Saturday, November 15, 2014

For the Love of Horses: Talking Historical Fiction

We are pleased to have with us children's author Anu Kumar who has created many stories for children in the genre of history and historical fiction. Anu writes for older readers as well. Her short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, and have been twice awarded by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. Anu lives in Maryland in the US with her husband and daughter.

We wanted to hear Anu's views on "Reading Historical Fiction". It's so wonderful to have her in our midst this CROCUS. Thank you, Anu!


It's the horses I remember first and not the dark night in the novel's first pages. A night in the mid 17th century when war broke out between the Cavaliers, those who stood by King Charles 1 and those who believed in the power of the British Parliament, the Royalists. For the Cavaliers, it was a difficult time. In the countryside, as they were away at war, the lives of their families were in great danger. That night, the four Beverly children wake to the sound of horses at the door and they know they must make a quick escape. In this way begins Frederick Marryat's, The Children of the New Forest.

Almost a century later, there is the horse carriage moving up the Dover Road. The road uphill is steep and some of its passengers have alighted and are walking up alongside the carriage when sound of a horseman carries in the distance. Instantly, the guard draws the gun and waits. But as the rider comes slowly up, he reveals he has only a short message for a passenger in the carriage, Jarvis Lorry. Mr. Lorry reads the message the horseman holds out for him and his only reply is 'Recalled to Life'. In Charles Dickens' The Tale of Two Cities, Alexander Manning is to be finally released from the Bastille after a long imprisonment.

My introduction to historical fiction from these books began partly with a misconception. Was everything about the past related to horses? This seemed true when I read comics too; the myths, epics, fairy tales had everything to do with horses. It seemed then that the past could be easily conjured up. There were just more horses everywhere, especially so if you were to write historical fiction. You just substituted horses for every other means of transport.

But I did make other connections soon. In one of my father's many art books I came across Anthony Van Dyck's famous painting of Charles 1. This was the king I knew from Marryat's novel, and a man described as "one with a doomed face". It matched exactly the story I had read. The king who wasn't just forced to flee for his life but was later executed. Executions in a particularly gory way filled the pages of The Tale of Two Cities. The French Revolution, like the English Civil War was a momentous event in the transition to democracy. The horses I read about only conveyed in part the immense drama of the period.

Accompanied by his family, Louis XVI, the ill-fated king of France tried to escape in a horse carriage when it was stopped. In Dickens' novel, the carriage of the Marquis St Evremonde ran over a child and he tossed a coin before riding away. There are the carriages carrying the doomed to their execution. Horses and their riders filled the pages of Barbara Cartland's books, which were more historical romance than anything else. In her books, horses conveyed a sense of adventure, independence, free-spiritedness, though there was the quieter world of stable-hands, coachmen, and grooms. Yet growing up in a crowded, noisier world, these books opened up an entire new world for me. The world of historical fiction.

It's a world quite different: places indeed seemed farther away than one could imagine; things or anything one wished for commensurately harder to get, and the world is immensely vaster. Think of Kipling's Kim, a boy of ill-defined origin who grows up in the streets of Lahore. He also works for Mahbub Ali, a Pashtun, yes horse trader, who works for the British secret service. Kim joins an aged Tibetan Lama who is on a quest to seek ‘salvation’. This book also had the Grand Trunk Road in it. A road that has its own very real history, right from the Mauryan times, almost two thousand years before Kim. That's a long time, when you think of it. I read Kim when the Cold War had come symbolically to a close. It was the mid 80s and Perestroika and Glasnost were words new and refreshing to hear, but in Kim's world, the Great Game was still on. The suspicion between peoples, nations and continents that I would see in books like the Railway Children and the Prisoner of Zenda.

To me, this process of understanding the wider world with all its complications came almost gradually or even subconsciously, a process aided by the fiction I read. And because this past was different from the formal structured past that history books hold, it enabled skepticism and more, even a belief in the powers of the imagination. Fiction after all is all that isn't possible, but it is also about what could be possible, and what has been rendered impossible. It's particularly challenging for historical fiction, because the past especially is not so easily structured. What is it that we have lost? Did this really happen? Who really spoke, who really won battles, whose voices have been lost? In this almost imaginative sense, historical fiction has always been a step ahead of formal history. The question, 'What if?' is a very plausible one, demanding imaginative explorations and convincing answers. Or at least an attempt.

