By Vikas Datta
Aug 15: "The whole Earth is the sepulchre of famous men...," once observed Athenian statesman Pericles, going on to stress that their story is not engraved only on stone, "but lives on far away." The ancient Greek leader may not have known it but his sentiment finds suitable reflection in the domain of historical fiction, particularly the variant which focuses on or draws in real-life notables from various ages.
And while, for Rowan Atkinson fans, the serial "Blackadder", in its various manifestations across four seasons, is a prime example, it pales before what you can in the realm of books.
Dipping into the genre, you can find Roman emperors, Mongol conquerors, Persian poets, Spanish conquistadors, Soviet statesmen, American gangsters, Nazi leaders, philosophers, scientists, revolutionaries of all stripes, and a wide array of many others in human history's colourful tapestry, in all their glory or notoriety. The accuracy and veracity of their depiction may differ, depending on the amount of research done by the author and the intention.
Let us see what this strand of historical fiction is about, some prominent personages it features, and some examples before coming to see how it plays out in the Indian context.
The use of historical domain characters has been a staple of literature, right down from the age of epics and folklore, but for the form we are generally concerned with, it had to wait till the development of the novel, and the pioneering efforts of writers such as Sir Walter Scott ("Ivanhoe"), Alexandre Dumas ("The Three Musketeers"), and many others.
All historical fiction, however, does not have real-life historical characters, or might just reference them, or in a rather interesting variant, a supporting character, whose identity remains oblique in the story, may turn out to be a historical character or would be one subsequently.
Of this last, a prime example includes French author Paul Feval's "Vampire City" (1875, though serialised in 1867, a quarter century before Bram Stoker's "Dracula" would set the rules for the undead). It has a mysterious Englishman saviour who turns out to be a leading soldier-statesman from earlier that century.
As far as actual depiction goes, any interested reader would be spoilt for choice. Figures such as Alexander 'the Great', Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler (and his entourage), Stalin, William Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, Dr Sigmund Freud, and Che Guevara are among those who figure regularly. Even the likes of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yuri Andropov, and Marilyn Monroe can be found in some works.
Strangely, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin does not figure as much as he should -- given the potential of someone whose main forte was polemical writings and sharp politics, as one episode of the pre-WWI political drama "Fall of Eagles" (where he was portrayed by Patrick Stewart) shows.
There are a lot of ensemble works too, and very well researched.
Fancy the American West, full of cowboys and fights between the US cavalry and the "Red Indians" (as they were then called)? Then take Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man" (1964) (and its 1999 sequel), where the "hero", 111-year-old Jack Crabb, a white man raised by Native Indians, recounts his exploits travelling across the Wild West, and crossing ways with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, and George Armstrong Custer.
Less politically correct is the Flashman series, or author George MacDonald Fraser's tongue-in-cheek look at the entire Victorian age, where the caddish and cowardly anti-hero (drawn from "Tom Brown's School Days") takes part in the First Afghan War ("Flashman", 1969), the first Anglo-Sikh War ("Flashman and the Mountain of Light", 1990), the Opium War, the Crimean War (including the Charge of the Light Brigade), the 1857 rebellion/war of Independence ("Flashman and the Great Game", 1975), and the like.
In the course of this overly active life, he goes on to meet Queen Victoria, Prince Otto von Bismarck, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale, Maharani of Punjab Jindan Kaur and Maharaja Duleep Singh, Rani Lakshmibai, the (future J&K Maharaja) Gulab Singh, Abraham Lincoln, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, General (and later US President) Ulysses Grant, Rajah James Brooke of Sarawak, and several other notables -- though his outlook on most of these is rather jaundiced. Even Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson appear in unnamed cameos.
Then, there is Max Allan Collins' Nathan Heller series, where our Chicago-based policeman-turned private detective takes a look at some prominent unsolved US crimes from the 1930s onwards, including the assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the disappearance of pioneering Amelia Earhart, the kidnapping and murder of Charles Linderberg's baby, the death of Marilyn Monroe, the conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy, and so on. Apart from all these personages, there are Mafia figures such as Al Capone, and Frank Nitti, actors like Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, real-life lawmakers like Elliot Ness and Frank Wilson, and many more.
Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series about a Berlin police detective, who leaves the force, soon after the Nazi takeover but is drawn back to working for them, features a large number of top Nazis, including Herman Goering, Heinrich Himmler, Josef Goebbels (whom we learn was derisively called 'Mahatma Propagandhi'), Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann, among others.
There are many more, spanning space and time of recorded human history, for readers, but let's now turn to the Indian subcontinent.
Here, we find the oeuvre is rather sparse, despite the richness available across the many millennia of significant history and culture.
As noted above, several British and American writers have focussed on India and its notable historical characters -- apart from Flashman's three Indian forays in the mid-19th century, the Mughals are dealt with Alex Rutherford (actually the team of Diana Preston and her husband Michael Preston) in their six-part series spanning "Raiders from the North" (2009) to "Traitors in the Shadows" (2015).
How about Indian writers? There are many who have written splendid historical fiction, from the late Khushwant Singh, who paid a paean to his city with "Delhi: A Novel" (1990) which covers the city's bloody history from the Slave Dynasty to the shameful 1984 anti-Sikh riots, via the Mughal, British and Partition and post-Partition periods through some historical and fictional characters, to Madhulika Liddle's "The Garden of Heaven: A Novel" (2021), which concentrates on two eventful centuries for Delhi, spanning from the fall of Prithviraj Chauhan to the coming of Timur.
Yet, the sort of historical domain characters featuring in works as noted are painfully less.
One author who made an effort was Manohar Malgonkar who began his literary career with "The Sea Hawk: Life and Battles of Kanhoji Angrey" (1959). This is a stirring and evocative account of the talented Maratha sailor who fought and defeated various Europeans on the maritime domain where they were perceived as stronger in the early 18th century and deftly capturing the milieu he operated in, and the notable personalities of the time.
Malgonkar also went on to write "The Devil's Wind" (1972), told from the perspective of Nana Sahab Peshwa, one of the key figures of 1857, and besides giving some unforgettable views of his compatriots (Rani Lakshmibai, chiefly) and enemies, offers his take on episodes like the Satichaura and Bibighar massacres of the British in Kanpur, his dealings with the Scindia ruler (much more nuanced and credible that what we usually see), and his fate.
Bhagwan S. Gidwani's "The Sword of Tipu Sultan" (c 1970s) is a valuable look at the life and times of a key ruler with a contested heritage.
A.K. Sreekumar's "The Begum's Secret" (2011) is set in nawabi Avadh -- another untapped area -- but only briefly features the ruler of the time, Asaf-ud-Daula, whose magnificent constructions still define Lucknow.
Then, there is Arjun Raj Gaind, whose second Maharaja Sikandar Singh whodunnit, "Death at the Durbar" (2018), has incisive portraits of an array of Indian Maharajas of the early 20th century, from the haughty yet miserly Nizam to the strapping yet capricious Maharaja of Patiala, and the thoughtful ruler of Baroda.
There are some more dealing with Shivaji and his son, the first six Mughals, but a lot of key epochs and their personalities still go unrepresented -- the research needed and the reverence expected being the major hurdles. The need is for absorbing stories, not pious hagiographies.