Writing The Historical Novel, by Timeri Murari
Until I wrote my novel Taj: A Story of Mughal India, I wasn’t at all interested in writing a historical novel. My previous works were set in contemporary India or the UK or the US. The present was my forte and I saw no reason to go back into the past. Admittedly, history was my favourite subject in school and, like any school boy, I believed history to be not only sacrosanct but also the truth of our past.
I was quickly disillusioned as I grew older. Winston Churchill, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his opus History of the English Speaking People, said “History will treat the English people kindly, as I’ll be writing it.” History, I understood now, was only another genre of fiction disguised artfully as factual; it depended who wrote it. We know in Orwell’s novel, 1984, Winston’s profession as a bureaucrat is to keep writing history and re-writing it daily to suit the powers who rule the country. “Who controls the past controls the future,” Orwell said.
Every country is busy rewriting its history and I’m not talking novelists but academics and governments. History, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder and his or her political/social/philosophical/psychological slant, artfully crafted to include footnotes to induce to believe it’s an accurate portal into past events.
Of course the writer has a responsibility, whether as solemn interpreter or satirist, to make a composition that serves a revealed truth. But we demand that of all creative artists, of whatever medium. Besides which, a reader of fiction who finds in a novel a familiar public figure saying and doing things not reported elsewhere knows he is reading fiction. He knows the novelist hopes to lie his way to a greater truth than is possible with factual reportage. The novel is an aesthetic rendering that would portray a public figure interpretively no less than the portrait on an easel. The novel is not read as a newspaper is read; it is read as it is written, in the spirit of freedom.
I had seen the Taj Mahal a few times before and knew my school book history of the building and the Mughal dynasty. I had studied them in school but when I took my wife (an Australian) to see it, she asked for the history and I reeled of my school boy knowledge. It failed to satisfy her and she gently mocked my ignorance. Now determined to prove myself, I delved into every Mughal book I found in the New York library. We lived in Manhattan at the time and the New York library is one of the best in the world. All I wanted to do was to give my wife more details of both the Taj Mahal and the Mughal Empire. Which I did. I now had reams of notes, Xerox pages and books piled up on my desk. I was thinking of stuffing the material in a carton and forgetting about it, but instead I began to write my novel Taj.
Timeri Murari’s author website: www.timerimurari.com
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Writing Historical Novels