The Many Worlds of Historical Fiction
Some of the earliest examples of this kind of fiction are those featuring ‘swashbucklers’ and the ‘penny dreadful’ publications of 19th c. Britain, where brave knights rescued damsels in distress. But historical fiction comprises a far more varied world. There are dramatic events picked or created from a momentous period of history; think Mudrarakshasa, a drama of conspiracy and intrigue set in Mauryan times, but which was in fact written much later. Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped is based on a real life incident. Stevenson called his hero David Balfour but it's about James Annesley, heir to five aristocratic titles when he is kidnapped when 12 by his uncle. Annesley was then shipped from Dublin to America in 1728. He escaped after 13 years and returned to claim his inheritance. It was one of the longest court-room dramas of its time.

A near contemporary novel could also become historical fiction with time. There's The Tale of Two Cities, and To Kill a Mocking Bird, for instance. An Author could narrate her life in a fictional format : Laura Wilder’s books set in the American Prairies, Jon and Rumer Godden's books on early 20th century India. And of course, historical fiction using the method of time travel and I based the Atisa series on such a concept. He uses a flying machine invented by the mythical Greek inventor Daedelus. It's redone and reshaped in many ways by his inventor father Gesar, who comes up with innovative creations such as a 'sound catcher' and a weather decoder. This enables Atisa to travel to places and adventures in the past. He finds Icarus, Daedelus' lost son as he travels to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Atisa and the Seven Wonders) and also rescues a Chinese pilgrim in his next adventure (Atisa and Hiuen Tsang).
Some events of course lend themselves more easily to fiction, such as revolutions and other dramatic events. The year 1942, when the Quit India Movement inspired many following Gandhi's call, has appeared in the fiction of two fine novelists - RK Narayan's Waiting for the Mahatma, and Sashi Deshpande's The Narayanpur Incident.

Historical fiction could also create itself. A long ago event and character can for instance undergo changes and become historical fiction in many different ways. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) travelled to India in the 6th century CE (1500 years ago) and wrote about his travels/travails. A translation of this exists on Project Gutenberg. But a fictionalized version, Journey to the west, was written and published (anonymously) by Wu Cheng'en in the 16th century. Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China, usually known as simply Monkey, is again an abridged translation of this. It was published by Arthur Waley in 1942. Here, Buddha is looking for a devout pilgrim who will travel to India, and a young monk volunteers for the journey. On the way he frees the Monkey King, and they recruit others for their journey and have several adventures. There are also different versions of this – on film, as a television serial and even a manga version.

Sometimes a writer will use innovative ways to write historical fiction. For instance, the use of false documents to tell a story differently, as George Macdonald Fraser does in his Flashman novels. The latter is a character from a book by Thomas Brown set in Rugby and several years later, some documents are found which tell of Flashman's adventurous life and though he does seem an unreliable narrator of sorts. Then there are marginal lives whose stories will define a historical period in a totally new way: Saradindu Bandyopandhyay’s By the Tungabhadra and Katherine Paterson, The Puppet Master. One can recreate the past, by talking of it via marginal even long ‘voiceless' characters such as women. In the three novels that make up Puffin's ‘Girls of India’ series, Subhadra Sen Gupta tells the story of Madhura, a girl who longs to be soldier in the Mauryan Army. Avani in Sunila Gupta's book set in Harappa overhears a mysterious conversation between two men following which a chain of unfortunate events occur. And I set mine almost two thousand years this, in the time of the great Cholas of southern India, when Raja Raja Chola is king. A dancer is punished for a crime she did not commit, and the famous Nataraja statue is stolen.

