the whole Acropolis on fire. Xerxes then had the Greek exiles who were with him perform a sacrifice on the Acropolis. The Persians also destroyed one of the temples under construction there. They then shifted the drums of stone from that temple to the northern wall perimeter so the Athenians would always have them in sight. They remain there even now.

In The Emissary there is a scene where a drunk by the name of Himerius is sitting near the temple of Athena on the Acropolis with a head in a box. He is being used as a bait to draw the Macedonians to the Acropolis. The Macedonians, thinking he is Seleucus, the person they are hunting, get drawn to the Acropolis and are embarrassed when the truth is discovered. Seleucus, however, was drawing the Macedonians to the Acropolis with another objective in mind. Revealing more would be giving away portions of the plot. My visit to the Acropolis, however, did make me structure and describe the place differently than the way I had written the scene in the first draft. There was perhaps an absence of geography earlier.

Reading Herodotus and Thucydides I always felt that, for the Greeks, what they fought for dominated their ethos more than what they fought against. Recent economic hardship, though, has blurred those lines. From cab drivers to street food entrepreneurs to salesmen of trinkets, the fight was now against the new penury being hoisted by the state. Banks and politicians were the new emblem of uncool. The most repeated refrain one hears in Athens while chatting to locals is: “Do you see the number of closed shops on this street? More than 40 per cent. But look at all the banks. They are open and flourishing. They are the only people making money. They got us into this trouble and are now making money even from this.” With current wisdom a reflection more of anguish than insight, people have taken to hating politicians with a vengeance. For them they are the Shylocks who sponged away the billions of dollars in loans that the European Union channelled their way.

Across the expanse of the Acropolis as the slopes blend into the café lined streets, the new “outsiders” are for all to see. In the times of the ancient Leagues even the Spartans were considered outsiders in Athens and most Greeks from outside Attica (the province where Athens is) had to take permission from the priests to sacrifice in local temples. Now the new outsiders are Bangladeshis and Africans. They number some 40,000 in Greece and eke a living selling roses, pens, small electronic items and knickknacks. They are constantly hounded by the Greek Municipal Police who walk the streets with a loitering gait that can change instantaneously into the speed of a gazelle the moment they spot a bunch of Bangladeshis selling prohibited goods. Apparently, selling roses and small toys is fine but the minute they graduate to chargers, torches, watches etc, the police pounce on them with the vengeance of bloodthirsty Spartans.

But what irks the Bangladeshis most is the local authorities making no distinction between them and the Pakistani illegals. This is the cause of much angst amongst the Bangladeshis who don’t want their kind to be sullied by the more aggressive Pakistanis. Interestingly, the Bangladeshis hold elections once in a year in Greece in their community of illegals and have an elected body to represent their interests. Many who have made their way to Greece are deserters from the Bangladeshi army. Their version of the arrival story is a sad reflection of the sub-continent: from donning uniforms in Dhaka they sell roses around the Acropolis, look at traffic jams as instant markets to be exploited and play an unending game of hide and seek with the municipal police.

Travelling to the islands of the Aegean Sea was another experience. The Greeks used to travel in triremes with three decks of rowers and each of the rowers belonged to a particular hierarchy (those rowing at the top were the senior-most). It was the Greek navy that routed Xerxes’s fleet and was responsible for him turning back. It took the Greeks many weeks and months of travel to get to the far flung islands in the Aegean Sea and the Cyclades. These days the locals and foreign tourists zip across the sea on high speed catamarans with names like Speedrunner 1. It takes four and a half hours to get to the island of Santorini – perhaps the most beautiful of the Greek islands.

Bright white domed houses cling to the cliff sides of the mountains here called the caldera. From above there are incredible views of the islets below. There is even a whole new civilisation coming to view at an archeological site. A volcano had burst here in 1500 BCE and there are beaches which are totally red or black in colour and also small inlets where sulphurous water bubbles and you can simply float on the water like in the Dead Sea. In ancient times the Greeks survived sea travel on salted fish and bread. These days it is advisable not to eat anything at all. The high speed ferries carry supplies of vomit bags and anti-nausea tablets to distribute to passengers as soon as the engines throttle up and the ferry’s nose leaps up in the sea.

The ancient Greeks also had a priesthood whose power emanated from knowing the future before others did. Any historical novel set in ancient Greece would be remiss if it didn’t have oracles as characters. So even The Emissary has. The various oracles, specially the one at Delphi, had a power over the Greek mind that was unrivalled. The old priesthood disappeared with the advent of Christianity. The Greeks have forgotten their old Gods and Goddesses. At the Acropolis where Athena held sway as the reigning deity of the city, now just stones remain. As I toured Athens and the islands and got a sense of what once was many centuries back, there was also a tangible sense of a people who had once been at the centre of history but now had floundered. But not having lost the memory of what they had once been they still had a bagful of residual arrogance which perhaps prevented them from coming to grips with what they must now try to become.

(The writer is editor in chief of His new novel, The Emissary, has just come out)

Blast from the past

Investigative reporter and writer Aniruddha Bahal on his ambitious new novel, The Emissary, a historical tale set in ancient Greece.

Apparently, it was V S Naipaul who asked you to read history books?
During a dinner conversation Naipaul asked me if I read a lot of history. I actually didn’t but I stammered out a few names, like Bruce Chatwin and some other travel writers. But I resolved to read more history and since I was always interested in Greek history, I picked up Thucydides, Herodotus and others. As I was reading – I can’t pinpoint the precise moment – an idea sort of grew in my head and at some point I decided to write a book.

How did you manage to do the research and write the 444-page book in just one year?
Once you know the tone – how you want to tell the story – the rest just follows. It’s not very difficult for me.

The book has an intricate plot and many characters, wasn’t it difficult keeping track?
I was going around actual historical events, such as the battle with the Persians, the feuds around Alexander etc. So there were a lot of fixed landmarks vis a vis the plot. And a lot of the characters are actual historical characters. But yes, at times as I was writing, I would think – is this contradicting what I wrote earlier? Since it’s cumbersome to scroll up the computer screen, I would take printouts and check.

Did you write the book for any particular kind of reader?
You know, in the end, a writer can pull off what he can. For my earlier novel, Bunker 13, all the worldwide rights were done in ten days. This time it’s taking a little longer. These things are not in your control.

Your hero, Seleucus, is quite a character...
When my wife read the manuscript, she remarked that I was making Seleucus do all the things I’d like to do myself. In a phone conversation with a friend, I was discussing a particular war scene. She couldn’t find that particular point in the text. So I told her, ‘It’s the point where I’m sitting on the horse and turning around.’ There was silence at the other end! I guess it happens to all authors.

Your book can be made into a great film..
Yes, a big budget film. Or a TV series.

I believe you’ve written a novel set in Iraq?
Yes I have, but there’s still a lot of work to be done on it.

Poonam Saxena

First Published: Oct 02, 2010 14:20 IST