Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Book review: Brothers at War (Empire of the Moghul, Book II)

(Published in the Business Standard, March 2010. I met and liked Michael and Diana Preston, co-authors of the Empire of the Moghul series, but as is apparent, I wasn't sold on the second volume. The Prestons have been travelling to India for over 30 years, and know their Mughals--but Humayun didn't come to life for me. Not that this is going to dent their impressive Indian sales, and both of them seem so enthusiastic about the Jahangir book, where Mehr-un-Nissa takes over the story, and the Akbar book, that I'm willing to stay with the series a while longer.
Loved Michael's story about travelling to Iran just after the Rushdie fatwa with a copy of the Baburnama. Just before he reached, he realised it had a foreword by Salman Rushdie, so he ripped out those pages; then searched the book frantically for more Rushdie mentions, and finally made Teheran airport with a bowdlerised Baburnama, title pages, foreword, back cover missing. After all that effort, Iran Customs showed no interest in the book.)

Empire of the Moghul: Brothers at War

Alex Rutherford,

Hachette, Rs 495, 436 pages

Edo Steinberg is an unsung, unpublished genius whose claim to fame rests on this contribution to the annual Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest:

“Our tale takes place one century before the reign of Alboin, the Lombard king who would one day conquer most of Italy and who would end up being murdered by his own wife (quite rightfully, I'd say, since Alboin made a drinking cup out of her daddy's skull and forced her to drink from it), when our little Sonnebert was seven years old.”

Steinberg was one of the 2008 winners in the Historical Fiction category, and this entry sums up the pitfalls of trying to write in the epic vein. It’s tempting to adopt a sonorous style to fit the period, to introduce too much information too fast, and to try to sneak in a winsome minor character, usually of dubious value.

Contrast this with the quiet opening paragraph of Brothers at War, by Alex Rutherford: “The wind was chill. If Humayun closed his eyes he could almost imagine himself back among the pastures and mountains of the Kabul of his boyhood, rather than here on the battlements of Agra. But the short winter was ending. In a few weeks the plains of Hindustan would burn with heat and dust.”

In just two books, part of the grandly ambitious Empire of the Moghul series, the husband-and-wife team that make up the pseudonymous “Alex Rutherford” have made their mark on historical fiction in India. Diana and Michael Preston are both civil servants and enthusiastic travelers, and what drives Empire of the Moghul is their passion for the bloody lives and times of the emperors, from Babur to Aurangzeb. The first book, Raiders from the North, drew heavily from Babur’s writings to create a portrait of a young, ambitious king, exiled several times over in his fierce quest for a kingdom of his own; Brothers at War takes us into the far more internal struggles of Humayun.

In their account, Humayun emerges as a man of the senses, beguiled and betrayed by his appetites, embracing opium as passionately as he embraces the women of his harem. His virtues are also his weaknesses: the compassion and forgiveness he shows his warring brothers as they plot against him will drive him into exile for years. As with the first book in the series, it’s the Prestons’ attention to detail and their intimate knowledge of the workings of the Mughal empire that makes this a satisfying, meaty read. They’re great on the battle sequences, and when they offer details such as the astrological carpet Humayun has woven when his opium-fuddled mind wants the court to be governed by the planets, they bring the period alive.

But the really great historical novels, like really great literary novels, make their mark by creating unforgettable characters. Hillary Mantel did this in Wolf Hall by bringing Thomas Cromwell—the weaver’s brat who rose to become the king’s counselor—to life against the bloody, brutal background of Tudor England. George RR Martin, with a cast of fictional characters in an imaginary landscape in the Song of Ice and Fire, pulls off an awesome feat when he makes you believe in a country where the last of the dragons still terrorise the skies and direwolves roam an increasingly bitter winter landscape. He does this by making his protagonists—the young boy-king, Rob, the diabolically shrewd and kind dwarf Tyrion Lannister—as real as though they inhabited the pages of a history textbook.

The Prestons do their best, lacing Humayun’s struggle to reach, and hold, the throne of Hindustan with internal monologues: “An even deeper melancholy took hold of Humayun—not only grief at Maham’s death but a sense that many of the certainties of his youth were crumbling. All his life he’d been a pampered prince, brought up to expect great things as of right, confident of his place in the world. Never before had he felt so insignificant, so vulnerable to the buffeting of others’ actions.”

This tiny section encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of the Rutherford/ Preston approach. They manage, successfully, to avoid the kind of bombast and clichés that infest what might be called the school of the hysterical novel. But if these first two books are any indication, Empire of the Moghul will remain a satisfactory, page-turning read, never reaching the heights of the really great historical novels. As with Babur, Humayun in these pages emerges as slightly more interesting than he does from the history textbooks—but they remain flat characters.

One way around this for writers like Philippa Gregory has been to focus the action on minor characters, letting us see emperors and empire through the eyes of a footsoldier, or a skeptical vizier, or a lady of the harem. The trick, with this series, is to treat a historical character the way you would treat an imagined character, to reimagine the emperors of India. For all the virtues of this series, perhaps the Prestons will remain better historians than novelists.

