How to Read Fiction for History

1. The first thing to remember is that a novel is not a sociological tract. It is not about an "average" family. Anyone who uses the word "typical" in dealing with fiction is not dealing fairly with an author. However, one can learn a good bit about a culture from fiction, and usually the learning is most pleasant. Try these approaches:

Notice these things: (they may not go in your essay, but they will give you insight into the author's purpose). Was the novel written in English or in an Indian (or another) language? Was it published in India (or another country) or in the West? If in a language of India (or another nation), was it translated by an Indian (a native) or a Westerner? Can you tell what audience the author had in mind? When was the novel written?

What is the author's mood? Is he/she just telling a good story? Is the author crusading for some change in society? Is there humor? Irony? Is the author trying to explain something to the West? Is the story obviously a personal experience which the novelist feels compelled to interpret?

What surprised you in the novel? Any unfamiliar family relationships? Any characters that seem totally inexplicable? Any religious or social practices which seem totally different from what you know? Do the characters accept situations or values which seem unacceptable to you?

2. Now, having thought through all these things, and having read, for example, Tandon's Punjabi Century, which is a straight-forward tale of one man's life, together with the world around him, and not a novel, choose something to write about. Do not re-tell the story, but do write so that someone who has not read Tandon, for example, or your novel can follow you. Perhaps one of these foci would help:|

a) the nature of the conflict between tradition and modernity, or between rural and urban values
b) the place of women in society; problems peculiar to women
c) the importance or non-importance of caste or social standing
d) the world of the village, its limitations and its vision
e) the impact of Hinduism or Islam or other religion
f) the expectations of a joint family

Do think through what is meant by tradition, by modernity, by westernization before you use these terms. If you deal with a collection of short stories, try to find common themes, common values, common attitudes. If the fiction seems to be totally unrelated to anything in, for example, Tandon, think about that too! Can Tandon's (or someone else's) observations reinforce values learned from fiction--or deny them? Pay some attention to time period and geography as you compare the works.

If your novel concerns a specific period, try to correlate its interpretation of history with the more orthodox text-book approach. If a novel does not interest you after you give it a real chance, change to another. Read enough so that you have something to say. In any essay, and in all the work that you do, include full references to the works used.

--Eleanor Zelliot


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