historical fiction Posts

Reading young adult literature

There is a tremendous spurt in middle grade novels and young adult literature. It is also a grey area as it is never clear what kind of stories may attract the young readers. Even so there is a great mix of storytellers and stories being published regularly. There is so much variety to choose from. Here is a selection:

Beginning with the seasoned writers like Paro Anand, Ranjit Lal and Subhadra Sen Gupta, all of whom have new books published. Well, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s is a reissue of one of her earliest collection of historical fiction short stories. It is a revival of her backlist that is very welcome. Painters, Potters, Cooks and Kings was first published nearly two decades ago but it remains one of my all time favourite collection of short stories. These stories with children as the protagonists are set in different periods of Indian history — King Ashoka, Emperor Akbar, King Krishna Deva Raya, Princess Jahanara and British India.

Paro Anand’s The Other is a path-breaking collection of short stories for young adults exploring critical issues like gender, sexual abuse, grief and loneliness and much, much more. It is a set of stories that even adults will do well to read. ( I wrote about it too and embedded a fantastic conversation between Paro Anand and Sunil Sethi too.)

Ranjit Lal is another very prolific writer for children. Over the years his storytelling has matured to magnificent levels. His child protagonists are always very well-defined and easy for the young readers to identify with as they are ordinary folks. His plots are of the familiar too. Even when his stories become sinister and dark, the scenarios are completely plausible as there is a logical progression from the point of the personal and known. Again spaces that are easy to recognise. This holds true for Adventures of Bozo & Chick: Terror at Bedlam House which is set in Mumbai. Teenagers Bozo and Chick, ably assisted by youngsters in the neighbourhood, try and solve the mystery of the masked strangers living in a more or less abandoned home. Mixed with generous doses of references to real life such as love jihad or terrorists attacking Mumbai using the sea-route make this novel unnerving but a gripping read.

And then there are two extraordinary middle grade novels by USA-based writers of Indian origin — Ahimsa and The Night Diary. Both novels deal brilliantly with the Indian freedom struggle. ( Read interviews with Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani.) 

Award-winning writer of adult fiction Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s first book for children Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh is a tremendous book. Friendships between magical creatures and little children, the implicit trust that binds them, always makes for a perfect story. Hansda has achieved it charmingly so in his own gem of this utterly fabulous Jwala Kumar.  A fun, fun book is Tommy Greenwald’s Crimebiters! It involves little children and a crime-fighting vampire dog. Need I say more? It is utterly delicious!

Three collections of short stories that are equally engaging are Grandpa Tales and Grandma Tales ( edited by Lalitha Iyer) and Flipped: Funny Stories/Scary Stories. The stories edited by Lalita Iyer are a great collection with the contributing authors mostly sharing stories that they heard from their grandparents. In the next edition of these anthologies it may be better if there was a wider selection of stories representing the diversity of India rather than focused on a handful of regions. Nevertheless these are two entertaining volumes. The third one is a curious book of flipped stories. So to read the scary stories you read the book one way and to read the funny stories you flip the book. The two stories that stand out in this volume are “Of Grave Importance” by Adithi Rao and “When I Was a Little Girl” by Shabnam Minwalla. 

But the new voice in children’s literature to be noticed is Cordis Paldano. A theatre professional who has also been trained in Tamil street theatre called Terukkutu, Cordis Paldano’s debut novel The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is a stupendous book. It has an excellent sense of drama and timing. Being true to the elements of street theatre that thrives on incorporating elements into the performance of local socio-political developments, this book too is no different. It is a brave book. Cordis Paldano is the talented new kid on the block and worth following!

Given that the festival season is here. These books would make tremendous Diwali gift packs whether for reluctant or mature readers.

Happy reading!

30 October 2018 

To buy on Amazon India

Painters, Potters, Cooks and Kings

The Other 

Adventures of Bozo & Chick: Terror at Bedlam House

Ahimsa 

The Night Diary

Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh

Grandpa Tales

Grandma Tales

Flipped: Funny Stories/Scary Stories

The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat 

 

 

 

 

An interview with the fabulous YA writer Supriya Kelkar on her debut novel, “Ahimsa”

I interviewed Supriya Kelkar for Scroll on her debut novel Ahimsa published locally by Scholastic India — “How Supriya Kelkar wrote a novel about Indian independence that children around the world relate to“. It was published on 2 September 2018. I am c&p the interview here too. The link for the book on Amazon India is embedded in the book cover given below.

*****

Supriya Kelkar’s debut YA novel Ahimsa is about 10-year-old Anjali who is unexpectedly pulled into the Indian Freedom struggle in 1942 when her mother leaves the family to become a freedom fighter. A brisk pace and an alignment with current social sentiments makes the book particularly apt for our times. It highlights communal tensions, riots, lynchings, prison conditions, the Quit India movement, Gandhi, and the beginnings of Indian nationalist fervour. In the process, it also steps into the vacuum that is literature on the freedom struggle for children.

Supriya Kelkar was born and grew up in the USA, learning Hindi by watching Bollywood films. After college she got a job as a screenwriter for Hindi films. Ahimsa is inspired by her great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale’s role in the Indian freedom movement. Kelkar spoke to Scroll.in about her book and her writing in general. Excerpts from an email interview:

Why did you choose to write an activist-oriented novel from the perspective of ten-year-old Anjali?
I actually first had the idea to write this story as a biopic screenplay of my great-grandmother’s story about fifteen years ago. I tried and the script just wasn’t working and then decided to try it as a fictional story. I realised the more interesting point of view in the story wasn’t that of someone who already believed in the cause. It was of someone who was privileged and not yet ready to confront that privilege.

So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose mother joins the freedom movement. I’m really happy with the choice. It allowed Anjali to grow and change so much over the course of the story from a young girl who is happy with the status quo, who loves her fancy clothes, and who doesn’t really understand fully her relationship with her colonisers, to one who is ready to make personal sacrifices, be an ally, and stand up for what is right, strong and confident that her voice can make a difference. It’s a pretty big arc and big awakening for Anjali.

The title, Ahimsa, is synonymous with Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle. Yet it resonates decades later with the younger generations. What made you think of it
The title was one of the first things that came to me when writing this story as a novel, and is one of the few things that has remained from the first draft I wrote back in 2003. Since it was one of the themes of the book, it was an easy choice as a title. But my hope is that the true meaning behind the word really resonates with young readers today, as they realise how powerful their voice is, and how they can make a difference through words and peaceful action and not violence.

What changes did you make in the book over these years?
I think other than the very first moment and the last paragraph, everything in the story has changed over the fourteen year-long journey to publication. It took me a long time to be able to figure out what the crux of the plot should be. And that’s the beauty of revision. Once I was able to become detached from my words and hit the backspace key with abandon, I was able to throw out large chunks of the story that weren’t working and figure out what was. I think my characters and their arcs became stronger with each draft, and they definitely became more realistic, as I worked hard to make sure Anjali was flawed and had a chance to grow, and Captain Brent was able to grow and change too. I write on the computer, but will initially brainstorm on paper by hand. But all my outlining and writing is done on the computer.

Navigating historical landscapes at the best of times is tricky and yet you do it with such deftness. How many revisions did this manuscript require?
I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. It was terrible and I was ready to give up, so I set it aside and went back to working on screenplays. But every year, between screenplays and other novels I was writing, I would remember Ahimsa exists and go back to it, throwing subplots and characters and scenes out and adding new things in. This went on until 2016, when it got a publishing contract. And after those thirteen drafts, I did four more revisions with my editor, so there were seventeen drafts in total.

In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after India achieved independence. “A short, chubby dark boy…had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: ‘Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?’” Do you think this question remains valid even today for Dalits?
That is a really powerful quote. While I cannot speak for the Dalit community, I can speak from my experiences growing up and living in America. Here, although equality is a right and on paper everyone should be equal, it is very clear things are not the same for everyone. Systemic racism exists. Discrimination against people based on the colour of their skin or sexual orientation or religion or zip code exists. Hate crimes exist. I think the same can be said in India and in many countries.

Privileged people have to work to confront their privilege and be allies to others. Young readers and older readers alike should be aware that not everyone has the same start in life because of centuries of oppression and discrimination be it based on their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, last name, etc. When that basic premise is accepted, people can work to address and correct inequality and injustice.

The issues of untouchability, social exclusion and women empowerment are as relevant now as they were in 1942. How did writing historical fiction help you discuss modern instances of these?
It really wasn’t until about a decade into revisions that I realised just how relevant historical fiction can be. I was stunned when things I was writing about in 1942 India were being mirrored in 2016 in America. It made me realise we have come a long way and yet we haven’t.

Women are still not considered true equals everywhere, be it in the way girls and women are sometimes treated in India or how women still do not get paid the same amount as men for doing the same job in America. People are still writing narratives for their countries, be it India, America, or anywhere else, and deciding who is included and who is excluded in their nationalism, and who is being centered. And people are still being treated as less-than all over the world. For me, writing historical fiction helps bring light to all these issues, and it is really incredible to see young readers making these connections as they read Ahimsa and see how the story can be applied to their world.

How much research did Ahimsa require?
A whole lot! I read many books and went to academic websites for the timeline and historical facts. I used my great-grandmother’s biography, Anasuyabai Ani Me, to help me fill in the gaps for the way some people thought and how they acted at the time. I consulted professors. I spoke to older family members who lived through the time period. And I relied a lot on my parents to help me fill in cultural details. I actually have several of the pictures of the real-life people, places, and things that inspired parts of Ahimsa on my website for educators and readers.

Historical fiction as a genre requires a ton of research. You have to ensure your book works on a narrative level but you also have to make sure the clothing, the food, and the facts are right. And since India is so diverse, what may be true in one part of India for one family may not be true for their relatives in a different part of India. It was part of what made the editing process so challenging. I felt like we were constantly catching mistakes, which is good, because then they could be corrected. The fact-checking was a combination of my own research, my parents and other beta readers pointing things out, and my editor’s questions that helped navigate the fact-checking.

