On Fathers and Sons (and Alexander the Great)

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My father passed away four years ago after a long and debilitating illness. Today would have been his birthday. I continue to observe this as a special day somehow each year, and I always will.

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My father, Dr. L. K. Sen, a few years before I was born.

Of all the people whose opinions I’ve sought about my writing (or even the fact that I aspire to write at all), I’ve come to realize that my father topped the list. He was an intellectual giant-an educator, scholar, and researcher who studied and solved problems affecting whole economies and cultures.

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He was also a deeply creative soul, able to write stories, draw (far better than I ever could), and appreciate a staggeringly wide range of music. From his Bengali culture he passed down to me an overwhelming creative urge and permission to explore something like fiction writing (the stereotype about us is that in the soul of every Bengali accountant is a poet-we are a profoundly literary and theatrical people).

I could never hope to equal him, so my solution was to find some unique way to make my mark in a way that might still make him proud of me. Consequently my first book was a mammoth undertaking of five years. What I’ve realized I was blind to, all along, was how much of it really came from him, how much of it was really about him, and the legacy he left me.

Two years ago, to commemorate his birthday, I put together a reading of my book Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories, which I had just published and which I dedicated to my father’s memory. He never read it, though we discussed the three short stories that comprise it. (One is drawn from a family ghost story he and I both enjoyed hearing from his uncle.)

This year, while going through some of his papers, I came across a birthday card he’d written to me in 1992. This perplexed me at first. Why would a card addressed to me be among his belongings? Reading it deepened the mystery. He hadn’t signed it, and what he wrote was filled with cross-outs and corrections. I realized that he’d gotten the card to practice what he was going to write on the one he eventually sent me.

This was an odd image for me to reconcile with what I thought I knew of my father, that he would fret and worry about what he’d write in a card to his own son (him, of all people). All the other cards I’d gotten from him were simple and even terse, foregoing long passages of text. In this one, dithered with corrections and lines struck out and overwritten, he struggled to express his worries and his hopes, talked of his fears of pushing me away, wondered at the prospect that I might come to understand him as a friend.

He never said much about the books of mine he read while he was alive. I remember him praising them concisely with a sort of understated pride, and with each he told me that he was interested in seeing what I’d come up with next. He liked to discuss where I got my ideas, relating them to the places we’d lived and the stories that saturated them. I think often about whether he wondered about his influence on them. Or whether he thought about why I wanted to write, and how and why I arrived at graphic novels as my chosen form of artistic expression. And I think now, too, about my role in the classic father-son dynamic.

The Golden VineIn 1998, I started a project that would, ultimately, lead me through a five-year quest, three countries, and some of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned, though it’s taken some time for all of them to become apparent and for the relationship between me and my father, and me and my creative work, to be clear.

The result of that project, The Golden Vine, is an alternate history of Alexander the Great. Or, more specifically, his empire, an imaginary version of it that could have existed had Alexander not died young and left behind one of the biggest “what-ifs” in history. By his early twenties, he had overthrown the greatest empire that’s ever existed. Obsessed with the myth of Achilles, he seemed to live his life knowing that he’d burn fast and bright. Who knows what he might have accomplished if he’d lived-and that was the central question I tackled with the book.

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I first got the idea for The Golden Vine while wrestling with a bout of channel-surfing insomnia in my apartment in New York. I stumbled across a Joseph Campbell lecture in which he talked about what he considered to be the first true collision between Eastern and Western thinking.

My fictional Alexander enters India.
My fictional Alexander enters India.

Alexander and his troops had crossed into India, a difficult journey made all the worse with poor planning and an ignorance of (to the Greeks, at least) a strange new land. Among the many characters Alexander’s armies encountered there was a Hindu holy man with whom Alexander apparently had a number of conversations. Later on, the horrified Macedonians observed him calmly immolate himself. This is the sort of thing that Hindu mystics sometimes just do; but to Alexander, it opened up a whole new vista of thought and belief systems. Campbell argued that Alexander so moved by this incident, so unable to reconcile it with anything he knew, that it started a pattern of cultural exchange that shaped the way the world is today.

My own march across the world into unknown places brought me from New York to Tokyo, where I found the three amazingly talented artists who illustrated the story in interwoven narratives. Looking back on the process, it was really quite funny, particularly the parts where the visual team tactfully asked me why I’d lavish so many pages on a figure who was, to them, no one all that important in history. (Adding in some robots might help, they suggested.) Like many boys who grew up in India, for me, Alexander was not just Iskandar, the stuff of epic history, but of legend. Indians pride themselves on the fact that India is where Alexander finally stopped and had to turn back, unequipped to traverse such a huge place.

Alexander was crowned Pharaoh when he was 24.
Alexander was crowned Pharaoh when he was 24.

I returned to New York after two years in Tokyo with just over 300 art boards that I carefully hand-carried on my flight, but I wasn’t in such pristine shape myself, disintegrating after the painful end of a five-year relationship, the main cause of my move to Tokyo in the first place. The book had become a container, I now realize, of all my hopes-not only for how I hoped the world could or might be, but, in the characters I built, for loyalties, goodness, and an idea of love so undeniable that it could build and bind empires.

