Article Creativity + Identity

When fiction embraces history

Many novels written by authors with an Indian background and those who live abroad have been inspired by incidents and anecdotes from Indian history and mythology. Some of these authors have creatively turned history and mythological stories from India into works of creative art—in the form of written fiction. To read the new spin and be in the know-how of the original narrative is to understand the extent to which the authors have been successful in creatively shaping valuable antique into precious new work.

What has frequently been known by citizens of India over the years as something extraordinary in their original form, because of their broadcast through televised productions and regular information channels—have become creative firecrackers and expansive narrations in the hands of fiction writers.

Two such books inspired, wholly or in parts, by rich Indian history and even myth are ‘The Palace of Illusions’, written by Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and ‘The Enchantress of Florence’, written by Salman Rushdie. They are examples of how, when fiction meets history—they precipitate into creations that cause literary surprise, giving readers a chance to refresh their memories about stories they had seen on television channels in their youth, read in publications, or heard about from their elders.

An epic worth remembering

The Palace of Illusions is based on the original epic tale of the Mahabharata, said to have been written by sage Ved Vyas—a story about prominent dynasties and royal relationships; about brothers at war, about the dishonour of a queen; it is about unusual palaces, forests, battlefields; it is a story of courage and honour; of humiliation, defeat and victory; it is a tale about love, friendship, karma, dharma, and varied other nuances and details whipped up in a narrative of these proportions. In the Mahabharata—blood must spill, for the sake of dharma or duty—for evil to be overpowered, everything must be done.

The five Pandavas, the five brothers, born to mothers Kunti and Madri and father Pandu, are true heirs to the Kingdom of Hastinapur. On the other hand, the hundred brothers, also known as the Kauravas, younger than the Pandavas, are sons of Gandhari and father Dhritarashtra, who is Pandavas’ older uncle. The Kauravas during the course of the story, do not want to give away the kingdom to their elder brothers, born before them, and hence resort to vile ploys and strategies to destroy them.

A very important person in the story is Draupadi, also known as Panchali, who is wife to all the five Pandavas. Through the course of events leading up to the mammoth Kurukshetra war, she acts as a catalyst. The Mahabharata is mainly about the build up to the epic war, the site of the war and the actual war that ensues—where justice needs to be had and a righteous settlement to varied disputes must be brought forth.

Plans are made and executed; battles are fought, so that the Pandavas, the rightful owners to the massive territory, with Lord Krishna on their side, are able to retrieve their land from the Kauravas. Incidents that ensue from the beginning to the end—are a series of episodes, which set in motion, a larger-than-life-war and its ultimate denouement. The epic has innumerable other poetic descriptions of other relevant cities and characteristics, and this complete story could be entirely true with respect to actual happenings, or perhaps the original also borrowed much from myth and fiction.

A woman’s perspective

The new-spin in the novel The Palace of Illusions is the intricate setting of lyrical language and poetic descriptions, which charge the atmosphere in the story with a feminine air. Creatively imagined, the point of view in this epic narration is placed upon the proud and angry shoulders of Draupadi, beloved wife of the five Pandavas.

Starting from her father’s house, to how she is, under odd circumstances, married to the five brothers, and to how entanglements in the shape of deceit, treachery, mocking and revenge lead to the war—her point of view in all of this, becomes a source of inquisitiveness, balance, happiness, and sadness for the reader. Through her eyes—her kinship, her family before and after her marriage are delineated and emphasized. Her relationship with her five husbands, her in-laws and other family members is also expressed with clarity in this elegant and creative novel. Another intriguing facet of this novel is the unusual love story between Draupadi and Karna, the sixth brother of the Pandavas.

What was once a simple narrative of war, battles, intrigue, family feuds, the victory of right over wrong, becomes, in the hands of a fiction writer, a delicate delayering of perceptions. Enlarged and detailed episodic narrations too, through a woman’s eyes—one who is wronged and humiliated, who seeks protection in Krishna, whose stubbornness and rightful anger, become the cause of grave denouement—find a literary expanse to occupy.

