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A spirit of history

‘Postmodern’ doesn’t even begin to speak about a novel, which takes Aurangzeb to café con piernas in Santiago, Chile, and makes him contemplate on wo­men’s underwear

Iman Kumar Mitra Published 09.02.24, 09:23 AM

Aurangzeb Sourced by the Telegraph


Author: Charu Nivedita


Published by: HarperCollins

Price: Rs 599

When this reviewer was asked to write 700 words on a work of historical fiction, he was initially apprehensive. The mushrooming of the historical-fiction industry in recent years is alarming but absolutely expected, given how politics in India and in the larger, postcolonial world is shaped by loud, and often inaccurate, assertions of one’s historical legacy springing from an imagined continuity of the biography of the nation. Then he was struck by the title of the novel — Conversations with Aurangzeb — and became curious. Who dares to have conversations with that most reviled figure among Mughal emperors, he thought, and on what exactly? Had he been familiar with the earlier works of Charu Nivedita, he would not have wondered. Alas, like most chauvinistic Bengalis of his generation, he was blissfully unaware of one of the biggest sensations of the Tamil literary world.

According to Wikipedia, Nive­di­ta “uses postmodern themes in his writing”. His novel, Zero Degree, was longlisted for the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2013. One of his short stories is called “Sha­kes­peare’s Email Address”. But none of these prepared the reviewer for the present novel. For one, the expres­si­on, ‘postmodern’, has become a cli­ché. In fact, most Indian historic­al fictions take so much liberty with actual history that ideas like plurality of truth or death of the author sound like fortune-cookie ba­nalities. As the reviewer started reading Conversations, he realised that Nivedita’s Wikipedia page was short-selling him. ‘Postmodern’ doesn’t even begin to speak about a novel, which takes Aurangzeb to café con piernas in Santiago, Chile, and makes him contemplate on wo­men’s underwear. But first, the beginning.

The author of the novel met Aurangzeb by chance (it’s Nivedita but not quite; we shall come to that later). They had an appointment with his more admired grandfath­er. While doing research for anoth­er novel on the Catholic nun, Ca­ta­rina de San Juan, originally Shah Ja­han’s cousin, Mirra, kidnapped by Portuguese sailors at the age of ten or eleven, they were told about an Aghori who regularly summo­n­ed Akbar to have a chat with his friends. Curious and a little apprehensive, the author went to meet him to see if he could organise a meeting between them and Shah Ja­han. The spirit that appeared was not Shah Jahan’s as it did not find the khayal in Raga Yaman in the background entertaining. “I, Alam­gir, born Aurangzeb, have come before you,” the spirit told the audience. He has returned to right the wrongs peddled by history in his name.

Throughout the novel, the audience keeps changing and so do the speakers. There is the Aghori whose body is the container of the spirit (is he the speaker or is he a part of the audience?); there is the author who is being referred to as “the author” with a suggestion that it is Nivedita himself; there is Rizwan, a student of Farsi literature who the author often brings with them to cross the language barrier, and there is Kokkarakko, the author’s more dismissive alter-ego, in the form of a friend who has little patience for the episodic nature of the novel. Is he really the alter-ego of the author’s or ours, the readers?

As for the speakers, it is not Aurangzeb alone who gets to pontificate. The illustrious list includes Rani Durgavati, Murad Bakhsh, Jadunath Sarkar, Bhimsen Saxena, the biographer of Aurangzeb, and Jahanara. The narrative that emerges out of these conversations is fractured, incomplete, often hilarious, and filled with bitter irony
and poignancy. Polyphony is one of the much-abused words in literary criticism. Is there any novel which is not polyphonic? It is to the credit of the author(s) that it
has got a new life in this novel with all its meanderings and excesses, cyclical repetitions and cynical ruptures.

But who is the author of this novel? In the ‘Translator’s Note’, Nan­dini Krishnan tells us that the novel in the original Tamil has a different rhythm, linguistic temperament and size from its English version. It has sections added and omitted, sometimes by Nivedita and often by Krishnan herself. “We saw it as a collaborative exercise in creating a work, a groundbreaking book that would reflect on the process of translation, publishing, editing, sales, fandom controversy, hate, censorship and awards — the life cycle of a novel.” The life cycle of a novel is similar to the life cycle of a historical figure, punctured by the anxieties of reception and its politics. When the spirit of history rises from the dead and starts to speak, its garbled voice reminds us of the pointlessness of ascribing greatness to our heroes and naming our children after them. Until then, we wait and enjoy the simple binaries of good and evil, light and darkness, history and fiction.

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