For instance, I had based Anjali’s house on my dad’s childhood house, because much of it was like it had been in the 1940s. But because my memories of that house were from my childhood visits in the 1980s and 1990s, there were mistakes. I had always described people standing to cook in that kitchen in the book. But my dad caught that mistake and told me although the stove was on a counter when I saw the house, back in the 1940s, the cooking was all done on the floor. So I went back and rewrote the kitchen scenes to reflect that.

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Writing historical fiction in the age of the internet and fake news can also be challenging because you have to make sure the online sources you use are real. It wasn’t until one of the last edits before publication, when I was double and triple checking everything, that I realised that the Gandhi quote I used in the book, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” was incorrect. There was no proof that he ever said that, but thanks to pop culture, the saying can be found all over America on T-shirts and mugs and written on school walls, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I had to research a lot to find a quote that there actually was a record of that could still work in the book.

It is well-documented that atrocities against Dalits persist in India. Ahimsa is not strident, however, leaving it to the judgement of the reader to form an opinion about Dalits. How critical do you think it is as a writer to exercise one’s artistic expression in making stories available that are of utmost social concern to sensitise young readers?
I think authors of children’s book authors have a great responsibility in presenting real world issues in an age-appropriate way. As parents, we often want to shield our children from the bad parts of life. But when they are old enough to handle the information, if we continue to shelter them from reality, I think we are doing a disservice to their generation.

In America, there was (and is) a prevailing way of thinking when I was growing up, called being “colour-blind.” We were taught in school that there is no difference between people based on their skin colour and it isn’t polite to talk about race because we shouldn’t see race.

Although that may seem like a really wonderful way to think about the world, studies have shown that teaching kids to be “colour-blind” leads to children who cannot accept that there is systemic racism, or that someone with a different skin colour than them would have a different life experience than them, be treated by the police differently, or be treated by society differently.

I have experienced that first hand, where so many of my classmates walked the same hallways in school as I did but were utterly unaware of racist incidents happening every day in school. And I witnessed those same kids being unable to accept that people who weren’t white got treated differently in America. So it’s actually doing children a disservice to not talk about race and how the colour of your skin in America does affect how you are treated and the opportunities you have.

That’s why I think it is really important for children’s book authors to not gloss over real-life issues. Young readers are smart and shaping their world view at the middle-grade reader level, so it is absolutely critical that we don’t talk down to them or ignore issues of social justice, and other important issues, in books for them.

What has the response of students been like? Have the reactions varied depending upon the audience? For instance, do Americans have a different response to that of Indians or the Indian diaspora? Or do all young readers respond to the book in similar ways?
I’ve actually found that readers in America, both from the diaspora and not, and readers in India have all been able to deeply connect to the story. Not only that, so many of them have been able to apply the themes of social justice in the book to the real world, regardless of where they live. I’ve had young readers in America tell me they have been inspired to speak up because of Anjali, that they have decided to get more involved in a cause they believe in because of her, and that the story has opened their eyes to injustice around them. And I have had young readers in India tell me they know they can use their voice to change the world because of Ahimsa.

One reader in Delhi told me that she had never really paid attention to how privileged she was until she read Ahimsa. She was chauffeured to school and often tuned out any suffering she saw outside her car window because she was so used to seeing it her whole life. She told me that, thanks to the book, she will no longer ignore others’ suffering and wants to make a difference and knows she will. So although the issues children in different parts of the world (or often the same country) can relate back to Ahimsa may be different, I have found they can all find a way to connect to the story.

Ahimsa moves at a crisp pace while being packed with details, many of which are noticed on a second reading. How did you develop a love for storytelling? Who are the storytellers who have influenced you?
Thank you very much. I developed a love for storytelling thanks to the hundreds of books I read as a child, and thanks to Hindi movies. With each book I read and movie I watched, I was learning about plot and pacing and what works in a story and what doesn’t. Being surrounded by books and movies as a child, I couldn’t think of doing anything else in life but telling stories.

There were several authors whose stories I loved and learned from, like Holly Keller and Beverly Cleary. But the first storyteller who influenced me in person was my dad. He is an engineer but also wrote a lot on the side and was always introducing me to the power of words through the plays he acted in and directed for the Indian-American community we lived in. When I was growing up I saw him writing a script weekly for his Indian radio programme which airs in America and now thanks to the internet worldwide. He also wrote stories and even wrote a couple of screenplays for Hindi movies decades ago.

The other storytellers who have influenced me are people I consider myself so lucky to have got the chance to learn from. I had the great fortune of being taught screenwriting at the University of Michigan by Jim Burnstein. He is a Hollywood screenwriter and incredible teacher who taught me everything I know about structure and outlining and making sure there is logic in your writing.

I had the privilege of working for Vinod Chopra Films right out of college. Vidhu Vinod Chopra taught me so much about making sure your stories are entertaining while saying something. It was through working with him that I learned to really be ruthless in revisions, and go from an impatient novice to a writer who knows the value of revising, even if it takes years to get things right. Abhijat Joshi taught me how to shape a story, and how to really dig deep to get to the crux of a scene and make sure it hits emotionally. And I learned from Rajkumar Hirani how to fill my writing with heart and do justice to each character’s arc, while always keeping the theme in mind.

Did writing for Bollywood films inform the very visual narrative of Ahimsa, or do writing styles vary? Do you find writing for young readers is vastly different to writing scripts for movies?
I actually had to unlearn some of my screenwriting training to write novels. In screenwriting you don’t waste time describing the way someone dresses or the way a room looks or the physical way a character responds unless it is absolutely vital to the plot. That’s because the screenplay isn’t the final product.

A costume designer will decide what clothes characters wear, a set designer will decide how rooms should look, and a director and the actor will decide how they physically react to moments. Because of this, through many drafts of the book, I did not describe how my characters interact with their world to show their emotions other than in basic ways like their shoulders slumping or their smile turning down. It was only in the later edits, when my editor pointed this out, that I was able to momentarily let go of the screenwriter in me and really describe what a character was doing physically.

Other than that, I don’t find writing children’s books that different from writing screenplays. I still use a three-act screenwriting structure in all my novels, and find that the basics of plot and character are really the same in both forms of writing.

Was it challenging to find a publisher, or was it an easier process with the “We Need More Diverse Books” movement?
It was challenging. I had tried for over a decade to get an agent in the publishing world for Ahimsa and other books but I just kept getting rejection after rejection, despite my screenwriting credits. Growing up never seeing myself in a book, I never really thought a children’s book set in India could get published in America. Other than Ahimsa, for almost fifteen years, I only wrote stories featuring white families because I thought that was all that could sell.

As an adult, I saw a couple of children’s books set in India being published and it gave me hope. I’m so grateful to We Need Diverse Books and everyone involved in speaking out for the importance of diverse stories. I was lucky Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural publisher in America. And I’m lucky it’s been published in India by Scholastic. But there is still much work to be done to make sure every child gets to see their story reflected in a book.

How did the striking cover design come about? Unusually, both the American and Indian editions have used the same design. Did you have a say in it?
Yes! I love the gorgeous cover so much. It is by a UK-based artist named Kate Forrester. I love the way she uses intricate design and symbolism and hand-lettering in her book covers. I believe I mentioned that peacock feathers would be nice in the design because of their symbolism in the book and I just adore the way Kate worked them in. I also love Baba’s clenched fist, Ma holding the flag, the spinning wheel, and the plants and the reference to the garden and growth throughout the cover.

Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 308 Rs 295 

3 September 2018 

Jane Harris’s “Sugar Money”

‘All those slave, the friars bought with borrowed money.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Father Prudence, years agone. They took a loan from the French government and another from another merchant in London. Being the case, the French authority might say those Fort Royal slaves and their descendants belong to them. The London merchant might say the same. Of course, the friars would argue otherwise but some would say they lost the right to the slave because of the debt and their misdoings.’

‘They might have repaid those loans since.’

‘No,’ Emile replied. ‘I asked around St. Pierre the other night. They never repaid one sou, to this day. Everybody knows they are in debt from Salines to St. Domingue. That’s why they want those slave back, to grow more cane. Cane is sugar, sugar is money. That’s all we are to them. But loan or no loan, the English will care not one farthing. Now they rule the land of Grenada, they must surely lay claim to the slaves at the hospital. And if we take Celeste and the rest without permission, those Goddams will say we stole them.’ 

Jane Harris’s third novel Sugar Money has been shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018. It is set in 1765 when two brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, to return to Grenada and smuggle home forty-two slaves claimed by English invaders ( commonly referred to as “Goddams”) and working at the hospital. It is a tricky mission as there is the constant danger of the two brothers being caught. Since the two brothers are slaves themselves they have no option but to obey. Emile is under no illusions about how dangerous the mission is but is tempted to return to Grenada for he can meet his sweetheart Celeste. The action-packed novel spread over a few days is narrated by the younger brother Lucien who was taught English by a Scotsman working at the Grenada hospital.  The French friars want “their” slaves  back as they need help to till their cane sugar plantations in Martinique.

In the Afterword Jane Harris elaborates  upon the true incident which inspired her story.

In 1738, the French Colonial Government in Grenada built a hospital overlooking the main town of Fort Royal (now known as St George’s). By 1742, the hospital had been handed over to the care of a band of mendicant monks or friars: the Brothers of Charity of the Order of St John the God — les Freres de la Charite — who had been running a hospital in the neighbouring island of Martinique for almost a hundred years. the friars looked after the sick but, in order to fund their charitable works, they also ran plantations alongside their hospitals — plantations which relied on the labour of enslaved people. The poverty-stricken friars took out loans in order to purchase these slaves, some of whom they trained as nurses to work alongside them in the hospital. the rest of the slaves were set to toil on the plantations, growing indigo and sugar cane. …the British invaded Grenada in 1763 and took over the hospital. 

She continues that in August 1765, one of the mendicant friars, Father Cleophas, travelled from Martinique to Grenada in an attempt to persuade the slaves to return with him. Unfortunately he was discovered by the English and asked to leave. After which he persuaded a “mulatto” slave to go on a mission for him. It was disastrous as the English once again discovered the plan and prevented most of the slaves to escape. Of the 11 who did to Martinique had to return to Grenada and they saved themselves by blaming the mulatto slave. As a result he was the only one made an example of and hanged.

