Examining history can be a way of learning about present: Shazia Omar

Examining history can be a way of learning about present: Shazia Omar
Shazia Omar. Photo courtesy of the author

Shazia Omar, author of Dark Diamond, says reimaging history is not an act of falsification, but rather, may do more to illuminate the truth by displaying other sides of the story

Shazia Omar is the author of Dark Diamond, published by Bloomsbury, a historical novel that delves into the life of Shayista Khan, the Mughal governor of Bengal. Shazia’s first novel, Like a Diamond in the Sky (Penguin India and Zubaan Books, 2009), was very well received. She has also co-authored a book on wellness called Intentional Smile: A Guide to Positive Living. Excerpts from an interview:

SAAD Z HOSSAIN: You researched primary and secondary sources, I’m sure, but historical fiction (like fantasy/sci-fi) relies heavily on actual world building. What are some of the interesting things you had to make up? Share some details, anecdotes or problems you had to face for a plausible re-creation of a historical time. Also the nitty-gritties of world building: use of magic, physics of magic, use of mythology etc. 

SHAZIA OMAR: I spent five years writing this book, half of which was research. Not much is recorded about Shayista Khan. I found many details on the period — the food, the clothes, the architecture — but little on the characters in his life, even less about the women. I had to make up their personalities based on what I thought their motives might be.

To stay within the realm of the plausible, I tried to find other women, contemporaries, whom I might model their personalities on. For example, one of my characters, Madeline, journeys from France to Bengal. She is fictional, but I found stories of women who made this maritime voyage during the 17th century, and so this was not entirely unreal. Those women were usually the wives of the ship captains, and this is what gave them protection against the men on board. Madeline was alone, so I had to give her a personality that could stand up to the pirates on her own. 

Very little of the ruins of Bibi Champa’s mausoleum next to the Chota Katra remain today… and less is written about her. Again, I had to make her up. But I first found evidence of empowered women educators, Nur Jahan being an example, who predated her, which made it plausible that she too might be fighting to educate girls in school. 

In terms of magic, I stayed within the space of my story, the Mughal context. As such, Islamic wizardry, Sufi powers, djinn and a pir who dabbles in black magic exist alongside tantric yogis and the Goddess Kali. It was fun mixing Islamic and Hindu brands of magic, and it felt appropriate because the cultural fault lines were not as distinct as they are today; the two existed side by side very vibrantly at that time.

SAAD Z HOSSAIN: Is there a clear line between fact and fiction?

SHAZIA OMAR: History is a story written by the victors, and by the male victors — his story. The female voice, the subjugated voice, is rarely heard. I was representing a “subaltern” hero. The Indian narrative, mostly written in Delhi or by the British, does not portray Shayista Khan as a hero. The most common anecdote is how he lost three fingers in a fight with Shivaji, Hindustan’s great hero. He comes across as a weak and wimpy man. But then, Shayista was a brilliant warlord and a shrewd business man, in today’s terms, a billionaire. Under his rule, Bengal reached its zenith, its golden age; it was the capital of the world in culture and commerce. This narrative is buried beneath the rubble of time, so it was fun to resurrect it for a story from “the other side”. Even newspapers carrying yesterday’s stories get facts wrong, are affected by perception, depend on whose side you’re writing from. As such, I believe reimaging history is not an act of falsification, but rather, may do more to illuminate the truth, by displaying other sides of the story, other possibilities that may have been.

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Interesting review...may attend Whitechapel tommorow
Musalman Qualam Face
Apr 10, 2017 at 18:13