There is historical fiction where a story is told through the eyes of animals. Michael Morpugo's The War Horse begins as World War I breaks out. Joey, young Albert's beloved horse is sold to the British cavalry and transported to France. The horse is soon caught up in the war; death, disease and fate take him on an extraordinary journey, serving on both sides. Albert begins a dangerous mission to find the horse and bring him home. 'Nameless' in Bel Ria: Dog of War by Sheila Burnford is first a performing dog, who is part of a gypsy caravan that is fleeing from the Nazis. Taken on ship by the Royal Navy, he is given the name of Ria and serves as an unkempt lovable mascot to some sailors. But finding himself in England in the midst of the ‘Blitz’, Ria rescues an old woman and finds himself transformed into Bel, the companion of her old age.

In historical fiction, in an entirely believable way, people do become heroes. In Diane L. Wilson, I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade set in Kublai Khan's China, Oyuna injures herself seriously when her foot is crushed by a black mare, yet she dreams of serving in the Great Khan's armies come true. With Bayan, an old mare, Oyuna masquerades as her stepbrother and leaves with the soldiers of Kublai Khan. The detective stories featuring Judge Ooka and Seikei by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler are set in Japan of 18th century. In the first, The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn, Seikei is 14 years old. He is the son of a tea merchant but longs to be a samurai. While on a business trip with his father, they stay for the night at the Tokaido Inn where a cruel samurai, Lord Hakuseki, is also staying. When some precious jewellery goes missing, a young girl is accused of the theft. But Seikei defends her innocence and Judge Ooka, a samurai, and who is called in to solve the crime, is impressed with Seikei’s bravery. He enlists his help to solve the mystery and then other mysteries that follow this one.

The superheroes of historical fiction are no less exciting. Rafael Sabatini's books feature a Captain Blood, a doctor who becomes a pirate in the 1680s. Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in 1792, after the French Revolution. The "League of the Scarlet Pimpernel", a secret band of 20 English aristocrats who hope to rescue their French counterparts from the daily executions of the ‘reign of terror’. They are led by the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel. Marguerite St. Just, a French actress is the wife of English aristocrat Sir Percy Blakeney. Marguerite’s brother Armand comes into some danger in France, and Percy promises to save him. It is after many adventures and dangers, after Armand is saved, that the true identity of the Pimpernel is revealed. There is of course the much loved Asterix and the magnificently built Obelix who have various adventures as they stubbornly resist Roman occupation. They use a magic potion, brewed by their oracle cum druid that gives the recipient superhuman strength. Some adventurers are set in and around their village but they also travel to various countries around the world.

The Possibilities of Nonfiction
In all this, of course historical nonfiction seems like a poor cousin and it was unfairly true for some time. School text books appeared to cover the entire gamut of what need be really known and so historical nonfiction seemed quite like extra reading. There were Gandhi's My Experiments of Truth, the books on India's freedom struggle by the National Book Trust, one of which was notably written by the historian Barun De, and a book on India by Sheila Dhar that I loved reading. Otherwise historical nonfiction in this sense has had slow beginnings in our part of the world. Devika Rangachari has a wonderful book on King Harshavardhana and there is the vivid story of Li Cunxin in Mao's Last Dancer. This is about a ballet dancer who grew up in impoverished China, attained fame, and also controversy when he defected from Maoist China to the west.

But it was only when I actual immersed myself in this genre as a writer that I discovered its rich possibilities. In the Country of Gold-digging Ants began with Megasthenes and his lost book, Indika. Set in Mauryan times, it detailed the craze for gold, and the heroism of Chandragupta Maurya. There were also the Chinese pilgrims, Hiuen Tsang, though I'd spell his name Xuanzang now, who narrowly escaped life on many an occasion, once notably in the court of King Harshavardhana. There is the paranoid Russian traveller Alexander Nikitin who longed only to return home and then also the women who travelled, such as Alexandra David Neel. She was nearly eighty when she began the first of trips to the Himalayas, spending weeks praying in isolated dark secret caves much in the manner of the monks she admired. It doesn't seem possible, and yet it is true, perhaps even allowing for a little exaggeration. Fiction or non fiction, history holds amazing secrets. We only have to let our imaginations take flight.

Anu Kumar

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