When it is done well, historical fiction can be a beautiful thing. The ‘boringness’ of names and dates and battles and ‘extent of kingdom’ maps that are the bane of history lessons disappears, to be replaced by a story so compelling that the lines between fact and fiction blur and merge, leaving the reader with a sense of easy familiarity with, or even an appreciation for, the very same names and dates and battles. A really good piece of historical fiction will hold up a mirror to the world the reader inhabits, revealing to him the truer-than-truisms: that history repeats itself, and that the things that drive humans are the same in every age.
The thing is, really good historical fiction – especially the kind that engages kids – is very hard to write. Especially when what is known about the period in which the story is set is sketchy at best and speculative at worst. So it is quite a challenge that Sunila Gupte sets herself in her book A Harappan Adventure, in which she attempts to recreate a world that has been buried, literally, these past four thousand years, and whose very existence only came to light less than a century ago. To add to her woes, unlike other civilisations of a similar vintage, the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilisation’s script-code is yet to be cracked.
Does Gupte succeed in her attempt to do what she sets out to do? Yes and no.
Given the constraints she is working under, the author has done a wonderfully competent job of re-imagining Harappa and its mysterious inhabitants, and weaving the well-known facts and figures associated with the civilisation into her story in subtle ways. For instance, archaeological finds like the stone bust of a bearded man that archaeologists – and high-school history textbooks – refer to as the ‘Priest King’ manifests in the story as a real person; the famous ‘humped bull’ seal appears as an etching on a bride’s bracelet; and the figure of the so-called ‘Pashupati’, featuring a seated figure in horned headgear surrounded by animals, becomes the temple deity at Bagasra, the town where Avani, the heroine of Gupte’s novel, lives.
In similar clever ways, other important information about the place and times is revealed – the Harappan expertise in brick-making, bead-making and fine metalwork, particularly bronze; the brisk seafaring trade it carried on with Mesopotamia; and the fact that it was a small world after all, even four millennia ago, with Meluha (believed to be the ancient name for the Indus Valley Civilisation) occasionally receiving visitors from as far away as China.
Some interesting leaps of imagination have been made too. On the map, the Indus Valley Civilisation covered a huge swathe of land, including current-day Pakistan and bits of Afghanistan, apart from parts of Jammu, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Bagasra, the novel’s theatre of action, was a real place, tucked into one of the crescent moons of the Gujarat coastline, quite close to Maharashtra. Would it be too far-fetched to imagine, then, that some of Avani’s younger cousins and friends would call her tai, which is Marathi for elder sister? Not really. So Gupte imagines it. Or that, knowing that the Harappans grew barley and wheat and millet, a wedding feast would include honey-and-millet sheera, a variant on the Marathi sweetmeat that is today made from semolina? Again, no. And again, the author imagines it. These are the a-ha! moments for both writer and reader (especially one familiar with the facts) of historical fiction, and there are plenty of such moments in this book.
Where Gupte falters, however, is in creating a strong, engaging storyline. The plot – which centres around Avani – a bright, lively, hungry-for-adventure twelve-year-old, who is a natural leader among her friends – would have worked had this been a longish short story or a shortish novella, but it is stretched way too thin in this 132-page novel. Also, the train of the plot is often derailed by blocks of what seem like ‘filler’ text, which not only do not contribute to plot progression but are also often repetitive and somewhat pointless. And finally, the resolution of what is meant to be a mystery-adventure-detective story doesn’t pack anywhere near the requisite punch.
Which is a bit of a pity. Because, where historical fiction for children is concerned, it is the fiction which draws the reader in and keeps him, while the history provides the backdrop, and not the other way around.
By Arundhati Roshan B.
A HARAPPAN ADVENTURE
Author: Sunila Gupte
Puffin Books, 2012
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Fiction/Series