Sugar Money is an absorbing read with some truly horrific descriptions of how the slaves were treated by their masters. The brutal violence is relentless with the slaves living in constant fear. It is a story that is truly horrifying for what happened in the past but also with the knowledge that such situations continue to exist in many parts of the world even now*. It may not always be the colonial master and slave relationship but many people are being exploited in a similar fashion for purely business gains.

In an interview Jane Harris clearly states what set her off on this quest to write this historical fiction. Also being acutely aware of her white privilege; a fact which is good to know particularly in an age where conversations about cultural appropriation are constantly being resurrected.

Of course, I was – and am – very aware of my white privilege and did ask various friends, writers of colour, if they thought I was crazy to tackle such a subject. They told me that yes, I probably was crazy – but as long as I did it well enough, it wouldn’t matter. So, that was the challenge; I knew I’d have to write a good book.

She adds:

Research is crucial. It begins when I have the idea for a novel and carries on all the way through to the final draft, even to proof-stage. I’m one of those writers who likes to be as historically accurate as possible, so the research never ends. However, I’m also a great believer in ‘hiding’ the research. Your research notes shouldn’t be visible to the reader. If a fact isn’t relevant to the story then, really, it shouldn’t be in the book.

Even though The Observations is entirely a work of imagination, not based on true events, the period detail still has to be accurate. Gillespie and I is also a work of imagination, set in the art world of Scotland in the late 1880s, at the time of the International Exhibition, and so I had to undertake a good deal of research to get the detail of Glasgow and the art world right.

When it came to Sugar Money, research had a hand in steering the plot. These were real people, enslaved people, and I felt I owed it to them to stick closely to the facts. Having said that, there are great gaps in what is known about the true story behind the novel, with the result that I had a lot of inventing to do. With some of the people involved, all I had to go on was a list of slave names and it was from those names that I built their characters. For instance, I just knew that someone called Angelique Le Vieux had to be a force of nature. At other times, in terms of narrative, I had to piece together the plot by looking at the motivation of a character and analyzing what actually happened in real life e.g.: X happened and then Y happened – so why did the person involved make the decision to do Y? That’s often how the narrative grew. So, the facts often drove the fiction.

Sugar Money is a gripping book waiting to be turned into a period film. The descriptions are so vivid that it seems the action is happening in front of one’s eyes.

Jane Harris Sugar Money Faber & Faber, London, 2017, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 452 Rs 499 

*As I was writing this blog post news came in that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 from the Bible often used to defend slavery while defending his government’s policy of separating immigrant families.

15 June 2018 

 

Abir Mukherjee’s Capt. Sam Wyndham novels

Crime writer-cum-accountant Abir Mukherjee has written three novels — A Rising Man  (2016)A Necessary Evil (2017)Smoke and Ashes (2018) . These novels feature opium addict Capt. Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective and a World War I veteran. Sam Wyndham is posted to Calcutta where his sidekick is a Bengali educated in England, Surendranath or “Surrender-not” Bannerjee as many refer to him. The three novels are set during the turbulent period of British India when the Independence movement was gaining strength. It is a challenging scenario for both police officers since the Englishman is viewed with suspicion to whatever crime scene he visits and the Indian is also receives a hostile reception for he is considered to be a traitor working with the colonial rulers. It is a fine balance the two investigating officers have to negotiate on a daily basis but they manage supremely well. It is also a balance managed with aplomb by the author himself who is a British Asian and culturally identifies with both nations.

With every novel Abir Mukherjee’s confidence as a writer seems to grow. The stupendous opening lines of each novel are a testament to the fact. They hook the reader immediately.

At least he was well-dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best. ( A Rising Man)

It’s not often you see a man with a diamond in his beard. But when a prince runs out of space on his ears, fingers and clothes, I suppose the whiskers on his chin are as good as place as any. ( A Necessary Evil)

It’s not unusual to find a corpse in a funeral parlour. It’s just rare for them to walk in the door under their own steam. It was a riddle worth savouring, but I didn’t have the time, seeing as I was running for my life. ( Smoke and Ashes)

The characters are more alive and they come into their own with the subsequent novels — A Necessary Evil and Smoke and Ashes. Also Capt Wyndham and Surendranath Bannerjee understand each other better. Astonishingly they begin to share an apartment together which is wishful thinking on the part of the author as such a scenario would never have occurred in history — a British officer cohabiting with his Indian colleague. Nevertheless it makes for a nice little creative touch to the novels.

With A Rising Man there is always a very surprised and yet tentative tone to the writing style as if the author’s own astonishment at what he is achieved is apparent on every page. This is only discernible after having read all the other novels in quick succession. In fact the writing becomes pithier in every novel almost as if the skill of precision learned as an accountant has  enabled Abir Mukherjee to write fine crime novels. This is a genre of writing whose prerequisite is to have a keen eye for details, precise dialogue, and exacting descriptions without flabby sentences. In the case of historical fiction such as these novels fact checking also becomes critical.

Abir’s parents emigrated from Calcutta to Britain in the late 1960s. Abir was raised in Scotland and so it is no surprise when at the Edinburgh Festival he was introduced as a Scottish crime writer ( “Crime Writing: Val McDermid, Abir Mukherjee and Lucy Ribchester” in conversation with Mariella Frostrup. BBC Radio 4,  Open Book, 1 Sept 2016). Approaching his fortieth birthday he was going through a mid-life crisis hoping there was more to life than accounting. It was then he chanced upon a TV breakfast show with acclaimed crime writer Lee Child. Abir Mukherjee immediately bought the first Jack Reacher book Killing Floor and was hooked. He says “I was amazed at how simply written and well plotted it was. I’d recently had an idea for a story centered on a British detective who travels to India after the First World War, and reading Killing Floor gave me the motivation to put pen to paper..” He had written about 10,000 words whenever he could spare the time from his day job when he chanced upon the newly announced Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition. This was 2013. He chose to send in the first 5,000 words of his incomplete manuscript and waited to hear. Three months later he did. He discovered that of over 400 applicants he had won the £5,000 competition and a publishing contract. He was very surprised as he writes in this Dead Good article ( April 2016) at having won . His debut, A Rising Man, won the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger 2017 and was picked as one of Waterstones best books of 2017. Abir Mukherjee is now a part-time accountant as of January 2018 as he would like to devote more time to writing crime novels. (  Smokes and Ashes BBC Radio 4 interview with Samira Ahmed , June 2018) For the Harvill Secker crime writing competition 2018 he has been appointed as a mentor.

And yes, Capt. Sam Wyndham is a worthy creation, true to the spirit of Jack Reacher. Both the characters blossom with every passing novel; it is as if their creators become more comfortable living with the characters on a daily basis. (Listen to “In the Studio” by BBC World Service. In this episode Lee Child speaks of creating Jack Reacher.)  The storytelling of Abir Mukherjee and Lee Child too becomes richer and tauter with every novel of the series. It will be curious to see how the Capt. Wyndham novels evolve. Will the Englishman stay on in Calcutta as the Independence movement intensifies? Or will the author choose to keep his detective like a fly caught in amber and spin out a number of stories set at a particular moment of history? For now it is impossible to say since the first three novels of this series are set in successive years — A Rising Man ( 1919), A Necessary Evil (1920),  Smoke and Ashes ( 1921). Only time will tell. Perhaps with time too it may become clear if these books are optioned for film/television adaptations just as Arjun Raj Gaind‘s historical crime fiction novels set during British India have been optioned.

For now read these crackling historical fiction crime novels set during British India and you will not be disappointed!

Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man Harvill Secker, London, 2016, rpt 2017. Pb. pp. 390. Rs. 399

                                  A Necessary Evil Harvill Secker, London, 2017, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 

                                  Smoke and Ashes Harvill Secker, London, 2018.  Pb. pp. Rs 599 

14 June 2018 

 

An interview with Arjun Raj Gaind, author of “The Maharaja Mysteries”

An interview with Arjun Raj Gaind, author of “The Maharaja Mysteries” — A Very Pukka Murder and Death At The Durbar. Two delightful books, set during the British Raj, charmingly written much in the vein of an Agatha Christie story, and partly inspired by the author’s grandfather. Incredible amounts of research done to get the period details accurate and it is evident. Recently these stories were sold to a television network for adaptation to the small screen. 

Read on for the interview. 

 

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Arjun Raj Gaind is the author of the critically acclaimed historical mystery series, The Maharaja Mysteries, which are set against the picturesque backdrop of princely India during the heyday of the British Raj. Two installments have been released so far, A Very Pukka Murder (2016) and Death at the Durbar (2018). The third book in the series, The Missing Memsahib, is due for release early in 2019 by Harper Collins India and Poisoned Pen Press USA. He is also the creator and author of several comic books and graphic novels, including Empire of Blood, Project: Kalki, Reincarnation Man, The Mighty Yeti, Blade of the Warrior, and A Brief History of Death.

Here are excerpts of an interview conducted via email:

Why did you decide to write mystery stories after having been a graphic novelist?
I believe stories are universal, and that if a writer is a natural storyteller, they will refuse to allow themselves to be limited by genre or format. Ultimately, it is all about telling stories in an original and effective manner so that your readers keep wanting to turn to the next page. Everything else, it is just filler.

I have always been a keen aficionado of Golden Age detective fiction, and find the manners and mystique of classical mystery very enticing. It is really quite sad that in India, we don’t really have a culture and tradition of mystery fiction. I wanted to change that, to try and create an original Indian detective, someone with the savoir-faire of James Bond but also the deductive temperament of Hercule Poirot.

Maharaja Sikander Singh actually came to me as an epiphany while I was reading William Dalrymple’s White Mughals and I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had an Indian King who had fantastic adventures during the British Raj?” After that, I had no choice. I owed it to Sikander to bring him to life because as any writer will tell you, some characters are just too good to neglect.

Interestingly, he isn’t entirely fictional, but rather a composite of several real historical figures, based in part on Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala and partially on Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, both gentlemen of monumental appetites who lived very picturesque lives. My favourite character in the series however, is the Maharaja’s manservant and sidekick, Charan Singh. He is named for and modelled after my grandfather, who I believe epitomized everything admirable about being Sikh, from unswerving loyalty to a fierce sense of duty and honour that cannot be bought or sold, no matter what the price.

