Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Fiction that Breathes History

In my, self proclaimed, insatiable thirst for historical fiction or fiction in historical settings, i might have committed a sin today by picking up Ashwin Sanghi's 'Chanakya's Chant'. I was almost dying to read more about ancient Indian history. Somehow i have come to believe that although reading history through the lens of fiction might not be the purist’s way of doing it, it is certainly more enjoyable and sustainable( mba speak :P). So after reading a bit about the book i picked up today, which a lot many have called, just another 'dan brownish' fast paced mystery, i am trying to perform some penance by talking about some of the bests works i have read in this genre.

But before that, let me clarify that i have nothing against Dan Brown or his genre of fiction. It's just that as a history lover, i would want such works of fiction to maintain a fine balance between the truth and author's imagination. Ideally never distort truth, but only fill gaps and in the end clarify and dissect these parts in the work. Somehow all the 'Dan Browns' just do the opposite.
So let's started with the list, the names appear in my order of preference but i must tell you, all of these are great works in this genre.

1. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children : I had a very tough time selecting between the first two novels in this list and in the end, i chose the one which delighted me more. Some people would argue that a book like Midnight's Children should not even figure on this list, with protagonists having super natural powers and author's own political views trickling down in some parts. But believe me, this novel never distorts history and somehow because the fictional parts being so fantastical, they not only delight the reader but make the demarcation from truth very obvious and clear. Midnight's children is set around events in Indian subcontinent during the 20th century. It starts in second decade of the century and ends just around the Indian emergency. Easily one of the best works of fiction by an author of Indian origin, Midnight's Children will tell you a lot many small things which you would have never read in your school History books. I can go on writing about this book, but i guess you'd find much better reviews of this book at other places on net. In this list i just hope to tell you about books which you must pick up if you love history and fiction!

2. Amitav Gosh's  Sea of Poppies :  Sea of poppies is easily the most extensively researched work of fiction i have ever come across. The book has its own chrestomathy , a diction type guide on what Gosh calls  the 'Hindoostani Sailors dialect'.  Set in 19th century Bengal, this book tells you a lot about Calcutta, the British rule in Bengal, Bengali tradition, the last of Bengali Aristocracy, the Bhojpuri proletariat and their traditions. Calling this book very rich in historical content is like calling Satyajit Ray or Akira Kurosawa just good directors. Bottom line, this book is the gateway to non-revolting 18th century India, essentially Eastern India.

3. Magaret Mitchel's Gone with the Wind : Again a choice which is highly debatable. Many would call this book the best fictional romantic and i can't dare to disagree with them. Even i have always felt it to be one of the most intriguing books with a woman protagonist.  Nevertheless, this epic drama set in 19th century USA, tells you a lot about America of those years and of course a lot about the civil war. If you are one those 'MCPs' who shy away from reading anything remotely romantic or feminist, probably this might be your reason to pick this wonderful piece of fiction. I must clarify here though, that wasn't my reason to pick this book :).

4. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of Yellow Sun : I still find it extremely difficult to pronounce the author's name correctly in one breath, but that handicap set aside, the book spells out the best of way to tell the young generation about the tough and gory times in  their country's past. Something that Adichie does mention, she set out to do. In so many ways i think this book is the literary heir of Gone with the wind :)
Set in Nigeria of late 1960s, Half of yellow sun, tells you a lot of about Nigeria, a country almost as diverse as ours and the Nigerian civil war, which was almost as gory as our partition. I am not sure if somebody has written a fictionalized account of our partition which matches Half of yellow sun in its fine balance of detail and delight! I have been searching so much for a book like this. May be Cracking India ,the book on which the movie Earth was based upon or Pinjar could come close. Although i have just seen these two movies, haven't read the novels.

5. Indu Sundaresan’s Shadow Princess: Shadow Princess is a novel which i finished very recently, although i liked it a lot, but i could only give it the last place on this list. That doesn't a take away anything from this wonderful piece of art. The novel is very well researched and lush in its description of Mughal India. Apart from that,  Indu does, exactly what i mentioned an author of this genre should do,. She lists down her research sources, clarifies which items are specifically fiction in the book and even gives logic trail of her imagination of these fictional parts. I just felt that the fictional part of this book could have been stronger and little richer. Still i would put it down as one of the best reads in Mughal fiction, a great alternative to Darlymple which requires a lot of patience and never delights at all.

I am sure there are many more in this list and i haven't added many which i didn't find worthy. All these five books are wonderful works of fiction in their own right, it's just that being set in poignant times in the World history is the icing here.
I am tagging some people i know enjoy reading history or fiction. Feel free to add any worthwhile works in the comments. So next time we are searching for an interesting work of fiction that breathes history, we don't accidentally pick up a Dan Brown

P.S I just noticed that three books in this list, have very strong woman characters or have woman protagonists. Probably Jahanara in the Shadown Princess would have been most powerful politically, but all of them - Scarlet in Gone with the wind, Olaana and Kanine in Half of yellow sun and Jahanara were very intriguing and emotionally very strong characters. I guess it is easy to accept and interesting to read intriguing woman characters! ;)

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