Saturday, April 9, 2011

Those who forget history….

One of the genres I love reading is historical fiction, and I have eagerly devoured the works of writers like Conn Iggulden, Bernard Cornwell, Robert Harris and others. Whether it’s the Roman Empire, the exploits of Atilla or Genghis, the World Wars or the Crusades- almost all major historical events and characters in the West have been immortalized and often brought to life for new generations through fiction. That was perhaps why I loved History as a subject in school- if you look beyond it as a collection of dates and events, it helps you get a glimpse of what life and people were like in a totally different age, and good historical fiction helps bring those to life in a way bland statistics and dates can never do.

Given the rich history we have in India, it’s always been a question in my mind as to why we don’t have more books offering fictional accounts of our history or heritage. There are some notable examples like the Great Indian Novel or Empires of the Indus, but by and large many of the most important and interesting aspects of our history are left alone by writers- such as the Mughal Era, the 1857 Revolt, the freedom struggle and so on. Imagine a novel about what actually happened to the Harappan civilization? What would have happened if the British had never conquered India? What if Subhas Chandra Bose had lived? What if the 1857 Revolt had succeeded? All questions that would provide wonderful material for any novelist and would certainly be something I would love to read- but all subjects that, among others, seem to be taboo for Indian writers.

Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that as a people, we have a pretty poor sense of history- and are very quick to consign history or historical figures to the realm of myth or religion. And once you do that, given all the special interest groups in our country, it becomes very difficult to write anything that contradicts or even throws a new fictional light on some of the characters and events we have chosen to deify. So Bernard Cornwell can easily write a novel like The Fort where some of the leading lights of the American Revolution are shown in a less than flattering light, but imagine if an Indian writer were to produce a novel about some of the leaders of our freedom struggle or the 1857 Mutiny. We either seem to get sugar-coated Bollywood fantasy like Mangal Pandey or hagiography, never anything that provokes- and if anyone does try, we have the usual cast of characters calling for book bans and burning.

For the world’s largest democracy, that’s one area where as a reader I find ourselves really lacking in terms of having a true democracy of ideas. And as a writer, I itch to get around to doing something about it. As I write this post, I think perhaps I will. Watch this space….

Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.