In Alexander’s Footsteps

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The Emissary - A Tale of Love, Vendetta and War by Aniruddha Bahal, book reviewAsk him why an Indian wrote a historical novel and Aniruddha Bahal says something like, “Because it was there!” Well, not exactly that but because he wanted to write about Alexander the Great and chose not to use his travels in India and that famous encounter with Porus, though that may happen in a later book. His character is a sportsman, a charioteer Seleucus the son of Nicator who despite being hounded by the Macedonians finds himself following in Alexander’s footsteps and giving us insider information as to what happened behind the scenes at his battles.

Historical fiction is usually written to show the utter inevitability of the event that took place, or to give the happening a different turn by presenting the back-story behind the clinching main facts. Carefully researched historical fiction can teach, and by engrossing the reader, arouse conjecture by providing unique solutions to historical puzzles while building a bridge between past and present that the present can relate to.

Bahal , for example,  throws in match fixing into ancient chariot races to show that the world of sport has not changed at all – though given the fact that it was chariot racing the horses could have been quite easily drugged which history says very often happened. Of course Bahal the journalist was known for exposing match fixing in cricket and it obviously did not take much of a twist of the imagination to transpose it with chariot racing.

Not that match fixing is the only exciting thing in the book. In Part One the young Seleucus loses his father, is hunted by vengeful Macedonians, his mother is discovered dead in a pool of blood and various people he knows lose their heads. Exciting times as the Chinese would have said and that is far from being the end of the book.

All this is territory that Mary Renault trod many years ago and while Bahal’s is a gallant attempt words and names belonging to other characters tend to obscure the immediacy and sense of place. Aspasia of Athens, for example, put down as a famous woman surgeon when in actuality she was the companion of Pericles and an outspoken woman philosopher. Seleucus of Nicanor himself, a name deliberately close to that of Seleucus Nicator, the Macedonian nobleman who took up the reins of Alexander’s empire after his death. Is he, isn’t he you wonder and continue to wonder till the neat twist at the end.

“Author added a new dimension to the Indian historical novel”

There are actually too many people for the reader to deal with, especially since Seleucus’ story consists of a plethora of people he meets as he continues to run from the Macedonians who cannot forgive him for not throwing that chariot race. Allies, people cheated, people met along the way all make up a formidable list and one tends to lose track of the original problem and the first group of enemies across all the pages.

Bahal is a stickler for accuracy even in his style of storytelling – he cites Thucydides and Herodotus as the sources for the style he uses. For a novel so filled with incident, the style ultimately becomes a deterrent since the use of passive voice takes the passion away from many of the thrills and chills.  The other point is that Seleucus’ is the only perspective presented and the reader is forced to accept it which seems to somewhat limit the scope of the story – though again this is following in ancient Greek narrative diktats.

To return to that why write it – Naipaul apparently snubbed Bahal in 2002 for not having read any history since college, something which Naipaul felt was compulsory for any writer of fiction. The result of that Sir Vidia put down was Bahal’s poring through page after page of Greek history, the period to which most Indians relate best since Alexander almost came to India  – or so the story goes.

All things considered, the author deserves kudos for his attempt to recreate Greek history and eke it out with his imagination while ensuring that his facts are true to history. He has also added a new dimension to the Indian historical novel which so far has confined its reach to Indian shores and usually to colonial times.  Seleucus’ adventures will certainly continue, since his story is incomplete, Harper Collins has plans to release The Emissary in Greece and who knows what other boundaries will be crossed?

The Emissary – A Tale of Love, Vendetta and War by Aniruddha Bahal
Published by Harper Collins in India

Buy book online
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Emissary, The
by Aniruddha Bahal

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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