Speaking Volumes: The desi roman-a-clef

(Published in the Business Standard, April 5, 2010. Any great Indian roman-a-clefs in languages other than Bengali or English?

“I read Glenarvon too, by Caro Lamb…/ Goddamn!” In 1816, when the Lady Caroline Lamb published her infamous roman à clef, Glenarvon, Lord Byron’s response summed up his dismay at discovering the history of their tempestuous romance preserved for posterity. Glenarvon, now barely read, went into multiple editions at the time; Caro Lamb was ostracized and condemned; Byron continued his devastating career despite the scandal.

The reviews were stern and moralistic (the British Critic lamented the sorry influence of the excesses of the wicked, depraved Continent—oh, those Italians!—upon staid, upright English society), and the sales were spectacular: in other words, Glenarvon surpassed the hopes that any publisher of a roman a clef may permit himself to harbour.

Good fiction and good gossip have a lot in common—so does bad fiction. James Wood once dismissed John Updike’s suburban-America stories as so much “gossip in gilt”. The pleasure of the roman à clef lies in the drawing-room thrill of the guessing game, as has happened with Hindutva, Sex and Adventure (Roli Books), by ‘John MacLithon’.

Hindutva, Sex and Adventure is a silly season book. At 166 pages, it fictionalizes the life, amours and journalistic biases of one of India’s best known adopted foreign journalists, Mark Tully, badly disguised as “Andrew Lyut”. It’s slight, but has enough insider dope to do well at the Foreign Correspondents Club, and bets on the author’s identity have been placed in the very best Delhi salons. (The smart money’s on Francois Gautier, despite his denials—Gautier hints that Tully himself wrote the novel, and Bernard Imhasly is the third favourite in the Identify MacLithon stakes.) How does it stack up against roman a clefs of the past?

Bengal Nights, Mircea Eliade: This lyrical, and I use the word with prejudice, lush and overblown 1933 novel romanticizes the relationship between Alain (Eliade himself) and Maitreyee Debi, poet, protégée of Tagore, and daughter of a renowned Bengal philosopher. Though Eliade refers in passing to the social world of 1930s Calcutta, most of his focus is on the ineffable, mystical aspects of his affair, where Maitreyi Debi stands in for the mysterious East. Decades later, she responded in kind with the equally sonorous It Does Not Die (Na Hanyate), making this a rare instance where the novel does duty as syrupy love letter.

Beethoven Among The Cows, Rukun Advani: Though this isn’t a classic roman a clef, this early novel by a highly respected publisher included an unforgettable portrait of the scholar Gayatri Spivak. “Professor [Lavatri] Alltheorie’s Collected Marxist Phonecalls had outsold Gone With The Wind… Her Collected Feminist Faxes was in press. Her opponents defined her subject-position with a law—Lavatri’s Law: Incredible Articulation + Incredible Incomprehension = Incredible Salary.”

The Insider, PV Narasimha Rao: This 1998 novel by a former Indian PM is now justly forgotten; Rao’s political revelations were overshadowed by his fondness for his upright, morally anguished protagonist, Anand. It was widely assumed that his characters were based on the politicians of the day-- Sanjeeva Reddy, Brahmananda Reddy, Lakshmikantamma and V.B. Raju, among others. At 767 pages, it suffered from the defects of a great deal of Indian political writing—the gossip wasn’t good enough to justify the prolixity.

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth: Seth’s magnum opus included a vast array of cleverly executed sketches of post-Independence politicians—GB Pant, CB Gupta and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed appeared under various pseudonyms. The novel had ambitions beyond the scope of the conventional roman a clef, and lived up to them, but he was devastatingly accurate—especially in the Calcutta sections. The lady intellectual who speaks of Duality and Oneness, the father-and-son lawyer pair known as the Bony Bespectacled Banerjis and the gorgeous, unfaithful boxwallah’s wife were among the many characters based on real persons, which may explain why A Suitable Boy continues to sell like sandesh in Bengal.

With the exception of Seth’s fiction, most Indian roman a clefs have followed the Glenarvon route. Mrinal Pande’s My Own Witness touched on the early years of TV stardom in India, with Prannoy Roy and Pritish Nandy easily identifiable in her cast of characters. It made a brief stir in 2001, just as Aatish Taseer’s The Temple-Goers (with characters loosely based on V S Naipaul, Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Mala Singh is receiving some critical attention today. Back in 1816, C Lemon wrote to Lady Frampton of Glenarvon that there was “no connection between any two ideas in the book”, and expressed further disapproval. Having done so, she provided a key to the characters—so and so was Lady Oxford, such and such Lady Holland—that made it clear she had read her way avidly through the novel, despite her criticism.

Hindutva, Adventures and Sex, like Kanika Gahlaut’s 2002 expose of Eminence Greases and fashion victims in Delhi, Among The Chatterati, is unlikely to last more than a season; a better roman a clef may last a decade; but they’re not meant to last. The roman a clef promises entertainment for the moment, insider gossip and perhaps a little in the way of snapshot wisdom. It’s as serious, and as frivolous, as the changing fashions of the day.
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