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The real Alexander began to disintegrate after he’d conquered the last of the four capitals of the Persian empire, Persepolis. Rather than thinking through how he’d hold together what he’d conquered through his military ingenuity-the thing he’s most known for in history, and he’s unmatched by anyone since-he turned to avenging Persian invasions of Greece, and then started what can only be described as a worldwide rampage to conquer whatever was left beyond Persia. Of this, the Greeks were entirely ignorant. They thought a single ocean encircled the whole world, and their sense of the size and scale of lands beyond the Mediterranean was distorted to the point of comedy. Alexander’s quest was to find the edge of the world. But by the time he’d made it across just a bit of the north of India, having seen wonders his people had never imagined, his troops were on the verge of mutiny, and the edge of the world was nowhere in sight. His famous charisma failed to dissuade his men, and they finally returned to his greatest conquest, Babylon, to regroup.

My fictionalized Alexander and Hephaestion.
My fictionalized Alexander and Hephaestion.

It was there that his lifelong companion, Hephaestion, died-some say from poisoning. Studying the history, it was clear to me that the loss of Hephaestion’s stabilizing influence was what finally undid Alexander. After he was dead, his heirs fought over the fragmented remains of his massive empire and even over his body, which meandered here and there until it finally landed in Egypt, which was then ruled by his cousin Ptolemy (who founded the famous dynasty that ended with Cleopatra).

The question this begs, naturally, what would have happened if Alexander had lived, to conquer more and, most importantly, to sort it all out once he’d done so. Alexander’s genius for administration is undervalued by historians, who prefer to focus on his military acumen instead. But to me the tale of the historical Alexander and Hephaestion is also a love story: one that I saw as being built out of total and uncompromising devotion-a thing, in retrospect (and, indeed, obviously even at the time), entirely lacking in the relationship for which I’d moved countries and uprooted my life.

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Young Hephaestion and his father.
Young Hephaestion and his father.

What I didn’t realize then, but have come to understand in the decade since the book was published, was that The Golden Vine is really about fathers and sons.

True, it’s about Alexander and the conquests and discoveries I imagined he might make; the rites of passage faced by his son and heir, Alexander IV; and my version of Hephaestion, who, in my alternate history, like Alexander, lives into old age. It’s most emphatically not a rehash of Alexander’s various battles. (I’ve faced some criticism for heavily condensing this part of the story, but I was more interested in Alexander’s character than in military tactics.) But I can see now that there are four pairs of fathers and sons threaded around the story as well. One such pair-Alexander and his father, Philip of Macedon-is drawn from true history, and there was lots of material to work with. The others are my own inventions. But ultimately, much of the central idea of the book is about the legacies passed down from fathers to sons.

I always grow quiet when I hear of people writing for therapeutic reasons. I’m never sure what to think of this, and stories that grossly expose their writers’ secrets and angst make me vaguely uncomfortable (an important exception: the amazing Alison Bechdel, who writes about her complex family, whom I hope to profile in this column some day soon). I feel too beholden to my audience to make them slog knowingly through my inner torments. (Ah, “knowingly”-maybe that’s the key.)

But then, could any writer’s work ever be anything other than the working out of inner angels and demons? All creators find their themes based on how they look at the world, so presumably all writing is therapy of some sort, as is all reading by that same definition. Perhaps my discomfort about such self-examining, revelatory writing is due to the fact that I, like any writer, have actually been blithely and unknowingly thrashing out my themes through my fictional work.

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Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon.
Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon.

Alexander’s father, Philip, cultivated Alexander as a philosopher-king who could rule all of Greece, not knowing that he was creating the sort of leader who could conquer and unite cultures far beyond the tiny Greek world. I wonder what my father hoped I would become. The historical Alexander ordered all records of Hephaestion destroyed after his death, an attempt to mitigate a grief that must have seemed, at the time, a limitless pit of despair. As such, he cheated us of knowing Hephaestion. As much fiction as I wove around Alexander’s hypothetical conquests had he lived, the part of The Golden Vine that I’m really proud of is a reconstruction of Hephaestion and his family’s origins. A large part of the story revolves around the lineage of men that ultimately terminated with Hephaestion. Did my father wonder whether his line, his hopes and dreams for our family, would end with me?

The Golden Vine clocks in at 300 pages and just under 35,000 words of text, about the length of a prose novel if you excise it from the images. By rough calculation, two-thirds of the book somehow concerns the relationship between fathers and sons. An example: the complex dynamic between Alexander and his famous tutor, Aristotle. Alexander’s experience of parts of the world Aristotle never saw caused him to break from his tutor’s notions of Greek superiority and produced the first glimmers of ideas we’d call syncretist and liberal-ideas even more revolutionary for 320 BCE, like Alexander’s thoughts about ending the then-universal practice of slavery, which was common even in Athens, the birthplace of democracy.

There was a time when I would have bristled at being compared to my father. For all the reverence I had for him, I really needed to see myself as my own man, as distinct from him as I could be. I needed to see him as the product of some other time, my one true advantage over his genius and accomplishments being my connection with the now. But, at some point, something changed. These days, any comparison to him makes me very proud indeed.

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Somehow, I think The Golden Vine may have been an attempt to communicate with him: to rebel against his giant presence in my life while still giving him a way to see me for who I was, who I am, to invite him to know me. I realize now, four years too late to let him know, that he did. As I wonder today about what kind of father I’d be to a hypothetical son, I think I may finally be starting to understand him, too.