Indian Historical Novels: The Origin & Evolution of the Historical Novel Written by Indians in English

The Romans didn’t make a foray into India. In A. David Singh’s Caesar: Escapades in Rome (Amazon, 2016), Julius Caesar clutches a leg of Alexander’s statue and weeps in the knowledge that Alexander had conquered the lands from Greece to the Indus. When I wrote to Dr. Singh, he responded that Caesar’s lament is indeed a historical fact, but had the Romans followed-up on Caesar’s yearning, India’s history would have been written differently.

In the early nineteenth century, with the introduction of English by colonial administrators, notably Lord Macaulay, into the curriculum of Indian schools, Indian writers began writing novels in English. These historical fiction (HF) authors are the subject of this feature.

The first Indian English novel was Raj Mohan’s Wife by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (serialized in 1864, published by Chatterjee, 1935). Subsequently, Indian writers were appreciably encouraged when the “Bard of Bengal,” Rabindranath Tagore, was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. Consequently, numerous Indian English novels began appearing. Historical fiction constitutes a large portion of their canon.

There are some HF novels set during the Indus Valley Civilization era of 3300-1300 BCE (the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Vedas, are considered to have originated during this or an earlier period). The Palace of Illusions (Doubleday, 2008), by the award-winning author Chitra Divakaruni, is a historical fantasy that brings to light Vyasa’s Hindu epic of circa 350 BCE, Mahabharat, from Princess Panchaali’s female perspective. Vasant Davé’s Trade Winds to Meluhha (Vasant Davé, 2012), which received favorable reviews by Publishers Weekly, HNR, and others, is another example set during this earliest period, a coming-of age adventure tale focusing on a young orphan.Indian novelists seem to have ignored Alexander’s invasion, which is considered to have had little influence on Indian culture. Indian English novels abound for the period before the arrival of Central Asian Muslims in the twelfth century. Aditya Iyengar’s The Conqueror: The Thrilling Tale of the King Who Mastered the Seas, Rajendra Chola I (Hachette India, 2018) is an HF account of a South Indian emperor who in 1025 extended his empire across the seas up to Indonesia.

The decline and fall of Hindu kingdoms is aptly narrated in Anuja Chandramouli’s Prithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of Hearts (Penguin India, 2017). Prithviraj III is fondly called “the last Hindu emperor,” for despite fierce battles, he eventually lost, in 1192, his vast north-western Indian empire to the invading Ghurids led by Shihabuddin of Ghor. The Ghurids extended their kingdom up to Delhi, and Shihabuddin, not having any offspring, appointed Qutb-ud-din Aibak, his slave, as the first Sultan of Delhi. Five successive Muslim dynasties ruled the Delhi Sultanate, up to 1526. That era of chaos and violence is covered comprehensively in Kerala native Abraham Eraly’s book The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate (Random House India, 2014). The fascinating story of Razia Sultana, the first female ruler of Delhi, 1236-1240, is grippingly recounted by Rafiq Zakaria in his Razia: Queen of India (Oxford, 2000).

The Mughal invasion led by Babur—a descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur—ended the Delhi Sultanate. Babur defeated the last Sultan, Lodhi, in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526, establishing the Indian Mughal Empire. Five major emperors followed Babur, up to the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. Their successors, thirteen other minor emperors, faced a tumultuous period during their reigns. The award-winning author Indu Sundaresan brilliantly tells the Mughals’ saga in her Taj Trilogy, starting with The Twentieth Wife (Atria, 2002). Other novels include Sir Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence (Random House, 2007). It weaves fable and history in telling a fantastic tale of a golden-haired Florentine stranger arriving in Emperor Akbar’s court in the late 16th century, claiming to be his relative.

The British East India Company (BEIC) sailed into India in 1608, initially as traders and subsequently as colonizers. Bharti Kirchner’s Goddess of Fire (Severn House, 2016), set in the 1680s, depicts the life of a young Hindu widow saved from a Sati pyre by a factor of the BEIC. The novel is an eye-opener into that era and the practice of Sati (wherein a widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), which was later banned. There aren’t many Indian HF accounts in English of the establishment of the BEIC in Calcutta and how it became the Diwani—tax collector—of the Delhi Mughal emperor in 1765. Bhagwan Gidwani’s The Sword of Tipu Sultan (Rupa, 2009) is an excellent description of the BEIC’s 1799 expansion into Mysore. Acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh’s The Ibis Trilogy unmasks the BEIC’s involvement in the opium trade and wars. Book 1, The Sea of Poppies (Picador, 2009) covers the transporting of coolies to Mauritius. The following years, and the BEIC’s takeover of Delhi in 1803, are dealt with mostly in nonfiction, but the 1856 annexation of Awadh features aptly in Sangeeta Bhargava’s HF The World Beyond (Allison and Busby, 2012).

