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A unique archival project locates the real world in literary landscapes

An archival project is building a public database of cities mentioned in fiction as a resource for readers, researchers and educators

People can contribute to the archive, Cities in Fiction.
People can contribute to the archive, Cities in Fiction. (Pexels)

In fiction, cities often play an intricate role, providing context to the narrative, a character’s way of being, and more. Beyond that, they are also record-keepers of a specific time and place in a constantly changing world. Be it a glimpse of Dehradun of the 1950s in Ruskin Bond’s Room on the Roof or contours of Bengaluru in Vivek Shanbhag's writings. And now, an archival project is building a database of cities in fiction.

The Cities in Fiction project, helmed by researcher Divya Ravindranath and writer-editor Apoorva Saini, is a public database to locate real-world places in literature. It has been created for readers, writers, researchers, scholars, educators, and curriculum builders to explore South Asia, particularly Indian cities, through the lens of fiction.

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This journey started with an Excel sheet. In 2022, Ravindranath started documenting books and short fiction, focusing on the cities they are based in and the themes they explored. The idea was to take short snippets from these stories to her class at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS) and incorporate them into teaching.

“Fictional accounts are also a form of data just like numbers. For instance, if I’m teaching about the public health system, I give them the data such as the number of hospitals, but I also tell them there is a relevant account from the story to show how it can affect people. The initial idea was to use fiction as a method to teach,” she says. It’s through the stories that people are able to look beyond the numbers, and begin to understand the experiences and the vulnerabilities.

Currently, Ravindranath is part of the faculty for the IIHS Urban Fellows Programme. In the final semester, she had presented her data as an option for the final project and Saini had taken it up. They started with an archive of 150 books that Ravindranath had documented. By the time they launched the website in September last year, the archive had grown to include more than 350 books.

The duo also added an option for people to contribute to the archive, which greatly helped in including English translations of books in regional languages as well as those from other South Asian countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. “The history of the subcontinent is such that at some point they were all intertwined. We also want to include more books in vernacular languages in the near future,” adds Ravindranath.

One of the main focuses of the project is to include more women’s writings, especially from older magazines and in regional languages. They also want to move beyond the big cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata that mainstream English fiction usually revolves around. “We want to include stories based in smaller towns and villages to understand a different side of those places through the fictional lens,” she adds.

Fiction is also a gateway to learn about society at different points in time. When a story is set in a particular space and time, sometimes it is the only record of life during the period. For instance, for her book, The Bangalore Detectives Club, which centered around a female detective in the 1920s, Harini Nagendra relied a lot on oral history, specifically stories of women in her family.

“In the 1920s, it was rare to find voices of women in the official archives, but they were doing incredible things within their households. This is something you learn through conversations with people, and record it in fiction, which can be used as a resource,” says Ravindranath.

For many readers, it’s through fiction that they get the taste of different places. The vivid descriptions of places such as Kolkata in The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh show the importance of place-based writing. Ravindranath read it while in college but hasn’t visited the city yet. “The place-based book is unique in that it gives a glimpse of culture, society, gender, and caste. This is a one-of-kind resource, which can be used to understand a place at a specific moment in history,” says Ravindranath.

Along with expanding the repository, Ravindranath and Saini have added a new section to the website wherein they will do interviews with authors, researchers, librarians, local bookshop owners and publishers.

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