Writing historical fiction is no easy task. It is problematic on many levels, not to mention messy, and just a gigantic pain overall. The genre has recently become popular again and is being read widely, thankfully not only by those who are browsing for material that can be culled to be made into the next epic blockbuster or popular web series featuring gorgeous people, sets and costumes.
This sudden revival of interest and insatiable hunger for history is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is no longer the boring subject taught by teachers droning on monotonously about dead people and their dull deeds while expecting you to memorise endless dates. But the flip side is that this newfound popularity means the subject engenders controversy continuously, with people fighting over the mostly fabricated historical stories we tell each other and ourselves.
The problem is compounded by the fact that we all have a complicated relationship with history. For many, history is a science, set in stone – a veritable compendium of facts painstakingly gathered and preserved over the course of millennia. Unfortunately for scholars and historians, this is the age of easy access to half-baked information and anyone with a smartphone and access to Wikipedia can consider themselves an expert. Hence, the historian’s tall if earnest claim of factual accuracy is increasingly being called into question, if not challenged outright.
Whose history is it anyway?
We know now that narratives are usually framed in keeping with the politics of the age and are subject to the vagaries of time and mood. Just ask Nehru who went from being a freedom fighter and revered leader to the reviled reprobate who is being blamed for just about everything that’s wrong with the nation, faster than you can say “bhakt”.
So we know that, despite what the Dark Knight says, even if you die a hero, the memories of you may live long enough to see you become the villain of the piece. But that is not all. We also know about cultural imperatives and bias masquerading as fact as well as the subjectivity of perception which seeps into any attempt to capture the events of a long time ago. The past has many versions and it is surprisingly pliable, lending itself to all manner of presentation by history or fiction. And it is not particularly averse to being moulded to suit either the demands of public interest or political considerations.
Needless to say, even knowing what we do, people still persist in taking their version of history very seriously indeed, even if it is more hearsay than anything else. There are those who would grant it the gravitas normally assigned to religion, for to them history or their understanding of it, limited though it may be, represents their roots and very identity.
Historical figures are then treated with the reverence and passionate bhakti (rather reminiscent of Meerabai but on steroids and armed with a weapon of mass destruction) accorded to gods and goddesses or the hatred reserved for the odd demon. These are the charming folks who vandalise film sets, promise to chop off Deepika Padukone’s nose or issue death threats against those who have the temerity to question Kangana Ranaut’s fair weather feminism/patriotism.
A fraught exercise
All of this makes writing historical fiction a very dicey business indeed. Authors belonging to this genre are regularly called out by historians who bewail that authenticity and scholarly objectivity have supposedly been sacrificed in favour of dramatic flair and pace. Apparently if history is not served up with generous helpings of dull, dreary and dusty, then it is not history at all.
This line of thinking is also the reason why writers of historical fiction seldom if ever win or even receive a nomination for prestigious literary awards. If this were not heart-breaking enough, there is also the definite terror that comes from knowing that your book and you will have to make like Ulysses across the choppy waters fraught with the twin terrors of Scylla and Charybdis represented by fanatics who may decide to attack you or social media users who might take some little, innocuous thing you have written out of context and blow it out of all proportion.
Which is why, working on a character like Muhammad Bin Tughlaq who is contradictory and controversial was always going to be challenging. But I hardly noticed that, too busy being fascinated as I allowed myself to be transported to an uncertain, violent age where absolute power was vested in one individual who exercised control over life and death with an arbitrariness that was redolent of the exuberance of a child as well as the reckless savagery of a madman.
It is heady stuff which reminds us that history and humans are always little more than play dough to be shaped and reshaped by each other. It makes me grateful to live in a democracy that, for all its flaws, is still better than the alternative where tyrants would casually have people who pissed them off decapitated, trod underfoot by infuriated elephants, or have their flesh hacked off to be cooked and served with spice and rice.
So don’t go feeling too sorry for me. Ultimately the stories themselves buried in the pages of history are always worth it, whether you think they are real, fabricated or simply enchanting. The pleasures involved may not outweigh the perils and pain but at least serve to balance it all out. Having waded through oceans of research material in search of non-existent specifics from a past that is almost but not completely lost, I like to think that I eked out a compelling saga that has preserved a coherent piece of history, seasoned with the truth fashioned from a fertile imagination, which is as relevant today as it always was and hopefully always will be.