‘Dharma isn’t really an out-dated, unfashionable concept at all’

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Indian Historical Fiction writer Adity Kay talks to the Balcony Stories about her latest release ‘Emperor Harsha’

If you have read Emperor Chandragupta or Emperor Vikramaditya, you will by now have some idea of Aditi Kay’s brilliant storytelling talent. Her latest is Emperor Harsha and I am incredulous to have a conversation with her. Adity is one of the good historical fiction writer amongst a very few Indian writers in the same genre.

You have written three historical fiction novels. What draws you to history as the setting of your work?

For one thing, I studied history at university and had exceptionally fine teachers. What they taught me, and what I learned from them, helps me still in understanding present-day realities. So much of the present lies in the past. That’s part of the reason why I find history fascinating. Then figuring out, or trying to, the other complexities about history: How *different* were people then, how were things different, not just the more obvious ones, but things like emotions, perspectives, how people related to each other, all this throws up interesting possibilities. Fiction is one way of figuring out all this.

Tell us about your latest novel, “Emperor Harsha”.

Emperor Harsha follows Emperor Chandragupta (the first book) and Emperor Vikramaditya. I relied on contemporary accounts written on him, like his biography by Banabhatta, and the account of the Chinese traveler, Xuanzang who visited India during Harsha’s reign. There are also plays written by Harsha himself. Then other actual historical accounts from our time detailing archaeological and other material evidence of the time, gave me an actual sense of the period.

The crux of the story draws from Harsha’s own life, as depicted by Bana. The tragedies that led to his becoming king at a very young age (he was 16!), and the battles he fought, make for a story that is dramatic, heart-breaking, and immensely moving as well. To me, Harsha appears a person of great courage, and despite the challenges and monstrous evils he’s confronted with, he retains fundamental integrity and acts according to his ‘dharma.’ It’s this concept of ‘dharma,’ how it’s decided, how every individual understands and perceives dharma, and that dharma isn’t really an out-dated, unfashionable concept at all, that also interests me.

Is there a particular approach for your research for your historical fiction novels?

I largely follow history, but fiction implies a lot of imaginative work and plenty of drama. It’s also essential to have an eye on the details, the ordinary details: How people lived, what they dressed, and ate, and how they looked. What was the weather like in those days, how different did forests look then, what was night like, what sounds did people hear at night? All these details make the story more real, more historically correct as much as possible.

How do you select a new story?

I began with the first book, Emperor Chandragupta. My editor at Hachette India was very encouraging in her feedback, and we threshed out this story over a few weeks, even months before it became the shape it is now.

Of course, much has been written on these three important kings and others too. I just hoped to, and still do, write a story that will make the past alive; something that brings the characters from a different time truly alive, show them as thinking, living persons in their own way, with their complexities, as they faced challenges, big and small. It’s in this way, perhaps, that they become relatable to us, who live in totally different times.

Has any other history writer influenced you? 

Too many really. I mean I love reading historical fiction, serious literary works, and the racier, pacier kind of novels. I admire Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, Rose Tremain, Colson Whitehead, Amy Tan, Rafael Sabatini, Conn Iggulden, Saradindu Bandopadhyay (in translation), and others. I admire historians who write easily and with great fluidity: Simon Schama, and Jill Lepore, in particular.  I loved Ira Mukhoty’s recent book on Akbar. And there’s a historical crime which is a wonderful genre on its own:  Iain Pears, Abir Mukherjee, Sujata Massey, Madhulika Liddle, and others. I am a fan of all these writers, and of those, I am forgetting to list here.

How different is historical fiction from historical non-fiction?

Maybe if I give one example to explain this, it might help. Cornelia Sorabji was a pioneering woman lawyer in fin de siè·cle Bombay. In her life, she faced almost insurmountable challenges from well-entrenched patriarchy that cited rules and precedents to thwart her career at every step. All this has been detailed well in the two very fine biographies of her by Richard Sorabji, and Suparna Gooptu. Sorabji did wonderful work for the British Indian government when she took up the causes and travails of noble ‘purdahnashin’ women who could not appear in public to argue their cases. On the other hand, in her works of detective fiction, Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry, largely modeled on Sorabji, faces almost similar obstacles, as she goes about resolving an estate case in 1920s Bombay. It’s the details, the context, that is historically correct, but the story is a work of the writer’s imagination and for readers of the present, it is something they can relate to.

What advice do you have for new writers? 

This is hard; I am so much in need of advice myself, always. But yes, a few things – never to give up hope, especially in the matter of rejections. These can be hard to take, I have seen so many myself, but it is truly subjective. It’s only after some rejections – and I say this with considerable experience — that one learns to gauge the rejections that are truly helpful, from the others. Sometimes, your harshest critics are those who truly help you grow. So one has to just go on, setting aside time almost every day, to read a bit, to write a bit. I read an interview of the Nobel-winning writer, Alice Munro, who said that she wrote her sweeping, life-encompassing, short stories between all her household chores and bringing up her children.  The first draft is always the worst, and what turns out, in the end, will be entirely different from that first draft. So one has to just go on, and on. And yes, something that Zadie Smith also advised writers, and which has been very useful to me: just shut out the internet, there is sometimes too much noise.



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