Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Empire strikes back

Navtej Sarna and Shrabani Basu, Monday 17th October,6pm, Event Room, Waterstone's Deansgate

Words by Richard Jackson.

On a typically English, damp Monday night in Manchester – the rain’s distracting prattle amplified by the large, thin windows, of Waterstone's event area – a room-filling audience gathers. Representing a microcosm of Manchester’s magnificent multicultural heritage, ahead of everyone awaits an insightful and compelling evening: a discussion of the literature that emerges when the historical world collides with the fictional, where there flamboyant Indian fare of Queen Victoria’s royal court is brought to one of the main commercial thoroughfares of the city.

Introductions are made and, led by Jerome de Groot - lecturer in English at The University Of Manchester and author of The Historical Novel – Navtej Sarna (pictured) and Shrabani Basu begin with two short readings from their respective works, The Exile and Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant. Astute planning comes into play; considering the similarities in historical context – for both books concern British-Indian colonial history – Navtej Sarna, in adherence to chronology (it is an event that concerns historical fiction, after all), reads first, choosing to narrate a passage that links with Shrabani Basu’s subject matter, in that it concerns Queen Victoria.

Encountering a much younger Victoria in The Exile, Sarna’s book concerns the political awakening of the last Maharaja of Punjab, Duleep Singh, whom – when only an 11-year-old boy – was forced to sign away his kingdom and its treasures to British control. He was transported to live in England aged 16, and the novel - described by Jerome de Goot as “a story of political experience shot through with the oblique melancholia of exile” – is told in Duleep’s own voice and four of his contempories, details his growing disillusionment and growth as a Sikh rebel. This feeling exemplified in Navtej Sarna’s tone, reading as Duleep Singh: “Mrs Fagin. That is what I once called Queen Victoria. The biggest pickpocket of them all. Stolen kingdoms, stolen jewels. Smuggled away to her by her loyal viceroys, men like Dalhousie, with immaculate records and panegyrics.”

In contrast, Shrabani Basu presents a less confrontational story of a young Indian gentleman in Victorian English society (set years later after Duleep Singh’s story, in the time of the queen’s golden jubilee). Victoria & Abdul is about the handsome Abdul Karim, a servant who became a close confident and teacher of Victoria’s, who later became a controversial figure in her court.

Unknown to me, and I assume other members of the audience, judging by the laughter and gasps heralded from Basu’s explanation the relationship, one of the highlights of the evening is learning the almost surreptitious details of Victoria’s life - a controversial figure of "Empire", who highlights the problems inherent in tackling the past. However, the obvious warmth Shrabani Basu feels for the deceased monarch is both surprising (initially anyway) and touching: “I had this impression, and most of us do back in India, that Queen Victoria is very dull: dressed in black, always in mourning, whose most famous line is ‘we are not amused’. So, representing the Empire. But when I was researching this, I found that she was really passionate.” A discovery to which the author later adds: “Then this young man arrives, and suddenly Queen Victoria gets a new lease of life. Her whole life changes; suddenly, she’s eating curries, suddenly she’s learning Urdu. Suddenly, the Empire, and everything Indian, is all around her.”

Throughout the evening, there is a friendly and respectful dynamic between the two authors. Individually, they both speak elegantly and with authority. But it is during the discussion and resultant questions that follow their readings, that the humorous and absorbing flare each holds truly shines. As a pair, they bounce ideas and reciprocal comments off one another, contrasting the histories laid out in each book, and later – as the evening moves on – using this energy to tackle the core problem of when history meets fiction.

On this issue, they are asked about the challenges that writers face when writing about "real people" and the ethics of this pursuit. Navtej Sarna highlights that this is the most difficult aspect of writing historical fiction, Shrabani Basu agreeing. The challenge lies behind the question of where does the fact end and history begin? When approaching writing of this nature, it is important to keep true to the facts, without changing anything. However, a novelist has the right to make a story more interesting; through imagining what their characters may be thinking, in turn adopting their voice, while also perhaps expanding upon the role of minor characters, for which no historical or primary source evidence remains.

While this topic ended the evening, on a concluding note, these following words from Shrabani Basu seem particularly apt: “You’re telling a story. To me, it’s not about the stringing of letters together or journals. You have to bring it alive, you are telling a story, for me this really works. The truth works or me. If you tell a story well, it will work.”

Richard Jackson is a PhD student interested in Central and Eastern European history, literature and culture. His blog, Lemberik, concerns the issues of minority populations in this region and he can be followed on Twitter via @lemberik.

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