Why select the British Raj as the setting for your mysteries?
I am rather an inveterate brown sahib, and have always been very fascinated by the Raj, ever since my time at the Lawrence School, Sanawar. I think that in many ways, many facets of contemporary India, whether social, economic or political, have been defined by the clash of cultures that took place between East and West during the Colonial Era. Being Punjabi and an English speaker, it is impossible to deny what a pervasive and lasting impact Imperialism has had on our lives.

At the same time, I wanted to create an original character who could hold up a mirror to the innate racism of British India. Most Indians represented in colonial fiction are shown as subservients, as outsiders, but Maharaja Sikander Singh is very different. His wealth and rank allow him access to the highest echelons of British India, and is in many ways, he is the perfect foil to illustrate the hypocrisy of English India, better educated than most of the sahibs he encounters and far more worldly, but still doomed to be a second class citizen, restricted by his race and skin colour. That is what excited me, the notion of subverting the Raj, and revisiting it, only this time from the point of view of an educated, upper class Indian, rather than a servant or a serf.

Who are the crime writers you admire?
More than writers per se, I have a bunch of favourite books and series. Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie. Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. The Saint books by Leslie Charteris. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Simenon’s Maigret series. Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados books. The Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers. Inspectors Morse, Lynley and Alleyn. Nero Wolfe. The Thin Man by Dashiel Hammett. The Big Sleep by Philip Marlowe. Wallander. My name is Red. The Rose of Tibet. The Shadow of the Wind. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda books. The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olson. The Harry Hole books by Jo Nesbo. The list is quite endless.

Amongst historical mystery novelists, I am a fan of the Falco series by Lindsay Davis, Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa cycle, C.J Sansom’s Shardlake books, Caleb Carr’s Alienist series, Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands series, and Jason Goodwin’s Yashim the Eunuch book, to name
just a few.

Do you find there is a difference in the storytelling of a graphic novel and a mystery story? To a reader it is usually only the format that differs.
Actually, I believe the basic craft involved in writing mystery fiction and creating a sequential narrative is quite similar. The elements are exactly the same – Plot, Setting, Character, Conflict and Point of View. The main challenge with writing comics is that it is a static medium, where you are limited not only by the number of words you can use on a page, but also by the fact that you cannot really show movement. Instead, you have to suggest the illusion of movement by using a montage of fixed images that manipulate the reader, trick their imagination into seeing more than what is being said.

Interestingly, that is a great lesson to use in a mystery too, where you create and sustain a sense of suspense by deliberately placing hints and clues to keep the reader inveigled. Take Noir as an example. In a graphic novel, you create a sense of unease by using shadows and angles. In a mystery novel, you use mood and description. And of course, good dialogue is good dialogue, regardless of format.

How much research — period details, historical accuracy, language — was required for each story?
I confess, I went a little crazy doing the research. That is the part of writing historical fiction I enjoy the most, the excavation and accumulation of obscure details. It is rather like voyeurism, except you are spying on the lives of long dead people. In fact, that is what excites me about history, not the broad sweep of events, but rather the minutiae which textbooks do not reveal.

I am a firm believer in using primary sources, and while researching A Very Pukka Murder, I ended up reading more than 300 books about British India. I became obsessed with getting every detail right, from which cobbler my Maharaja would have used to have his shoes custom-made, to what brand of perfume he would have chosen to import from France. Funnily enough, along the way, i have ended up becoming somewhat of an expert about several abstruse subjects, from the variations in pugree and cummerbund styles across India to early luxury cars owned by Indian Maharajas. I also took great pains to try and get the cadences of how an educated Indian in fin de siecle India would have spoken, and also the phraseologies and parlances he would have used. By and large, I think was quite successful, although my first draft, which was about six hundred pages long, gave both my
agent and my editor indigestion, I am certain.

Why are you focused on a trilogy? A character like this evolves does he not?
Frankly, I would be delighted to release a Sikander book each year for the rest of my life. I have about eleven books plotted out so far, including one set against the backdrop of the First World War, and a
grand finale set in 1947 when the English depart and India attains independence. About the trilogy, I have been fortunate that Harper Collins India and Poisoned Pen Press have shown enough faith in my work to acquire three books. Hopefully, sales permitting, they will want to publish many more, and Maharaja Sikander Singh will be here to stay for a good many years.

The stories seem to creep forward in time, at least in the time difference between A Very Pukka Murder and Death at the Durbar. If you ever had to expand these into a series would you not find the timeline challenging?
I believe I am up to the task. Besides, I like the thought of the character growing older as his readers age. It worked for Harry Potter, didn’t it?

The stories are going to be adapted for television. Will you be doing the screenplay as well?
Not for all the money in the world. I am old and seasoned enough to recognize my limitations, and I think that the adaptation, whether for film or television, would best be served by a professional
script-writer. I do however, intend to look over his or her shoulder and backseat write every single sentence, at least until the producers decide to be rid of me.

12 May 2018

Katherine Rundell “The Explorer”

Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer is about four children who crashed in the Amazon jungle. They do their best to figure out the jungle and how to survive till they come across a cranky explorer. He is as surprised as they are about each other’s existence in the jungle. Nevertheless he takes charge and rather gruffly guides them on what to eat and what not to eat in the jungle. It is he who ultimately helps the children leave the jungle and return home for which they are eternally grateful.

The Explorer as with the novels Katherine Rundell writes is inspired by a historical fact. It becomes the basis of her fiction for young adults. For this particular novel it was the British geographer and explorer Peter Fawcett who was an artillery officer “with an astonishingly tough constitution and enough moustache for three men.”

He spent much of his life in search of what he called the City of Z, a city he imagined as richly sophisticated and peppered with gold. 

In 1925, shortly after crossing the Upper Xingu, a south-eastern tributary river of the Amazon, he and his two companions disappeared. He was never heard from again. 

Katherine Rundell has an eye for incredible detail in the storytelling making the action and landscape come alive on every page while at the same time the scrumptious illustrations are a bonus. In The Explorer it is the tiny details of jungle life, the behaviour of sloths, what kind of beans are appropriate to eat or not, descriptions of the river bank and the foliage — all ring true and understandably so, given the amount of research Katherine Rundell puts in for every book.

There was so much to look at; so much that was strange; so much that was new and vast and so very palpably alive.

The trees dipped down their branches, laden with leaves broad enough to sew into trousers. He passed a tree with a vast termite nest, as big as a bathtub, growing around it. He gave it a wide berth. 

The greenness, which had seemed such a forbidding wall of colour, was not, up close, green at all, Fred thought. It was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships. 

Fred breathed in the smell. He’d been wrong to think it was thick, he thought; it was detailed. It was a tapestry of air. 

The story itself about the children coming together on this adventure is so beautifully done wherein the individual personalities remain distinct but ever so slightly as the story progresses they also bond as a team. It is a triumph in storytelling for young adults — they who are at the cusp of adulthood but not too far from childhood and love imaginative storytelling. Hence it is absolutely wonderful that The Explorer won the Costa Book Awards 2017.

Katherine Rundell The Explorer ( Illustrated by Hannah Horn) Bloomsbury, London, 2017. Pb. pp.

2 May 2018 

Marius Gabriel’s “The Designer”

Marius Grabriel’s The Designer is a novel about the fashion designer, Christian Dior, in Paris in 1944. At this time Dior was still with the fashion house of Lucien Lelong, designing dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators. His sister Catherine was a member of the French Resistance, captured by the Gestapo, and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was released in May 1945. The Designer is narrated by a twenty-six-year-old American journalist, Oona or “Copper” as she is universally known. She is stepping out of a short lived, messy marriage to an American and decides to set base in Paris as a fashion journalist. It helps that she is part of the inner circle of Dior.  It is about Paris, the war and the nascent fashion industry that blossomed into the multi-million dollar empire after the war.

The Designer is a pacy read for the first half of the book.  This was probably written to coincide with the 70th year celebrations of the Dior company. It is interesting how Marius Gabriel selects elements of historical truth for his literary backdrop, otherwise the story could be like that of any other commercial fiction novel. Once Marius Gabriel has made the literary setting with Christian Dior and his circle of friends including Suzy Solidor, usually to be found at the then fashionable La Vie Parisienne, he abandons all pretence of writing historical fiction. Instead the plot zips along purely on the basis of conversations which after a while become tiresome. Also his character, Copper, admirable as she may be comes across as too modern a woman fitting better in the twenty-first century than during the 1940s! Quite unlike Georgette Heyer who wrote with finesse a brand of historical fiction that today would be recognised as commercial fiction, Marius Gabriel’s story begins to jar. Having said that he does introduce concepts like Le Petit Théâtre Dior which ostensibly was conceptualised to create 2′ high dolls to showcase Dior’s creations, to avoid splurging on silk which was hard to come by in the war years. Obviously it is a trademark style that has survived within the firm judging by the gorgeous clips illustrating how perfectly these miniature mannequins are made. Be that as it may Marius Gabriel is considered to be a highly successful author who has also written romance novels under the nom de plume Madeleine Ker.

The Designer is a part of Westland ( an Amazon company) attempts to introduce in India original fiction published by Amazon abroad at reasonable prices.

Marius Gabriel The Designer Lake Union Publishing, Seattle. Pb. pp. 330 Rs. 399 

Theme of Independence in children’s literature in India

(The following article was commissioned in 2015 by Sarah Odedina for the Read Quarterly. With her permission I am posting it here.  On 15 August 2017  India celebrates it’s seventieth anniversary of independence from the British. )

15 August 1947 India won its independence from the British. It had been a long freedom struggle. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “Father of the Nation”, is recognised as one of its leaders especially with his non-violent method of protest. His birthday, 2 October, is a national holiday. When the British decided to leave the subcontinent they did so after partitioning it into two nations—India and Pakistan.

