Historical fiction? Fictional history?

I am game for anything historical—books, novels, movies, TV shows. I
have no education in history and so with all the books I read, the
past is a confused place for me, where I cannot begin to separate fact
from fantasy and fiction.

On the whole, I don’t have a problem with that. But last week, I
started reading a novel in the historical fiction genre, and maybe
because if was set in India, it jarred me terribly. And I now know
that I must be even more careful in what I think I know about the
past!

I did some little research into the genre itself, so that I could
understand what the parameters were:

Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place
in a setting located in the past. It can be used in the context of
various types of narrative– including theatre, opera, cinema, and
television, as well as video games and graphic novels.

The definition of the ‘past’ is that it is set 50 or more years before
the author wrote the piece. Basically, the author should not have
first-hand experience of the period, and should rely on research for
an understanding of the time and events. Such works may tell stories
about actual historical people and events—or not.

They are however supposed to ‘capture the details of the time period
as accurately as possible for authenticity, including social norms,
manners, customs, and traditions.’

It is generally agreed that there are over 10 subgenres of Historical
Fiction. But there is not quite the same level of agreement on what
these are! One categorization goes:

·         Traditional Historical Fiction, characterized by a historically accurate plot

·         Multi-Period Epics, Series, and Sagas

·         Historical Romantic Fiction

·         Historical Western Fiction

·         Mysteries, Thrillers, and Adventure Novels set in the past

·         Time-Travel

·         Alternate Histories

·         Fantasy

·         Literary and Christian Novels
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Ok, so what is all this a lead-up to? Well, my latest library read— ‘The Last Queen of India’, by well-known author Michelle Moran. I have read a few other works by her—‘Madam Tussaud’ and ‘Cleopatra’s
Daughter’.

This is NOT a review. It may even be a very unfair piece. Because I
stopped at page 50. It was really irritating. I know that Ms. Moran is
a conscientious writer, and moreover one who is married to a person of
Indian origin, and through that, does know India. And that the
publisher is a very reputed one. So it intrigues me more than ever why
the flavor just didn’t come out right.

Just a few things about the book about Rani Laxmibai, and hence
essentially set before 1857:

1.       A reference to yellow and orange carnations decking a local
temple: Very unlikely in MP of the mid-1800s. Maybe they meant
marigolds?

2.       A reference to a priest wearing a crown of neem leaves. I
have not met any priest ever wearing a crown of any leaves, and
definitely not neem leaves.

3.       A Kshatriya father runs a carpentry shop and does the
wood-working himself. Again, not sure how common that would be.

4.       The grandmother from a poor but seemingly once-upon-a-time
middle class family decides that they are very poor and
cannot afford to get the grand-daughter married. Her immediate
solution is to try to sell the girl to a temple to become a devadasi.
I don’t think that would have at all been the reaction!

5.       It would seem as if every little temple in every little town
had devadasis. The grandmother is bargaining with a temple priest of
an Annapoorna temple and says that if he does not agree to her terms,
she will take the girl down the street to another one which will offer
a better price.

6.       The price they agree on for the girl is Rs. 13,000. In today’s terms,
compounding at the rate of 4%, that would be Rs 1 crore. Does not
sound right (and yes, one of the things to be taken care of in
historical fiction is the time-value of money).

7.       The grandmother and the grand-daughters go to the mother’s
funeral pyre. I am pretty sure that it could not have been so. Up
until recently, women did not go to the ghats.

8.       The daughters, in mourning wore white for 13 days. I am not
aware of any such custom.

Quibbling? Nit-picking? Hair-splitting? When I should have focused on
the spirit of the book, the heroism of the principals, the writing,
the overall sense?

Maybe. But I find I cannot read if the little details intrude and
don’t ring true. And they didn’t!

–Meena

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