Author of Trade winds to Meluhha, Vasant Dave’s novel, binds together historical facts. Read the review of the book here, before you read the interview.
1. How long did it take for you to research the book?
A: It took four months of desk research before a sketchy outline formed in my mind. While writing the narrative in the following two years, I visited museums and archaeological sites to get a feel of how people lived during the period of the novel. Then the renowned archaeologist and non-fiction writer Dr. Shereen Ratnagar kindly consented to go through my draft. She highlighted several factual errors that called for rewriting substantial portions of the novel. For instance, I had brought about the Finalé with an incident wherein a Mesopotamian lady shyly indicated her willingness to marry her admirer from Indus Valley by offering him ‘halwa’ prepared from dates and coconut. I was ballooning to the ninth cloud with that brilliant wave of creativity wherein I had used the two fruits of the respective civilizations to imply their cultural bond. Dr. Ratnagar gently brought me on earth, pointing out that the coconut palm had not yet reached the Indian sub-continent during the period of the novel. Let’s say, research went hand in hand with writing almost till the plot crystallized in its present ‘avatar’.
2. I think the women then were independent in their thinking. What was the most astonishing fact for you?
A: They certainly were. Just see the statuette discovered at Mohenjo-daro. Even when entirely nude, she looks so imposing in contrast to the the half-clad Bollywood starlets vying for male attention. Erroneously named ‘Dancing Girl’ by archaeologists of the time, she emerges as a strong personality. With her head held high and an arm akimbo, she looks almost as if challenging male chauvinism. That statuette always cropped up at the back of my mind while I developed heroine Velli’s character. On the other hand, the Mesopotamian woman possessed the right to own property, and to seek divorce from a marriage if it didn’t work. Probably on the Mesopotamian equivalent of Valentine Day, if there were one, her lover gifted her jewellery imported all the way from Indus Valley Civilization! I have portrayed the Mesopotamian lady through the characters of Elati and Anu.
I was zapped when it struck me that women in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and rural India were more liberated 4,000 years ago than they are today.
3. How did you blend it with the modern times?
A: It was rather the other way round. A conscious effort was required to blend the story to ancient times. We tend to think in the way we have experienced the world around us since childhood. When that’s expressed in words, it sticks out in the actions as well as the conversation of characters, and readers start doubting your credentials as a historical novelist. For example, the use of words like ‘police’, ‘court’ and ‘hotel’, although conceptually those institutions appear to have existed in the 3rd millennium B.C, would have made the narrative sound comical if not hilarious.
Secondly, the period of the novel dictated that I could not give the characters those names which can be recollected with ease by readers. ‘Shahrukh’ for a Babylonian youth and ‘Vidya’ for a damsel in Indus Valley would not have sounded convincing for characters who supposedly lived in the Bronze Age. So I had to search out and refer lexicons of ancient languages to derive some sensible, easily pronunciable names. For instance, in the Sumerian language ‘Šamaš’ meant the Sun god and ‘Sîn’ meant the Moon god. Since both the celestial bodies play a crucial role in the hero’s life early in the narrative, a combination of Šamaš and Sîn i.e. ‘Samasin’ was selected for his name.
4. How difficult is it to write a Historical Fiction?
Please let us know few things that are to be kept in the mind while writing a Historical fiction.
A: Extremely difficult if it’s Pre-historic sub-genre like ‘Trade winds to Meluhha’. Nothing is available in the form of documents, autobiographies and diaries, paintings, photos, audio cassettes and films produced during that period. I had to picturise the locations from ruins of sites and the characters from excavated skeletons and artefacts. I created Mesopotamian situations from the text on their baked tablets and those in Indus Valley from imagination because its script isn’t deciphered as yet. Topography, people, their language, flora and fauna — all those small things which contribute to make your reader savour the period — have changed drastically over four millenniums. Writing it, I felt just like Captain Paravar in the novel — navigating a reed-ship in rough sea without a magnetic compass.
Regarding things to be kept in the mind, I would speak for myself only. I had to take care of all the basic facts relating to the period in which I set this novel. That is because my five-year old grandson Samarth made me realize that all my young readers would be more savvy with the computer and the cellphone than I. With ready access to Google, Wikipedia and host of knowledge sites, I would look stupid if I tried to force any wild story down their throat. Serious readers of Historical Fiction might overlook some diversion from facts, but they would reject a fantasy that fails to convey them to the period and the land of their imagination. That’s why it is extremely vital to consult experts in the field before giving a flight of fancy to one’s thoughts. And that aspect is one big hurdle because most are happy to remain inside their academic shell rather than venturing out to extend a helping hand to a hopeful novelist.
5. What are the purchase details for this book.