The uprising of 1857[1] was influential in instilling in the Indians “a rudimentary sense of national unity” that when a genuine Indian freedom movement began within a few decades later it inspired the leaders with the hope that their British masters could be defeated. Significant highlights were the Partition of Bengal, new words such as Swaraj ( “self-rule”), Swadeshi (self-reliance) and Boycott ( of all foreign goods and products), Satyagraha, Jallianwala Bagh ( massacre of peaceful protestors by General Dyer in Amritsar), Chauri Chaura ( burning of a police station, killing 22 policemen on duty), rise of communalism with “parties based on religion like the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh …these parties only cared for their own communities, it was to their advantage if they could divide the country around religion.”[2]The Dandi March or the salt satyagraha, the Civil Disobedience Movement, Quit India Movement, and Independence.

It is now nearly 70 years since Independence, three generations removed from the momentous events. The freedom struggle still exists in living memory as it is not too far back in time. Yet for children, history is a mish-mash in their minds — the Harappan civilisation, the Mughals, Mauryan Empire and British India/freedom struggle are a blur. This is where literature plays a crucial role in offering perspectives.

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Globally children’s literature is understood to include fiction and non-fiction, a category distinct from literature used as textbooks and supplementary readers in schools. In India these fine lines are blurred. For the toddlers and primary school students there is variety of material available – fiction, folktales, mythology, non-fiction. As the pressure of school curriculum increases on students the focus shifts from reading for pleasure to textbooks. Till recently this attitude was deeply ingrained in society. Now the slow shift to reading for pleasure is perceptible. It is a coalescing of multiple factors –an increase in income of parents allowing disposable income available for purchase of books, a rise in publishing and retailing for children, establishment of specialist bookshops, increase in direct marketing efforts by publishers like book fairs and book clubs in schools and growth in popularity of children’s literature festivals like Bookaroo[3] has made the category of children and young adult book publishing the fastest growing and lucrative category in India. (It also helps when the target audience/market of less than 25 year olds constitutes 40% of the 1.3 billion Indians.)

Children’s literature with the theme of independence is found in school material and trade lists. In the 40s (actually from 30s onward if not earlier) the best children’s literature came out in Bal Sakha – a Hindi Magazine brought out by Bengalis settled in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Some of the best writers, including Premchand, were first published here. This magazine dealt with the issue of independence, presenting it to children in what still seems a fairly contemporary way[4]. In 1957 two publishing houses were established – National Book Trust ( NBT) [5]and Children’s Book Trust ( CBT)[6]. According to Navin Menon, editor, CBT, every year in August Children’s World “publish[es] content related to Independence either written by children or stories/ articles contributed by adults.” Amar Chitra Katha (ACK)[7], specialise in comics, usually the first introduction to children on folktales, Indian mythology and stories about the freedom struggle published its first title on freedom struggle, Rani of Jhansi[8] on 1 Feb 1974, around the 25th anniversary of Independence. Historical accounts by writer and niece of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Story of India’s Freedom Movement (1970) continues to be in print[9]. As she told me in an email, “The freedom movement is part of our modern history. Obviously it is important for young people to know their country’s history.”


Writing for children about the independence movement began to pick up pace in the early 1980s when CBT published writers like Nilima Sinha’s Adventure before Midnight[10]. In 1984 after the assassination of the prime minister, Delhi saw terrible communal clashes. It led to writers like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Amitav Ghosh drawing parallels between their experiences with that of Partition. In the 1990s preparations for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Indian independence began. To commemorate it there were a deluge of books. For instance, Shashi Deshpande’s novel The Narayanpur Incident and Macmillan published The First Patriots (series editor, Mini Krishnan) consisting of short illustrated biographies[11]. Biographies, bordering on hagiographies, are the most popular genre for introducing children to this period in history. These books sell extremely well since it supplements school textbooks. Scholastic India with its Great Lives[12], Puffin India with Puffin Lives and Hachette India with What they did, What they Said? series have profiled freedom fighters registering steady sales too. Gandhi is a popular subject of biographies. From picture books ( A Man Called Bapu and We call her Ba on his wife, Kasturba), standard biographical accounts, profusely illustrated with photographs like DK India’s Eyewitness Gandhi and graphic novels like Gandhi: My Life is my message ( Gandhi – Mera Jeevan Hi Mera Sandesh). [13] An unusual book is Everyone’s Gandhi by Subir Shukla[14] which looked at Gandhi from children’s point of view. It asked provocative questions. It was syndicated in some 75 newspapers (English and regional languages) and the author used to get 500 postcards every week from children across the country, proving that it is possible to approach independence in a manner that generates serious response. Paro Anand, writer and founder, Literature in Action[15] says “I loved this book because it brought me closer to Gandhi. It took the capital letter out of it because made me see him like a human being who I could be not a saint or god who I could never aspire to be. I have used the book often with kids urging them to be a Gandhi for 5 minutes every day, in a single act of kindness or a single act of care. To me empathy is a very important component of kid lit.”

Now there are a variety of books available in terms of writing styles and formats. For instance late Justice Leila Seth’s fabulous book on the Preamble of the Indian Constitution – We, The Children of India[16]; graded readers with pictures like Bharati Jagannathan’s movingly told One Day in August[17], Nina Sabnani’s heart-warming animation film (later book) based on a true story Mukund and Riaz [18]and Samina Mishra’s Hina in the Old City[19] — all focused on Partition and Ruby Hembrom’s award-winning picture book Disaibon Hul on the Santhal Rebellion of 1855[20]. Young adult fiction inevitably has the story of one person caught up in the dynamics of the movement. So the author tries to take a micro level view and build upon that. For instance, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Neela: A Victory Song[21], Jamila Gavin’s Surya trilogy — The Wheel of Surya (1992), The Eye of the Horse (1994) and The Track of the Wind (1997)[22], Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie[23],[24] Siddharth Sharma’s award-winning debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run[25] which focuses on the Kohima war and Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs. Naidu[26] about a young girl who corresponds with Sarojini Naidu through her diary. Forthcoming is the retelling in English of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( Urdu) by his niece Syeeda Hameed[27]. Award winning historian-turned-writer, Subhadra Sen Gupta has written a clutch of biographies, historical fiction, picture books and nonfiction titles with the freedom struggle as the literary backdrop[28]. Roshen Dalal has published India at 70 ( 2017) chronicling the seven decades since Independence.

Some other examples of literature are listed by writer Deepa Agarwal, “Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s popular poem Jhansi ki Rani and Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s Pushp ki Abhilasha. Outstanding historical novels on patriotic themes were written by Manhar Chauhan, like Lucknow ki Loot (The looting of Lucknow) and Bihar ke Bahadur (Brave men of Bihar) both published by National Publishing Company in 1978. His series of sixteen novels about British rule Angrez Aaye aur Gaye (The British came and went) is a monumental work with each book standing alone and yet connected with the others. In Urdu Allama Iqbal’s collection Hindustani Bacchon ke Qaumi Geet and Zakir Hussain’s Abbu Khan ki Bakri are on the theme of freedom. Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast’s patriotic poems,  Hamara Watan dil se Pyara, Watan Ko Hum Watan Humo Mubarak, from the collection Subhe Watan were meant for children. In Marathi V.H. Hadap wrote patriotic stories ranging from historical to modern times; his Sattavanachi Satyakatha is about the heroes of the 1857 revolution like Mangal Pande, Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai. In fact the centenary … was celebrated in 1957 with many books for children about the people who participated. Vasant Varkhedkar’s Sattavancha Senani is a novel on the life of Tatya Tope.” In Telugu Komuram Bheem: A children’s Novel on a Tribal Hero by Bhupal is about the tribal rebel from Telengana, published by Vennela Prachuranalu (Telugu)[29]. CBT also has a book on Gunda Dhar/ Bhumkal revolt of the Bastar tribal area.

Apart from written literature in India oral histories play a very important role too. Target, a popular children’s magazine, started a comic strip in the mid-eighties called “Freedom’s Children”, where a freedom fighter was profiled based upon extensive interviews. Prominent writers and illustrators collaborated for this project. At the end of each strip a photograph of the actual person was published. Now some schools organise interactions between grandparents with students to recount their memories of independence movement. Many times it is discovered that the children are unaware of the trauma the older generation experienced as if the elders want to protect the younger generation from the horrors they witnessed.

Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, Publisher, Children & Reference Books, Hachette India says, “General response to these books is quite good. Our children take their cues from USA/ UK, so they do not look at India too much. … I do not think there is enough experimentation in children’s writing to create fiction in this area, so far.” Tina Narang, publisher, Scholastic India adds “Since this is a period in our recent history for which a wealth of detail is available, relevant research material is easy to come by for authors[30] who have written Independence-themed stories. But that I think is the biggest stumbling block. Most such stories tend to become stereotypical in their portrayal of that period and of independence as a valiant struggle by a group of noble and brave souls. There is little or no independent analysis of this struggle or attempt to question the motives, methods or outcomes (partition included).” Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, (then) Editorial Director, Red Turtle echoes this, “We do need to do more books that present a more diverse view of  the independence movement and that talks about the role of women or tribals or gives other kinds of alternate views.” Radhika Menon, founder, Tulika Books agrees, “Now we would like to do something that includes the contemporary discourses on the freedom struggle. Something that reflects a more inclusive idea of the freedom struggle with all its complexities so that the reader is urged to think and question rather than be left with certainties about history in her/his mind which tend to be rigid. The challenge is of course to make such a book reader friendly for the pre-teen age group.” Ruby Hembrom, publisher, Adivaani is clear when she says, “If we were to do a book on this period, I wouldn’t feature the Indian Nationalists who have been done to death in textbooks first and have hijacked the ‘independence’ space. I would do Jaipal Singh Munda and his eclipsed role in the constituent Assembly for example.”

