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Stories for an a-historical public

by Uday Gupt
Monday , October 07, 2013 at 14 : 12

If you are force-fed, with food shoveled down your unwilling throat, you will, inevitably, puke it up.

Following which you will also inevitably be left with a deep sense of disgust at your wretched retch.

I guess this explains - at least partly - why eight in ten of us of us, Indian adults, feel for our history on a scale that starts at apathy and detours via aversion to deep abhorrence. For, almost all of us have been child victims of stuff- and- vomit with history.      

It started very early in school and our standard-issue History Ma'am. At her deadening touch Facepalm - Omouth -- inducing material withered into dry-as-dust facts, lists of dates, inane NCERT observations, and often just plain nonsense as only Government- approved textbooks can preach nonsense. Which was then all stuffed down our unwilling throats; which we were then expected to vomit up at exam-time; and which at least partly -- even largely I think -- led to the way we are. There is absolutely no other nation on earth -- and I say this after considerable thought -- where national interest in history is as pathetically low as compared to the wealth of the nation's history. The signs spread and multiply with fecundity all around us: incomparable monuments are abused and neglected; priceless manuscripts rot away in nameless libraries; and irreplaceable smuggled artifacts regularly surface at auctions abroad; and all this with almost never a public outcry. We are just one a-historical nation.

Spare a thought then, for the writer whose stories come tumbling out of his head unfortunately and firmly set in (distant-- or just--) past. Even before they leave his pen, their fate would seem certain and sealed: the bottom of a deep, lightless sinkhole.   

Well actually, not quite. While -- true to expectations -- more historical novels sink than swim, you needn't spare a thought for one (sort of) sub-genre. This is the mythological novel where a whole scintilla of new writing is taking the species to new summits of success.

The reason is obvious: these books out-and-out entertain. These are stories fashioned from well-known mythology, twists to the myth, fantasy and fable, love and longing, hate and loathing, the emotions of humans, the frailties of super-humans, the struggles of the Gods: they seduce, charm, captivate and stimulate, their storylines swooping-lunging-soaring-plummeting.

In short they are everything that Indian school-history could be, but is not. Which is a pity, because history is actually not about great gobs of dates, dry architectural details, and drier dope about its actors. History is (almost)... mythology, twists to the myth...(Ie just re-read the paragraph above).

If history is almost-mythology -- which the public is already gobbling up -- why should it be difficult to get interest in historical stories? To hive off the success of the mythologicals, doing an IBL on the IPL? It won't even be the first step into a brave new world: Amar Chitra Katha has been doing it for decades, beguiling the very kids who force feed on and puke up their History Ma'am's throat-stuffing.

One way forward, I have found, is to reach out to the people behind the history and make them come alive. They were the same as us, you know, of the same order- family- genus- species of homo sapiens, with exactly the same thoughts, feelings, emotions, conflicts, desires and fears that we have. In some of the short stories in my book, Final Cut, I have moved seamlessly between a cast from the past and present, connecting and stitching together the two all along, playing up how We Today = They Then, writing about sameness and diluting difference (such as how They would seize up with shock if they saw my writing computer).

Thus the election for the headship of a monastery near ancient Varanasi degenerates into a teeth-and-claws battle that any career U.P. electocrat would be right at home in. Managing visiting ambassadors from a dozen brawling nations, the head of the same monastery has a job as unenviable as that of the Secretary General of the UN. The gorgeous, ravishing madam of a Pataliputra whorehouse is as hard headed and un-Bholi as a Punjaban call-girl supplier in today's Delhi. A brilliant conman newly arrived in the Kolkata of circa 1780 unerringly homes in on the most lucrative sleaze- businesses of all: gambling and girls (Ask any modern-day Bhai). Another brilliant crook joins the East India Company army in the 19th century, solely because power begets the straightest way to crooked riches (Ask any Parliament M.P.-Bhai).

These and many other people heave and joust throughout my stories. Just look at the cast of characters assembled for one of these, Buddha Purnima:

'Nobles, bureaucrats, holy men, thieves, strumpets, food vendors, bards, murderers, catamites, street magicians, hooch sellers, soldiers, mercenaries, tricksters, courtesans, actors, traders, labourers, dancing girls, conmen, merchants, acrobats, craftsmen of every description, eunuchs, jugglers, farmers, professional transgenders, beggars, monks: a colourful patchwork-quilt of humanity from every kingdom of Aryavarta...'

Now look at the cast assembled for many of today's bestselling potboilers:

'1) Twenty-something babes    2) Twenties-to-thirties dudes'    3) Period.   

Why wouldn't a people-story about the first cast enthrall, and perhaps even outsell one about the second?

   

      



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