The Rebellion/Mutiny or The First War of Independence (1857-58) has been recounted in HF presenting the natives’ side of the history. S. C. Dutt’s Shunkur: A Tale of Indian Mutiny 1857 (The British Library, 1885, reprint edition 2010) tells the story of an Indian villager who turns into a mutineer. Manohar Malgonkar’s The Devil’s Wind (Viking, 1972) presents the events, particularly the Bibighar massacre, from Nana Sahib’s point of view. Jaishree Misra’s Rani (Penguin, 2008) narrates the story of the valiant Lukshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, who by her Jeanne d’Arc-like struggle against the BEIC’s armies gained immortality in Indian minds. In Sangam: The Jhansi Legacy (AuthorHouse, 2014), an extension of The Jhansi Trilogy, Balkrishna Naipaul has taken the Rani’s mission further from the Gwalior battlefields to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Upon my inquiry, Balkrishna responded that based on notes in a British Major’s diary, some of the transported indentured laborers were likely scions of the rebellious queen. They continued their struggle for rights and freedom. Although the BEIC ended the Mughal dynasty by exiling the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to Rangoon,1 the BEIC itself was dissolved, and the British Government took direct control of India.

The colonial period (1858-1947) saw a renaissance in Indian HF. Instead of emulating British authors, Indian writers found a voice of their own. This fervor was no doubt brought about by their enthusiasm to expose mistreatment by the colonizers and the zest for independence. In Mulk Anand’s Across the Black Waters (Orient, 2008), set during WWI, an Indian soldier realizes that the European war is not his. Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (New Directions, 1963) recounts the rise of Gandhi’s freedom movement in a village and its brutal suppression. The award-winning author Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Crime, 2018) is a novel based on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji, the first female barrister in 1920s Bombay. Massey told me that her choice of a female lawyer for her protagonist sleuth was ideal, for other professions open to women at that time, such as a schoolteacher, might not have worked. Indeed, the choice is perfect for a story which highlights the few opportunities available to women in that era.

Indians continued to serve their colonial masters in the government, in the military, in the hospitals, and on railways. Acclaimed author Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger Claw (Knopf, 2004) narrates the intriguing story of a young woman, Noor Inayat Khan, who worked for the Special Operations Executive during WWII and served in occupied France. Baldwin informed me that she chose to write about Noor Inayat after hearing about her from a real-life former secret agent (who was in the same Nazi prison as Noor), and reading the notes he sent her showed the poor way that others portrayed Noor. Baldwin was most disturbed and decided to write the story from Noor’s perspective.

The independence struggle is the topic of several HF novels. Among others, Chaman Nahal’s Azadi (Houghton, 1975) and Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (Grove, 1961) are both excellent, portraying the political turmoil and the horrors that ensued during the 1947 Partition and the end of the British Raj.

Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech, “At the stroke of midnight…,” delivered on the eve of Independence, 14 August 1947,2 was likely the inspiration for the title of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (Jonathan Cape, 1981). This HF novel based on the pre- and post-partition events also includes some magical realism, such as the novel’s 1001 children born near midnight, at Independence, who possess unusual powers. This multiple award-winning novel was extremely well received, most recently winning the Best of the Booker Prize (2008).

Post-Independence, Indian writers continued to highlight the circumstances of India’s and East/West Pakistan’s relationship. The conflict that induced the countries immediately into war in 1947 over Kashmir is presented in Mulk Anand’s Death of a Hero (Orient, 1960). Razia Ahmad’s Breaking Links (Oxford, 2007) narrates the lives of Pakistani family members and the 1960s events that led to the breakup of East and West Pakistan. Sir V. S. Naipaul was the first Indian-origin writer to win the Booker in 1971, for In a Free State (André Deutsch, 1971). Arundhati Roy won in 1997 for The God of Small Things (Random House, 1997), Kiran Desai in 2006 for The Inheritance of Loss (Atlantic, 2005). Indian authors are winning other countries’ literary prizes as well: Jhumpa Lahiri won the  Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and M. G. Vassanji the Canadian Giller Prize in 1994 and 2003.

It has been a long journey for Indian authors, writing in English, from their humble beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, and achieving international recognition. Presently, the club is flourishing. Some Booker-longlisted authors and other prize-winners, such as Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Neel Mukherjee, Indra Sinha, Jeet Thayil, Mirza Waheed and Kamila Shamsie, among others, are destined for greater laurels. Their new offerings are eagerly awaited.

1. William Dalrymple
The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 (Knopf, 2007).
2. Cambridge University
A Tryst with Destiny, [retrieved 3 April 2019]

About the contributor: Waheed Rabbani was born in India and grew up reading English novels in his father’s library. Now a retired engineer, residing in Canada, Waheed has embarked on a literary journey and is currently writing The Azadi Series.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 88 (May 2019)

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