Writing about Indian independence and the freedom movement for children is a tricky area since it raises more questions than helps map it. There is an apparent shift in the styles of writing over the generations of writers. From the writer like their subject (usually evident in biographies) have a sense of pride at being an independent and self-reliant nation to contemporary writers whose fiction is based research for using history to comment upon the present politics and social status of marginalised groups. Disaibon Hul is ostensibly about the revolt as mentioned in the book, the introduction refers to “outsiders”, and the story is about the fight against the British. It concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Siddhartha Sharma says he wrote The Grasshopper Run because “I wanted to explain how the Assamese and Nagas got along earlier, unlike today. To contemporary Indians, I wanted to show what the people of the region are like, and how history turned out for us.” [31] Mathangi began writing Dear Mrs Naidu when working in government schools and angadwadis and discovered Sarojini Naidu whose letters she was reading. Mathani realised that Naidu was so human compared to the “demigods of independence” students learned about. She adds, “I think there is a lot of literature on the theme of independence that focuses on a couple of the male freedom fighters, and I’d like to see this change. History is such a powerful force: it shapes the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about the possibilities for our futures. I want to see more histories of women freedom fighters, and freedom fighters who were not elite. I want to see more literature that helps children understands that heroes are just people with a lot of guts and passion, and that everyone has the capacity for greatness.”[32]

I asked eminent historian Romila Thapar, “What are the events/perspectives and aspects of the freedom struggle that you would recommend are also included in the narratives of the freedom movement?” She replied via email, “You have posed a difficult question. My reaction would be that we need to acquaint children with situations that went into the making of what one may call a ‘wholesome’ society. Not the stories that encourage divisiveness and violence but stories that underline in subtle ways the values of a plural society that we once were. This is disappearing fast and it will be an uphill task to retrieve this as we shall have to do in future years. The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times. Often they can be more easily seen in activities related to regional and local history. It may be worth doing a little investigation into how people in rural areas and small towns remember the recent past.”

This observation gains significant urgency when a Muslim man is lynched by a mob on the outskirts of Delhi for his food habits[33]. Noted Hindi journalist Ravish Kumar’s who met a young man, Prashant, at the site says he showed no remorse at the death of Akhlaq, “Instead, he asked us that after the partition, when it had been decided that Hindus will stay here and Muslims will go to Pakistan, why did Gandhi and Nehru ask Muslims stay back in India?… These are the typical beliefs that keep the pot of communalism boiling.” Ravish says he lost the heated argument and could only wonder dismayed, “Who are those people who have left young men like Prashant to be misled by the purveyors of false histories?” Ironically this happened on 2 October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a man recognised worldwide for his belief in nonviolence.

[1] In A Children’s History of India Subhadra Sen Gupta refers to the events of 1857 and the widespread anger that ensued being an eye-opener for the British “who believed that they were ruling over a peaceful society reconciled to British rule”.

[2] – ibid-

[3] Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival 

[4] Email correspondence with Subir Shukla, Principal Coordinator, IGNUS-erg and formerly associated with NBT. He wrote a few books at this time too.

[5] National Book Trust (NBT), India is a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. It was established in 1957 and publishes in English, Hindi and some other Indian languages. It also organizes the annual World Book Fair, New Delhi to which publishers gravitate from around the world and country.  NBT and CBT between them have published many books, many continue to be in demand such as The Story of Swarajya by Vishnu Prabhakar (Hindi), Jawaharlal Nehru by Tara Ali Baig, Stories From Bapu’s Life by Uma Shankar Joshi (Gujarati), Jallianwala Bagh by Bhisham Sahni (Hindi), Bapu by FC Fretus and How India Won Freedom by Krishna Chaitanya. Email from Rubin DCruz, Editor, NBT. He has also put together an invaluable annotated catalogue of select children’s books in India, Children’s Books 2014, published by National Centre for Children’s Literature, NBT.

[6] Children’s Book Trust ( CBT) established by cartoonist Shankar in 1957. Its objective is the promotion and production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. CBT publications include an illustrated monthly magazine in English, Children’s World. Shankar also set up the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC). Shankar started the Shankar’s International Children’s Competition in 1949, and as a part of it, the Shankar’s On-the-Spot Painting Competition for Children in 1952. He instituted an annual Competition for Writers of Children’s Books in 1978. Some of the CBT titles are Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal  & Col. P.K. Sahgal, Adventure before Midnight  by Nilima Sinha, The Return Home by Sarojini Sinha, The  Treasure Box by Sarojini Sinha, Kamla’s Story: The Saga Of Our Freedom by Surekha Panandiker, Ira Saxena, & Nilima Sinha,  A Pinch Of Salt Rocks an Empire by Sarojini Sinha and Operation Polo by A. K. Srikumar and the 12 volumes on freedom fighters Our Leaders or Mahan Vyaktitwa ( English and Hindi). Some of the original titles in Hindi are Aprajita, Hamare Yuva Balidani and Barah Baras ka Vijeta. Email sent by Navin Menon

[7] Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) founded by Anant Pai or Uncle Pai specializes in publishing comics. These comics are usually the first introduction to children about stories of the freedom struggle stories. The ACK titles are Rani of Jhansi (date of publication, 1 Feb 1974), Subhash Chandra Bose (1 March 1975), Chandrashekhar Azad (15 August 1977), the Rani of Kittur ( 1 July 1978), Bhagat Singh ( 15 March 1981), Rash Behari Bose ( 15 May 1982), Veer Savarkar ( 15 May 1984), Mangal Pande ( 1 June 1985), Jallianwala Bagh ( 1 June 1986), Beni Madho and Pir Ali (1st Sept.1983), Velu Thampi (1st May 1980), Senapati Bapat ( 1 February 1984), Surjya Sen (October 2010), Vivekananda (15th October 1977), Rabindranath Tagore (20th may 1977), Babasaheb Ambedkar (15th April 1979), Lokmanya Tilak (1st August 1980), Lal Bahadur Shastri (1st October 1982), Mahatma Gandhi – The Early days (1st June 1989), Jayaprakash Narayan (15th January 1980), Jawaharlal Nehru (November 1991), Subramania Bharati (1st December 1982), Deshbandhu Chitaranjan Das         (1st November 1985), The Story of the Freedom Struggle (August 1997)

[8] Rani Lakshmibai was one of the leaders of the uprising of 1857. She also became a symbol of the resistance to British Rule.

[9] Nayantara Sahgal The Story of India’s Freedom Red Turtle, an imprint of Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013. First published 1970.

[10] Midnight refers to the coming of Freedom and this book describes the events that preceded it. It is about a group of teenagers who participated in the Quit India movement and tried to hoist the tricolour in Patna. It was selected for the International White Raven List for libraries.

[11] Tipu Sultan, The Rani of Jhansi, Kattabomman (the rebel of Pudukottai), Pazhassi Raja (Kerala) and Bhagat Singh. The idea for these series was to write about various legendary heroes and heroines who played a pioneering part in the un-enslaving of the country. According to biographer Shreekumar Varma, “Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma was one of the earliest such freedom fighters. He fought the marauding armies of both the British and Tipu Sultan. His story is full of adventure and thrill, intrigue and treachery, a case-book of bravery. The book is profusely illustrated. It was heavily researched. The surviving members of the Raja’s family were interviewed at Pazhassi and information was gathered from many books and historical records. The text in the book is but a fraction of the material actually obtained.”

[12] Aditi De’s Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and illustrated by Pooja Pootenkulam in the Great Lives series published by Scholastic India has been released this month.

[13] Gandhi: My life is my message by Jason Quinn, illustrated by Sachin Nagar. It is available in English and Hindi. The translator is Ashok Chakradhar. It is part of Campfire Graphic Novels’s  Heroes Series that introduces readers to historical figures who led lives worth knowing, and whose stories are true life adventures.

[14] It is available freely for circulation since “Mahatma Gandhi cannot be any one person’s property, there is no ‎copyright of this publication.” First edition 1997.

[15] Literature in Action is a programme started by Paro Anand that seeks to bring young people and books together.

[16] It was co-authored by her writer-son, Vikram Seth and illustrated by the late Bindia Thapar, published by Puffin India ( English) and Pratham Books ( Hindi).

[17] Published by Pratham Books

[18]  In an email Nina Sabnani wrote, “Mukand and Riaz was initially an animated film that later became a book. It is a true story about my father Mukand and his friend Riaz. There were several things that brought this project together. My father told me the story of his life very late, close to his death. I wanted to share this with my siblings so I just wrote it up like a story and shared it with them and some friends. My friends persuaded me to think about it as a film. I was quite disturbed by the frequent riots in Ahmedabad that happened and me as a designer did not respond in any way. I thought it maybe  my way of protesting. But protests always forget children. So I wanted to reach children. Fortunately I also received some funds at NID as students were working towards making films on the rights of children for a UNESCO Israel project, Big Small People. Since my father had repeatedly said how much he missed his best friend and how the partition separated them, I thought I would create a film that focused on the rights to home and friendship. I also had a fond hope that if the film was made and Riaz happened to see it he would contact my dad. Of course that did not happen but my father was able to see the film one week before he passed away. I used cloth because he worked in the Textile Mills and was passionate about fabric and prints.” Mukund and Riaz  is published by Tulika Books.

[19] The reader shares moments with 10-year old Hina who lives in Purani Dilli, the walled city of Delhi. She comes from a family of zardozi embroiderers. This exquisite craft is, however, slowly dying as craftspeople find fewer takers for their work or are forced to compromise on care and quality to meet the prosaic demands of the times. Along the way, we get glimpses of life in Old Delhi – its lanes, its ancient mohallas which have seen the pain of Partition. Hina loves where she lives, and warm colour photographs take us right into her world. Guides for projects / discussions and a reading list are provided at the end as further avenues for exploring.

[20] To me it is an example of using history to comment on the present. It is ostensibly about the revolt (and the story calls it a revolt too whereas an uprising would be more accurate given it is written from the perspective of the adivasi), the introduction refers to the “outsiders”, the story is about the fight against the British and then it concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Ruby is the founder-publisher of Adivaani, a publishing house that focuses on  producing literature for an by the adivasis.

[21] Neela: A Victory Song is published by Puffin Books India.

[22] Jamila Gavin’s Surya Trilogy is published by Egmont.

[23] Beautiful Lie was published by Bloomsbury

[24] A book review article I wrote on Partition and Children’s Literature and I interviewed Jamila Gavin and Irfan Master.

[25] The Grasshopper’s Run was first published by Scholastic India and worldwide by Bloomsbury.

[26] Dear Mrs Naidu ( 2015) is a Young Zubaan publication.

