By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi: History books are inching back on the shelves – but with a dash of drama and peppy language to hook the average reader.
“I think there are two major attractions that a historical narrative holds for us. First, history is all about stories…stories about people and places with the benefit of hindsight. And who doesn’t like a good story?” asked Udayan Mitra, publisher of Allen Lane and Portfolio imprints at Penguin Books India, while speaking to IANS.
“And the second: historical epics are full of heroism, grandeur and romance – something that entertains everyone,” Mitra said.
People read historical fiction because they give readers a window into a time they have no idea of, says Priya Kapoor, editor and director of Roli Books.
“Historical fiction brings alive history in a more entertaining way. We would certainly like to know how people of that time lived, what they ate and what did they do. Such books take history to another level,” Kapoor told IANS.
Roli Books have two new titles under production – a fictionalised volume, “Hidden Women”, by British Nepalese writer Greta Rana about the “Rana (royal) women of Nepal” and an untitled fictional work about Maurya and Gupta rule in Magadh – what is now Bihar – by Geneva-based Indian debutante Sumedha Ojha, a native of Bihar, Kapoor said.
The market is flooded with historical titles.
“History books priced Rs.299 to Rs.499 with exciting tales fetch maximum business,” Mirza Asad Baig of the Midland Bookstore in the capital told IANS.
Hot on the shelves for almost a year is a fictional trilogy – built around facts – about the life of Mughal emperor Jahangir, wife Noor Jahan and son Shah Jahan by Indu Sundaresan – “The Shadow Princess”, “The Twenteith Wife” and “The Feast of Roses”.
Sundaresan says she decided to “write the trilogy after she stumbled upon a book on Mughal harems in her last year at the graduate school at the University of Delaware” and later realised that “there were stories to be told”, the writer recounts.
Author Alex Rutherford gives Mughal history a racy fictional twist in his trilogy “Empire of the Mughal”, while New Zealand-based award-winning author David Hair connects to young Indian readers with lores from Ramayana in his “Return of the Ravana” trilogy – “Pyre of the Queens”, “Swayamvara” and “The Ghost Bride”.
And the exploits of Lord Ram of Ayodhya gets fictional makeover in writer Ashok Banker’s six-part Ramayana novels. In “The Forest of Stories”, Banker retells the Mahabharata while the “The Krishna Coriolis” scripts the exploits of Lord Krishna.
Writer Amitav Ghosh’s semi-fictional “Ibis series (“Sea of Poppies” and “River of Smoke”)” documents the history of 19th century migration while the Swadeshi Movement, the Second World War and the Partition of 1947 come alive in his 1988 classic, “The Shadow Lines”.
The canvas of Partition and Mughal emperor Akbar’s reign is best captured in Salman Rushdie’s cult fiction “Midnight’s Children” and “Enchantress of Florence” while writer Shashi Tharoor’s “The Great Indian Novel” is still the most popular retelling of the ancient history of Mahabharata in the modern Indian historical context.
“There is an immediate connect. When you are reading a novel, you are looking forward to an element of surprise in the story and yet you have a faint idea what the protagonist is about… historical fiction captures this essence,” Kapish G. Mehra, publisher of Rupa & Co, told IANS.
Historical titles take us one step closer to our past, says Nandini Gupta, a non-fiction editor at Wisdom Tree.
“This year, a spate of books on the capital’s centenary gave people like us – born and brought up in Delhi – a glimpse of how landmarks like Connaught Place used to be. Perosnally, I like medieval Indian history though I am editing coffee table books on Indian cultural roots now,” Gupta told IANS.
Gupta is working on “Art History of India: Sculpture and Mural Painting” by Benoy Behl, “Kurukshetra” by Vijay Vardhan and “Delhi” by Vijay Goel.
“History has to be retold and put into fictional accounts for lay readers to know and appreciate. The common people want to read history. Even emperor Akbar was said to be illiterate…” Manoj Kulkarni, chief publishing manager of Amaryllis, an imprint of Manjul Publishing House, told IANS.
And the veteran of Indian historical non-fiction William Dalrymple sure would agree!