Monday, October 22, 2018

Holding the hand of History

Sutapa Basu is dedicated to reviving history through fiction, and her latest offering is a narrative on Genghis Khan. Here is a chat with the author, where she tells us about the importance of historical fiction and its value in contemporary thinking, and gives us an insight into how one should consume  history.

What got you into writing? What was your journey like?
I have been a voracious reader since childhood and I have been writing plays and stories even as a child. It has been my dream to write books and have people read my books. Also I have been so inspired by books of other authors and have always wished I could do likewise.

Though I have been writing continuously since childhood, hardly anything was published except in some magazines and school textbooks. I have been busy juggling a teaching/publishing career along with raising a family, travelling with my army officer husband and carrying out the duties of an army life. All of it was very satisfying and provided endless content to write about, but being so busy I could not sit down to write. It was only in 2014 that I decided to chuck a well-paying corporate job in the book publishing sector and buckle down to serious writing.

Since then I have not looked back. In 2015, I won the First Prize at the the Times of India Write India contest under Amish Tripathi which took care of my apprehensions about whether my writing had the required value. The next year Readomania published my debut fiction called Dangle (2016), a psychological thriller, a year later, Padmavat i(2017), a historical fiction and this year, The Legend of Genghis Khan (2018). My books have been well appreciated by readers. I have thoroughly enjoyed my writing journey so far and am eagerly waiting for new vistas.

Having been a teacher, one of the most significant tasks you've been involved in was to mould mindsets. Could you share a bit about that?

When I was teaching my primary aim was not so much to mould mindsets but to make learning fun. I always wanted my students to enjoy lessons and to find them an extension of their daily lives. I would think up activities, games and innovations though my students were mostly pre-teens and not kids. Most subject areas at that stage become serious study, so I wanted them to enjoy the English classes and let their creative juices flow by reading and writing tales, poems and plays. Over time many of my students have returned as adults to tell me that I had made a major difference in their lives. Most of them are successful career people with families of their own. If they have felt that it was worthwhile to get back to me with accolades, somewhere, sometime, I must have done something good. And their happiness and confidence in themselves has become the greatest gift from my students to me.

At a time when we're seeing so much hate and twisting-of-facts just to spread an agenda of hate, how important is historical fiction?
Historical fiction is important because, I expect reading stories about the past will take people out of their narrow world of old beliefs, misunderstood sense of morality and superstition to see the historical events and figures in a much more wider and meaningful perspective. The deeds were performed by people who were ordinary men and women then but considered heroic today. What set them apart is their extraordinary strength of character and courage to fight dire circumstances and win over them. Instead of making them into untouchable icons, we need to be inspired by them to do the same with our lives today. I believe historical fiction will help people see great historical figures as men and women of flesh and blood not statues cast in stone and take lessons from their lives.

You've already written one piece, called Padmavati - that too, at a time when the controversy was at its height. Could you tell us a bit about the book, and also a bit about any backlash you faced and how you dealt with it?
My basic aim in the book Padmavati was to explore the character and personality of Queen Padmavati. I was stunned by the fact that a teenage girl who was apparently not an Indian, not even a Rajput, had the courage to willingly walk into fire. Where did that courage come from? Why did she do it? While sketching her life from birth to death, I have attempted to delve into the reasons for her actions and showcase a personality subject to all the human frailties and shortcomings which she had to overcome. Only then could she rise to such mythical heights.

Let's talk about your current one. What's it all about?
My latest is another historical fiction called The Legend of Genghis Khan. The same reasons have drawn me to Genghis Khan as it did to Padmavati. What does the world really know of both these historical personalities other than the obvious? Hardly anything. That is what triggered my research into both. I was adamant to know what made them tick; what made them into the superhero/heroine that they have been on the stage of world history.

Specifically, Genghis Khan has been only known as a brutal plunderer and a world conqueror but why did he do what he did? That was the question I was seeking an answer to. And I uncovered a treasury; the closer you get to Genghis Khan’s life, the more fanatic a fan you become of the man. And world conqueror! Does the world know what that actually means? At the zenith of its power, Genghis Khan’s Empire controlled one sixth of the world’s total land area! No wonder he is worshipped as a demi-god in Mongolia, China and Russia!

What would you like your readers to bear in mind while reading the book?
I would like my readers to never accept historical interpretations at face value. There is always more to what meets the eye. Readers, if really interested in history or its figures, must seek evidence themselves and form their own opinions. Also, do not judge history, historical events, historical figures by today’s standards and ideas. There is always some logic for what happened in the past. Understand the causes and consequences with an open mind. The other important takeaway from my books is inspiration. I want to put forward the fact that personalities like Genghis Khan had to fight great odds to grow to the heroic stature that they have. Readers should be inspired to tackle problems in their own lives in a similar manner.