Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Interview with Subhadra Sen Gupta - The Queen of Historical Fiction

Choxbox writes....

When I think back to my history lessons in school, I can only remember drab and dry pages in black & white, with pictures that you could just barely figure out. There were a string of dates and we mugged it up just to go and spew it out in the exam. There was no analysis of why something happened, what could have been done differently and what might have happened. Nothing exciting, in short. Today's child though is spoilt for choice. There is the internet, there are countless high-quality audio-visual programs on TV and other media and there many folks who are making stories of our past relate-able to little ones. After all we have a past full of the elements required for a pot-boiler - there is family, drama, war and lots of dhishoom-dhishoom. There is also wisdom,compassion and love. 

In the hands of a magical story-teller like Subhadra Sengupta it all comes alive. Her narratives of what happened at various points across time and space in the India of the past are fun to read and make you learn things just like that. Wish she wrote my history textbooks. 

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I present to you Subhadra!

1. ST: Hello Subhadra! Thanks for coming here to ST!
Let me start at the very beginning - how do you decide what strand of history to explore and write a story about? And also, how much research goes into a book you create?

SSG: When it comes to fiction I have picked some periods and only write on them like the Mauryans and Mughals because one has to gather a lot of information about the way people lived. Coming up with a plot is easy, the hard part is imagining how a Mauryan city or a Mughal palace looked like. So the research includes looking at sculpture and paintings. I had to research a lot when I started, now some of it is in my head.

2. ST: How do you mix facts with fiction? In other words, how and where do you decide to introduce fictitious bits in a historical set of facts?

SSG: My stories are always all fiction but when I introduce a real historical character then his or her history would be facts. I never push facts in, if it comes naturally into the story, then it gets in. So say in 'Bishnu, the Dhobi Singer' it was a fact that Tansen used to pick up poor talented kids, but the story of Bishnu is all fiction. In 'Raza and the King' I had read that Akbar used to get over a hundred sets of clothes stitched every year and that gave me the idea about Raza and the angrakhas.

3. ST: How and where do you inject humour? How important is this element?

SSG: Well I read a lot of humour and it comes naturally into my story telling, I don't think about it consciously.Humour is very important because it keeps the child reading. Have never been very good at the grim, tragic stuff!

4. ST: What other elements are required in your opinion to make a historical story appealing to children?

SSG: The most important is of course a good plot with a source of tension. Kids will keep reading if they want to know how the story ends. Characters have be interesting and real. Then the details interest them, the food, clothes, games, school in the past. And this has to be written with lots of colourful descriptions. And what works the most is mouth watering descriptions of food :-)

5. ST: Many societies do not equate irreverence for their past with disrespect. In other words, they poke fun at their history and laugh at it and think it's okay to do that. (Terry Deary's Horrible Histories for example). In India however we tend to frown upon this kind of an attitude. Any attempt to make history ‘light’ is considered blasphemy in many circles.What do you think? How does this impact how we view the study of our history?

SSG: Why do you think I haven't done any Horrible Histories? Tapas and I have been itching to do them for years! It is because the editors get nervous about protests and questions in parliament if I joked about Bapu or Nehru. Though I doubt if they would have minded at all! Deary has made history fun and we need that very badly as our textbooks are scary things. Kids are just waiting to give up history in class eleven.

6. ST: What do you think can be done to make historical places more interesting for child visitors?

SSG: We need teachers who can tell them about these places. But the bigger problem is that most schools don't even want to take the kids to historical sites and everyone finds museums scary. For our schools, history is low priority and at times they don't even have qualified history teachers.

7. ST: Question from my children: Why do you not author history textbooks for schools?

SSG: Well they won't let me write them the way I want to. So I am now working on a history of India for children which I am stuffing with fascinating facts, very few dates and more about people and less about administration and economic policy. I'll have poems and jokes, recipes and romantic stories. Answers to important questions like did Birbal have a moustache and did kids get homework in ancient India? It will take time because the research is killing but I'll do it. 

THANK YOU Subhadra! We look forward to many more books from you!

Interview by Choxbox.


sandhya said...

"When it comes to fiction I have picked some periods and only write on them like the Mauryans and Mughals because one has to gather a lot of information about the way people lived."

What is sad is that somehow we equate Indian history with Mughal history, and so most other periods get disregarded when it comes to historical fiction. I, for one, would love to read fiction set in Mohenjo-daro/ Harappa, or in early Aryan society- without re-telling from mythology/ epics. Or, as most of history known to us is from written accounts, which are surely from the conquerors'/ rulers' point of view. Wish there were more access to information on how the commoners thought, lived. Some of this has come across in Ms Sen Gupta's book 'Let's Go Time Travelling' that I have reviewed.

Ankur Nigam said...

Hello sandhya ji

want to have a conversation regarding
the life of king Ashoka and Mauryans
and the historical epics
if u find my comments
please reply me as soon as possible
at nigam.ankurofficial(at the of )gmail(dot)com
i'll be waiting for your reply.

thank you

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