[27] Forthcoming by Pratham Books is Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( The Five Forms of Bharat Mata) which are character sketches of five ordinary women whom he considered as the true faces of the Bharat Mata trope. These are originally in Urdu but have been done for us by his niece Syeda Hameed. According to Manisha Chowdhury, Editorial Head, Pratham Books “we see this as a good way to introduce the idea of subaltern narratives to children and expand the idea of history.”

[28] For instance, Saffron, White and Green: the amazing story of India’s independenceA Flag, A Song and a Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of IndiaPuffin Lives: Mahatma GandhiLet’s Go Time Travelling; fictional biographies of Jahanara and Jodh Bai; a short story collection called History, Mystery, Dal Biryani and a novel called Give us Freedom and most recently the bestseller, A Children’s History of India, published by Red Turtle. Email from Subhadra Sen Gupta.

[29] There is also a book on Alluri Seetharama Raju in Telugu.  He led the ill-fated “Rampa Rebellion” of 1922–24, during which a band of tribal leaders and other sympathizers fought against the British Raj. He was referred to as “Manyam Veerudu” (“Hero of the Jungles”) by the local people

[30] It explains why authors like Deepak Dalal and Nandini Nayar have been able to write historical fiction set in 1857. Research is easy to come by. Deepak Dalal’s historical fiction set in the time of 1857 Sahyadri Adventure series – Anirudh Dreams and Koleshwars Secret. He says, “I have received good feedback about the books. Demand is ok, but nothing to thump my back about. We are into the 3rd edition now. Schools love the books and many have used them as readers. But then most of my books are picked up as readers.” Nandini Nayar’s When children make history: Stories of 1857 is a novel about two Indian children who befriend an English boy who considers India his real home. The three of them chance upon a bunch of soldiers making rotis and help them. So, basically, the novel ends with the beginning of the Uprising. In an email to me she wrote, “I wrote the book [since] I was reading a lot about 1857 and the British Raj and began thinking about how it would be if some Indian children were to befriend an English boy. “ The book was first published as an ebook, then print and has recently been translated into Malayalam by Mango Books, the children’s imprint of DC Books.

[31] In an email to me.

[32] In an email to me.

[33] According to rumours that spread like wildfire, fifty-year-old Akhlaq had stored beef (cow’s meat) in his fridge. The cow is sacred to Hindus. A mob gathered and lynched him and injuring many members of the family. On 2 October 2015, two days after the incident in a village in Dadri, 35 kms from Delhi, Ravish Kumar went to report. “A Sewing Machine, Murder, and The Absence of Regret”  (Published and accessed on 2 Oct 2015)

15 August 2017 

An interview with Xan Brooks ( 5 June 2017)

(I interviewed film journalist Xan Brooks on his debut novel The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times for Bookwitty. It was published on 5 June 2017. Here is the text. ) 

Xan Brooks began his career as part of the founding editorial team at the Big Issue magazine, which is one of the UK’s leading social investment businesses. He then worked at the Guardian newspaper, first as a film editor and later as associate editor, before going freelance in 2015. He published his first novel in 2017, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times. He kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:

Your novel focuses sharply on the darker side of society in the 1920s. It’s so sinister and the plot line is devastating. How did this story come about?

In October 2014, my father recounted a conversation he’d had with his aunt, shortly before her death. She told him that, as a girl, she’d been transported to Epping Forest, outside London, to see (in her words) “the funny men from the war”. My father had the impression that she had never told this to anyone before and she seemed so traumatised by saying it that he didn’t feel he could press her on the details. The novel came out of that conversation. It was an attempt to understand what might have happened to her and why. I would stress that the whole thing is made-up. It’s fiction. It is emphatically not the story of my great-aunt (who I only met three or four times in my life). That said, this made-up story has a kernel of truth.

To create historical fiction did you have to research the period or not? For example the fabled Eye of Thoth Amon, Amulet in the 1920s and 30s, the time of the expeditions to Egypt…

Ideally, you conduct lots of research that you then wear very lightly. I should have spent longer preparing, but I was too eager to start writing. So I only researched for about two weeks (on 1920s Britain and the effects of World War One) and then would just check details as I went along (how much did a pint of beer cost in 1923? How fast would a car typically go?). I’m not sure I’d recommend this as the best approach. There are a few historical inaccuracies in the book and these (genuinely) keep me awake at night. With regards to the Eye of Thoth Amon – yes, the news at the time would have been full of Howard Carter and Tutankhamen. It seemed likely that a fraud like Uriah – the fake spiritualist – would have tried to capitalise on that public fascination by claiming to possess an ancient artifact of fabulous powers.

Did the research extend to getting the language and expressions accurate as far as possible or were you keen to make the story relevant to a modern reader?

That’s an interesting question. On reading back over the first draft of the book, I realised that some of the dialogue was too self-consciously antiquated, almost mytho-poetic, like a parody of how one imagines people would talk “in olden times”. On the second draft, I tried to loosen the speech, roughen its edges; make it more natural and easy – possibly more modern, although I’m not altogether convinced people spoke very differently one hundred years ago anyway. By and large, I trusted my ear. If some phrase or piece of slang sounded too modern, I’d take it out.

Commonplace names like “Uriah Smith” and “Lucy Marsh” are chilling. They lull you into an ease that is horribly shaken by the story. How did you achieve this outwardly placid tone of the story with its violent undercurrents?

I knew from the start that the tone would be crucial. The story is horrible. It’s a thing of darkness and cruelty and it also has a thick vein of operatic wildness, in that it contains masked monsters and flaky magicians and debauched house parties and fiery airplanes. The danger with such ingredients is that the tale risks overheating, becomes hysterical and ludicrous. I had a faint terror of the book turning out like a bad Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with lots of wafting dry ice and plastic foliage, masked dancers and anguished show-tunes. The best way to counter this threat was to downplay everything and observe the events very matter-of-factly, without fuss. Lucy’s perspective was crucial in this regard. She sees and questions but does not rush to judgment – partly because she is still establishing a moral framework to measure all these crimes against.

The Yellow Brick Road is meant to lead to something happy and comforting instead it is dark and twisted in your novel. Why develop a story dwelling on the nightmarish aspect to a beloved children’s tale The Wizard of Oz?

The yellow-brick road leads to The Wizard of Oz but, while not actively evil, the Wizard is a lie, an arrangement of smoke-and-mirrors, so there are some immediate parallels there. Plus I like the idea of false sanctuaries in fiction; the safe haven that isn’t. If the first half of the book is about the abuse and exploitation of childhood innocence, the second is about the gaining of wisdom, a coming to terms with an adult world that sustains and replenishes itself by exploiting the weak and the innocent. In a more traditional fairytale, the girl would survive the ordeals of terrifying forest to find a happy ending at the big house with the handsome prince. I liked the notion that the people in the big house are—at least tangentially—responsible for what has occurred in the forest. Instead of finding safety, Lucy finds herself behind the scenes at the sausage factory.

Trying to read this book, as a straightforward novel does not necessarily work although the opening pages are written in a classical manner. It’s only when one orients the mind to read the text as if it were a film camera in motion, focusing upon some details and panning out in others, that it becomes easier to engage with the story. Do you think being a film journalist has inadvertently affected your literary style of writing?

No doubt about it—but I think I’m only now realising the extent to which it has. I’ve never written a feature-length screenplay and have no desire to. That said, the story primarily came to me as a series of images and bursts of dialogue. I’m aware that I’ve framed it using what might be termed as the traditional tools of film grammar, with the occasional flashback and plenty of cutting between parallel story lines, especially during the opening half. I would stress that I didn’t want to write a sort of flat prose-blueprint for a movie. I wanted to write a novel filled with beautiful writing, interior monologues and shadowy mysteries. But I do recognise that the writing is very visual—and that this reveals my journalist background and my love of cinema. I basically saw and heard the book as I was writing it.

“Terrible things happen all the time and there is nothing to do but hope that whatever comes next will be brighter and better.” Is this what you hope to illustrate with your novel?

Well, that’s specifically Lucy’s feeling at a specific point of the book, when she is arguably at her lowest ebb. I think it’s a decent ethos so far as it goes, but it risks being a little passive—hoping for something better as opposed to actively taking steps to make it so. My opinion is that Lucy eventually does take those steps—although perhaps not entirely consciously—and that her situation improves as a result. But yes, terrible things happen all the time, there’s no arguing with that. Cruelty, abuse and hypocrisy are the constants in any era.

The use of masks by the “Happy Men” illustrates the historical fact of prosthetics being made for injured soldiers from tin and copper. Why did you decide to weave in this little-known aspect of the Great War into your story instead of just having a group of ordinary men?

Again, it goes back to my great-aunt’s account of what happened to her as a child. But it also nicely muddies the moral waters of the story. Yes, the children are the obvious victims. But then (without ever excusing their actions) you realise that the abusers are themselves victims. That they have been made into monsters, that they are cogs in the wheel of a wider, industrialised pattern of abuse. Hopefully the masks serve to make the abusers more frightening – and then more tragic too.

It’s set at the time immediately after the Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th century when there is a perceptible shift in how children are treated. Reading The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times today with the dreadfulness of the sexual abuse of children during the Great War is very disturbing. It is captured dramatically in the conversation between Lucy Marsh and her grandfather. Was this section difficult to write?

Yes, very. I felt it was important that Lucy confronts her grandfather directly about what he is doing. Except that then—in the way characters sometimes have of surprising you with their responses—it suddenly seemed equally important that he didn’t break down and plead for forgiveness. If anything, his primary emotion is irritation at being challenged by a child. Now, partly that’s a self-defense mechanism, him not wanting to admit any guilt. But it also says something about an admittedly fairly ill-educated, un-principled man of that era and class. One, children were often viewed as just a rung or two above livestock on the social scale. Two, evidence suggests that the war had this incredible desensitising effect on the people of Britain (and Germany, France etc.). So although he’s ashamed of his actions, he’s able to brush them aside, or explain them away. Would it have even been described as sexual abuse in those days? I suppose it would—assuming anybody bothered to investigate the crime and deliver a verdict. But would it have even reached that stage? Growing up in the 1980s, I vividly recall the way that sex abusers were typically referred to in jokey, derogatory terms, as though they were pathetic little clowns—with the implication being that the actual abuse was somehow pathetic and clownish, too; some dirty embarrassment that it was best to ignore. If that was how sexual abuse was presented in the 80s, I imagine it was even more easily dismissed in the 1920s. So long as the children came back alive at the end of each day, it was possible to avoid asking too many awkward questions.

