Devika Rangachari, the winner of several national awards, is the author of Queen of Ice, a historical novel, publishing in November 2014.
She is interviewed by Devika Cariapa, a children’s writer with a background in history and archaeology.
DC: Devika, we share a name, a love of history and a passion for historical fiction. What else do you think we might have in common? Errm … do you like chocolate ice cream?
DR: Do I like chocolate ice cream? Now that’s a tough one! I guess I do—a little bit. Or a whole lot, in fact!
DC: I loved Queen of Ice. In fact, I chomped my way through it all in one go! How do you suppose that such a vibrant, inspiring woman like Queen Didda is almost completely missing from our history text books?
DR: History writing is largely male-centred and women figures are usually invisibilised or tucked away behind the so-called comprehensive narrative of textbooks. They are seen as untidy, problematic intrusions that are totally irrelevant to the story of the past. That’s gender blindness for you—and textbooks abound in it!
DC: Apart from the character of Didda herself, do you think readers will be intrigued by the unusual time and place setting of the book i.e. medieval Kashmir?
DR: I certainly hope so! Not much is known about Kashmir prior to the Mughal conquest of the area—or about the fabulously rich literary tradition of its early medieval period, which is the setting for Didda’s story.
DC: I liked the fact that you depicted Didda warts and all! She was certainly no goody two-shoes…..usually most of our heroines seem to have their naughtier sides edited out. Your thoughts?
DR: Bland, insipid characters—male or female—don’t make for interesting reading or writing. I immensely enjoyed the process of bringing such a complex character to life—and occasionally trying to trim away some of her more unsavoury traits for public consumption!
DC: You make use of two very different voices to structure the novel – Didda’s and that of Valga, her maid and confidante. How and why did you choose those two specifically?
DR: I chose the first person narrative because I wanted to get inside Didda’s head and understand the motives that guided her turbulent life. I wanted to counterpoise her voice with that of Valga—a person who knew Didda well but could be fairly objective when required—thus providing two viewpoints at every stage of the story.
DC: Does your day job as a serious historian and academic interfere with your writing historical fiction or is it vice versa? Do stories start to swirl about in your head when you’re in the library trying to read a 5,000 page book?
DR: A 5,000 page book would probably bristle with a hundred interesting characters! My head always swirls with stories when I’m doing my research, so both my professions sort of blend into each other, which is great fun.
DC: With all that academic stuff, how difficult is it to pick what you should keep in a story of fiction and what you can leave out. Do you sometimes find yourself scrabbling in the dustbin for something you’ve thrown out earlier and now suddenly fits in perfectly into the story?
DR: Historical accuracy is the most important factor. I try not to invent too many characters and largely use real historical figures, so that my stories are more ‘fact-ion’ than ‘fiction’. And, of course, the real challenge lies in making a set of facts interesting and readable so that readers don’t screw up their faces in horror at the thought of reading historical fiction. As for ferreting around for something I’ve thrown away earlier, that hasn’t yet happened to me! Most of what I write is based on my research and so, the facts are always there and it’s up to me to use or discard them.
DC: While researching Didda’s story were there any bits where you went to yourself, “Wow! Truth really is stranger than fiction.”?
DR: Several times—but I think I’ll leave it to the readers to discover the ‘wow’ and ‘oh my god’ bits in the story!
DC: What kind of historical fiction do you like to read? Can you name a few favourites?
DR: I devour all kinds of historical fiction irrespective of the country or period in question. Some favourites are Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory and Conn Iggulden.
DC: She’s smart, beautiful, brave, ambitious, career-driven and (mostly) on the side of the underdog but she also has a ruthless streak and the occasional moment of insecurity. Do you think there are any other Didda-type characters just waiting to be discovered in Indian history? Have you got anyone in mind for your next book?
DR: Didda is definitely in a league of her own but there are several other remarkable women characters in history whose stories are just waiting to be aired. I do have some of these in mind for my next book but it depends on my inclination—and, of course, on the amount of chocolate that my publishers are willing to feed me to get me going. Watch this space!