‘In any retelling of history, there must be a degree of bias … It’s a question of what you exclude’

Historical fiction is a tricky genre because of strong reactions it can trigger. Diana and Michael Preston, a real life couple who jointly write under the pen name Alex Rutherford, have written six novels on the Mughal empire and another one on Robert Clive. In a conversation with Sonal Srivastava they discuss their craft and the role of prejudice in historical fiction:

What is the role that personal biases play in the retelling of history?

Michael: In any retelling of history, there must be a degree of bias, because however objective you are, you also choose to leave out certain things. It is not a question of what you include but what you exclude. Which side your history is coming from does colour the words. A lot depends on how much prominence is given to the history of not rulers, but the ruled, and also, what ordinary people felt about the events.

Diana: You also carry your own background and culture. All those things that you think you are stripping away to be objective, doesn’t work because some of it may always stay with you. When you are making the selection of what you want to include, you may be intellectually, emotionally and culturally more attracted to a particular character.

In a post-truth world, how will you define what is history?

Michael: Our job is to sift through main historical facts as are generally recognised. We, I hope, haven’t altered things that may have changed the whole outcome. We may have added things to characters; we may have put particular character traits into people; we may have imagined relationships between families. Politicians often write down what they want to present. Most histories are written by the victor.

Diana: Most often, the underdog doesn’t get a chance. For instance, Cleopatra ruled Egypt quite successfully for 20 years. She was charismatic, spoke many languages, was skilled in the sciences, and attracted a lot of scholars to Alexandria. But as soon as she and her lover Anthony were defeated, the first Roman Emperor Augustus had history rewritten. He got statues and carvings of her destroyed. He started to portray her as a siren, seducer and not as the politician and scholar that she was.

Why is that it’s mostly political history that’s taught in schools and universities and social history largely ignored?

Diana: If you go to country estates in England, in the past you would have gone to look at the fabulous furniture or the paintings. Increasingly, there has been a move to open up the kitchens and to show the lives of the people who kept these great houses running, or the people who worked at the stable and looked after the horses. History is not just about rulers and people with influence. It’s about everybody who made up society and played a role in it or maybe didn’t get much of a chance to play a role, was used as hard labour. Their experience is difficult to get, but just as important in understanding how we got where we are now.

Michael: There is a problem with the word ‘the’. It stereotypes people and leaves little room for diversity. Instead of saying ‘the British’, we should say ‘most British people’ or ‘most Indian’ people. We have to seriously stop doing that and begin to see things differently.

Akbar was the first Mughal ruler to follow ‘Sulh-i-kul’, peace with all. How important was his religious policy in creating a syncretic culture in medieval India? 

Diana: The Mughals coming out of central Asia, originally being descendants of Genghis Khan and later converting to Islam, and the people they supplanted in India were also Islamic rulers. In the reign of Akbar, you see the openness. Akbar was among the first who started studying comparative religion. Jews, Christians, Sikhs and Jains all were welcomed at his court.

At a time when in Europe, there was a great deal of religious intolerance, in India, Akbar was summoning representatives from all faiths to discuss issues of belief and spirituality without fear of sanctions. He was prepared to challenge his mullahs to appoint people who were not mainstream Sunni Muslims in senior positions. Akbar would employ people of many different faiths and trusted them. He started his reign by crushing the Rajputs, as he wanted to knock out any challenge to his power. As he got stronger, and grew confident, Akbar also saw the benefit of bringing people together. He saw cohesiveness as a way of keeping together geographically disparate people; it was one of the biggest empires at that time. If Akbar were alive today, he would have been very sorry to see how things fell apart, because of hatred, animosity, narrow thinking and orthodox interpretation of things, instead of his extraordinary open-mindedness.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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