Why did you make the leap from film journalism to novel writing?

Partly it was circumstantial. My job (which I loved) was being dismantled and I figured I’d better get out quick, before the situation got any worse. Thinking back on it now, this book came out of a very strange and stressful period. In the space of six months, we had a baby, my wife fell ill, my father suffered a stroke and my job came under threat. Also, we had no money. And so at some point you just find yourself living in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty; it becomes the water that you’re swimming in. So you think, “Forget trying to do the right thing, the sensible thing. Forget trying to play the percentages, because that clearly hasn’t worked out”. Writing a novel, then, could be seen as the equivalent of doubling down, of embracing the fear, of diving even deeper. And yes, that’s partly what it was. But it was also something I’d always wanted to try. I’ve always read voraciously and I love writing too. I loved writing features, news stories and reviews and am still able to earn money doing so. But writing a novel is a richer, more frightening, more exhilarating adventure. It was a wonderful experience. Everyone should try it.

How did you select the intriguing title: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times?

Actually, it was something my wife said. We were sitting in the living room, midway through writing the book, and she made this throwaway remark, which stuck in my head. I used it as the opening line of the chapter I was writing—but then we started thinking of it as a good, resonant working title for the whole book. I didn’t think it would survive because it’s too long and strange; I thought we’d certainly end up calling the book something else. But my publisher (Salt) either came around to the idea, or generously decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. Now, of course, I can’t imagine it being called anything else.

Who are the storytellers (in any form) who have influenced you?

I’m going to stick with novelists otherwise I’ll still be coming up with names in November. Off the top of my head and in no particular order: EL Doctorow, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Stone, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, John Steinbeck, Richmal Crompton, Stephen King, Nathanael West, Willa Cather, Denis Johnson, Bernard Malamud.

Xan Brooks The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times Salt Publishing, London, 2017. 
11 June 2017 

Pakistani Author Maha Khan Phillips on her New Novel, “The Curse of the Mohenjodaro”

This interview with Maha Khan Phillips was published on Bookwitty on 7 March 2017. 

Maha Khan Phillips is the author of Beautiful from this Angle and The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. She is a financial journalist and the editor of Professional Investor Magazine in the UK, where she lives part of the year, the rest of the time she spends in Karachi.

Her novels are set in Pakistan and her fiction is unusual in its portrayal of the economic basis that defines relationships and her astute observation of social dynamics make her fictional landscapes absolutely believable. Her books show women are empowered if financially sound, irrespective of the socio-economic strata they inhabit.

In her latest novel The Curse of the Mohenjadaro, Maha Khan Phillips has taken her literary skills to a new level by venturing into myth-making and exploring the alternative social spaces of cults which ultimately tend to imitate conservative patriarchal structures globally. She kindly answered questions for Bookwitty about her new book:

Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre
Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre

Why this story? Why Mohenjodaro?

I visited the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro a couple of times when I was a child on school trips. I was enthralled by it. The thing that resonated most was that nobody knew what happened to its people, or how the civilization declined. I remember being bored and surfing the web one day and idly typing in “Mohenjodaro Mystery”. I wanted to see if there was information out there about the decline of the civilization. Instead, I was astounded to discover the so-called Forbidden History/Forbidden Archaeology movement. I learnt that an archaeologist named David Davenport had written a book entitled Atomic Destruction in 2000 BC (Italian, 1979) and that Mohenjodaro was the epicentre of many conspiracy theories about ancient technologies. I decided it would be a great premise for a thriller. In those days, I wasn’t writing at all, so I sort of forgot about it, for a few years, and then picked it up after Beautiful from this Angle.

How long did the research for this book take?

In reality, researching Mohenjodaro was the easiest bit, because there is so little known about the Indus Valley Civilization. I spent some time learning about archaeology in general, and had some help from a couple of brilliant archaeologists. I also researched Mesopotamia and Egypt in an attempt to get inspiration when creating my imaginary Mohenjodaro. But mostly, I researched cults, the psychology of cults, and the Forbidden History movement.

The Forbidden History movement is a term that derived from conspiracy theorists who believe that any artefacts or discoveries which question mainstream history or current theories of evolution are either dismissed, or covered up. They believe in ancient technologies, in humankind being older than we think, in alien influence on pre-historic earth.

Your fascination with trying to understand cults is evident in the ruthless characters of Iaf and Sohail. Why cults?

I could talk about this for hours… I’ve always been fascinated by cults. How do they work? Why on earth do people fall for charismatic leaders, giving up everything, even their lives in some cases? I suppose in my mind, there’s a resonance with the political world now. People have started positioning themselves with these myopic identities and ideologies and aren’t willing to broaden their thinking. Cults are very much about ‘Us and Them’ and I feel the world is heading in that direction too. Look at all the fake news we have been seeing, and how quickly it’s being disseminated as gospel through social media. Look at religious extremism. And, perhaps the best example – was there ever a cult leader as successful as Donald Trump? I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid he’s been handing out, but he’s tweeted his way to cult like devotion amongst his followers, in my opinion – providing them with an ideology that will not help them, and yet spinning the tale so well that they believe life will get better.

How did the creation of the Shakari, Goddess-Blessed and the Bloodstone myth-making come about?

I knew I had to have something – some supernatural force that would cause the chaos which occurs at the beginning of a novel, when the archaeologists go missing and are set on fire. I probably spent more time on trying to figure out what that would be than I did on anything else. In the end, I settled on a stone, because I liked the physicality of having something that could be held in someone’s hand. As for Shakari, many icons of goddesses were found in Mohenjodaro, and so I liked the idea of a matriarchal society which had been corrupted, but which believed in a Mother Goddess. I knew there would be priests and priestesses, and the Goddess-Blessed emerged as those priestesses, for want of a better name for them.

The icons of Goddesses were clay figurines. Numerous kinds have been found in the Indus Valley, wearing headdresses, for example. These could just be images of women, but archaeologists believe they are goddesses .

To my mind the character Jaya’s story was far stronger and tautly told compared to the Nadia & Layla story. Yet how do you occupy two dimensions/time and write two powerful stories?

For ages, I resisted the idea of setting anything in the ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha. I felt I couldn’t do it justice or make it credible, not without knowing more about the place. But that information simply wasn’t available. Eventually, I realised that it was the not knowing that was liberating. It meant I could let my imagination go wild. With so little information out there, I had a blank canvas to make up whatever I wanted. But before I made that realization, I had written an entire novel in the present day. It didn’t work, and so I tried other things. I initially wrote a couple of the ancient scenes as dreams that Nadia had, as a way to give context to some of the modern day plot. I quite liked those scenes, and they were so easy to write, they came pouring out. So I started writing more. And soon, I realised I wanted to intertwine the two narratives.

Why interweave stories? How did you decide to break one story with the other while retaining the reader’s interest?

I’m not sure I consciously thought about it. I’m a big fan of the novels of Kate Mosse, and she did this so effectively in Labyrinth. But more than that I didn’t want to give up either story, I felt emotionally invested in both. I let the writing decide when it was going to break from one story to another – I just did it when it felt like a chapter was finished.

The financial details of your novels are always so fascinating. For instance in this case “River trout which was bartered” and even the activities of Giving of Light Foundation have a clear economic basis which are outlined logically. Do you work out the economic intricacies along with the fictional landscape? 

I suppose that’s the financial journalist in me! I’m really aware of how economic realities affect our lives. I would argue that the Financial Crisis brought about Donald Trump and Brexit, for instance. I didn’t feel like the decline/destruction of my ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha was credible without a bit of an understanding of why the civilization’s economic system may have failed them, particularly since the character Iaf is driven by greed and power. I was also quite interested in how the people in this ancient civilization would have traded with one another. I loved the cubes they discovered on the site, and the weighing scales, it was such an advanced approach to trading.

The defiant assertion of independence by Jaya, Layla and Nadia against Iaf and later, Sohail, are very well etched. How challenging was it to create these women characters fighting “patriarchal” structures?

I think the challenge for me, at least early on, was actually to make them less assertive and bolshy! I needed, at least initially, for them to be reactive. For example, I needed to justify Jaya’s decision to remain in Meluhha, despite the loss of her parents, to passively accept her fate. I needed Nadia to go to Pakistan without asking too many questions. It was later that the characters all started to fight back, once they realised what they were up against. That was a more comfortable place for me to be in! Some of what happened in the ancient city is mirrored by patriarchal societies which still exist, which we see all around the world. That was deliberate, on my part. I liked that my characters were strong enough to take those on. I am a feminist, and my family is full of strong women who have never let anyone stop them from achieving whatever they set out to achieve, so I enjoyed writing these kick ass women!

“I set up the Foundation after 2001, after the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. I’d been a banker then, but I have always been passionate about antiquity. Our history often defines our future, don’t you think?” It may be unfair to read the personal in fiction you create but somewhere does this novel stem from what you too feel – maybe the importance of getting to know the past better and how it informs our present?

Trust you to find the one sentence in the entire novel that means the most to me personally! Yes, I passionately believe this. History gets lost, but without it, we don’t know who we are. How can we learn from our mistakes, if we haven’t understood when and how we made them? Mohenjodaro belongs to the world – we’ve seen people in Scotland trace their roots back to Mohenjodaro, for instance. There is a worrying trend, as I mentioned, for myopic ideologies, and we have seen what ISIS does to pre-Islamic history and how they want to abolish the past. In their mind, there’s a good reason for their actions. The past can be dangerous. It shows us that we are smaller than we think we are. We will all, eventually, belong to history ourselves. And so we should not seek to impose our ideologies on others because no ideology, no civilization, no one culture, can withstand the sands of time. Instead, we should celebrate our extraordinary heritage and be made richer by what we learn from it.

Maha Khan Phillips The Curse of the Mohenjodaro PanMacmillan India, 2017. Pb.

9 May 2017