The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
The mysterious inner life, like a mischievous child peering into the living room after his bedtime, shows itself at the oddest, most inconvenient hours. You are at your own party, surrounded by food and alcohol and laughter and then poof! There it is, invisible and omnipresent. Your inner life, sweeping in for the kill, overwhelms all your senses and sound reasoning.
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By Sheba Karim, Issue 14, The Non-Fiction Issue, October 2012
On the first foggy October morning I set out on a walk to see how history and contemporary reality speak to each other. I ambled through the fantastical by-lanes of Turkman Gate where I located the grave of the only female monarch of the Mughal era in 13th Century India. Razia Sultan’s grave lies almost unknown, cramped between residential buildings and small retail outlets, as if in the shadowy lands between fact and fable. The narrow, dingy lanes that lead to her mazaar incite thoughts on history and the importance of its multiple re-writings: to reclaim the marginalized’s unsung songs; to remythologize lies; to tell a truth that is oft more inconceivable than fiction; to resurrect time and watch how nothing changes, and everything is completely different.

I spoke to Sheba Karim who is currently working on a historical fiction novel about the life of Razia Sultan, graciously responded to some of these ruminations on fact, fiction and history.

  • ‘The only duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.’     -Oscar Wilde

In writing historical fiction, one’s duty is less to history than to narrative.  I would temper Wilde’s statement, though, by saying you have to have some broad commitment to historical accuracy.  If the state won a war, but you write it as a rebel victory, then you’re entering the realm of alternate history.  But, as a fiction writer, the question of how committed one must be to historical accuracy is an interesting one; for example, I have a scene with the Sufi saint Qutb’uddin Kaki that takes place when Razia is sultan—but that Kaki died before she took the throne.  So this scene is a total historical fabrication, but it makes for an interesting narrative, and so the latter trumps the former.

  • ‘Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments, and even to dissembling.’  -Sigmund Freud

I’d be curious to know if anyone, upon reading his or her own biography, found it completely on point.  Any biography is a curation of a person’s life, its events, conflicts and epiphanies carefully selected and arranged by the biographer.  But I think readers approach biography well aware that the whole truth of someone’s life cannot be contained within a book.

  • 'Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't'. -Mark Twain

In my research for Razia, the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ adage often comes to mind.   There was a lot of madness in medieval India!  Recently, in Wendy Doniger’s Hindus: An Alternate History, I read that Ala’uddin Khalji’s son was best known for “parading a line of naked prostitutes on the terraces of royal palaces and making them pee on the nobles as they entered below.”  Seriously, you can’t make some of this stuff up.

Truth, of course, is never limited by possibilities.  If something is ‘true,’ then people immediately suspend disbelief—if it’s actually happened, what is there not to believe?  Meanwhile, fiction writers must be wary of things like coincidence, and make sure that events are believable within the world of the narrative so as not to upset the reader.

  • 'The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.' -Aldoux Huxley

Basic human motivators, power, greed, love, lust, revenge, piety, certainly haven’t changed much.  But nature has so drastically and, it seems, irrevocably, altered due to urban sprawl, the disappearance of forests, diminishing natural resources, etc, that many of us have lost any real connection to nature, once a fundamental aspect of human existence.  Now that our relationship to the natural world has become so different, can anything really be the same?

  • 'History...tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all - it is very tiresome.'  - Jane Austen

History is littered with good intentions, though probably not enough, and the quarrels of kings can be quite interesting.  But it has been depressing to see how little of women’s history has been recorded, especially in the pre-Mughal period, and how women, who play an active social and political during the Prophet’s time, become increasingly marginalized in the following centuries, due to various reasons, absorption of patriarchal traditions of other cultures, etc.  And what we do know of women was, more often than not, recorded by men.  Even Rekhti poetry, 18th and 19th century Urdu poetry written in a female voice and focusing on women’s lives, was mostly written by men.

Sheba Karim was born thirty years ago. Her first novel, Skunk Girl, about a Pakistani-American teenager coming of age in small town in upstate New York, has been published in Demark, India, Italy, Sweden and the United States. She lives and works in New York City.

Sheba Karim was born over thirty years ago

Also in this issue

  • The Ghosts of Industry.
    This was a place for machines, once; empty now, the inhuman scale of the walls and ceilings shrunk us to almost nothing.
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  • Something Not Exclusively Art.
    In the debate between art for art's sake and art with a (sociopolitical) purpose, what is ignored is that most people to whom art (in any form) matters use it for 'life's sake'.
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  • An Objective Portrait.
    From motion photography to serene portraiture, the camera reproduces a reality that the eye trusts. Here’s a look into the non-fictitious nature of reality as rendered by a photograph.
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Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.