Tale of a King and a Queen

The Enchantress of Florence has varied intertwined story-lines and plots and only certain portions of the story are linked to Indian history. The original story which partially inspires the novel the Enchantress of Florence is yoked to the grandeur of one of the mightiest Indian Mughal emperors known as Akbar, under whose rulership his empire and his subjects flourished.

As is popularly known, perhaps not factually correct though, Akbar married a beautiful Hindu princess known as Jodha, even though she was of a different religion. Their story of love and companionship is quite well-known, for even in the context of their dissimilar backgrounds, their togetherness and affection after marriage, brought about many positive changes within the kingdom and furthered the empire of Akbar.

This great king’s dominance, powerful ruling, philosophies had a vast mass appeal, and he always remained a mighty king. The story of Jodha and Akbar is looked up to as a source of inspiration, for overcoming religious differences through bonds of love. Akbar’s ministers, his coterie of advisers, those who influenced him, his musicians, his subjects, his family, are all part of the original descriptions found in writings and creative visual presentations and dramatized renderings of his once-upon-a-time presence as one of the most influential and affluent rulers of his time.

“Akbar the Great,” is the name given to the King, who sought to achieve success through intelligence and bravery. Ironically and historically, however, Jodha’s name is not mentioned anywhere as the Hindu princess married to Akbar; but a Rajput princess called Hira Kunwari, or Harka Bai, a Rajput princess, was known to have married Akbar. She later acquired the title of Mariam-uz-Zamani, a name that finds mention in the novel written by Salman Rushdie.

Jodha Bai’s name may not evidently invade a lot of actual historical evidence and texts, but her character lives on in fiction and is considered as real as real can be. It is also quite possible that she did exist and was one of Akbar’s many wives in fact as well. There could be other contentious matters pertaining to the historical truth of Jodha and Akbar, however, popular opinion ensures their story continues to inspire belief.

A labyrinth of storylines

Creatively, on the other hand, the author of the Enchantress of Florence makes known Akbar’s presence in many parts of the book. The king is not the protagonist of the story, but a firm pillar in the novel, upon whose shoulders rests the arch of the plot. He is shown as the ruler as he was and so are those aides who were close to him.

However, interestingly, Jodha, his most important wife is shown in the story as an apparition that gains prominence and form, whenever she is in King Akbar’s heart and in his imagination. For a period of time in the book—as another woman, with exquisite beauty, gains affection in Akbar’s heart, Jodha’s presence in his vicinity begins to fade. Jodha, who was once envied by every other queen of Akbar, shrivels into nothingness. This fascinating creative rendering of the life of Jodha-Akbar is a transformation of history into fiction, with subtlety and a mystical touch, alongside other enchanting connected stories.

Akbar’s presence and his importance are portrayed in many ways throughout the book. His foibles too, come to fore, in this artistic depiction. However, the main characters in the story are not truly associated with history—as moves the plot, they too move into uncharted territories and along with threads from India’s elaborate and ornate history, build something remarkably fictive and creative. The emperor’s ancestry and stories evolving from them also become part of the novel’s storyline and hasten its progress.

What was once a charming rendition of the original story of Akbar—his rule and also his beautiful wife Jodha—become a coming-together of creative imagination coupled with portions of past events, which cause in the reader a sense of familiarity; and builds a position from where to understand and feel familiar about the other unfamiliar, strange and distinct story-lines and characters.

When fiction and history meet

These two novels are evidence of how any work of fiction can be inspired by the history of any country. Fiction and history combine together to not only create artistic facts, but also allow authors to inquire, perceive and articulate; whereas, readers find passages into the past. Creative writers continue to carve through literature, works of art, which completely or partially construe what once was part of the foundations of our civilizations and cultural progression.

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Picture Credit: Picture of the book ‘The Palace of Illusions,’ taken by Trisha Bhattacharya

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