As a writer, I spend an inordinate (some might say unhealthy) amount of time engaged in ‘research’: skimming through books, the Internet, old documents, social media archives, and ‘living’ memories. Every now and again, whilst engaged in this process, a particular fact or image strikes me with unexpected force, causing me to step back and take a moment.
I stumbled across the below photograph while researching the India of the late 40s and early 50s for Midnight at Malabar House, the first in my new historical crime series. I found myself stopping, and gazing at this young woman, struck by a profound sense of mystery, in the wake of which followed a set of questions.
Who is she? What is she thinking? What is it about her that has made me pause?
The answer to the last of these questions is, for me, at least, the sense of incongruity broadcast by the photograph. Here is an Indian woman, dressed in traditional north-Indian garb, but holding a very European instrument: a tennis racquet. Like cricket, tennis is not a game native to the subcontinent; it was another colonial sporting pursuit brought over by the British to make them feel a little more at home in a very alien environment. (Unlike cricket, tennis remains a largely marginal sport on the subcontinent, despite the occasional Indian star making a splash in professional tennis circles.)
At the time, only the middle to upper-middle classes would have had the means to indulge in the game. The racquet, in essence, tells me something about the socioeconomic circles within which this woman moved, and that, in turn allows me to hazard a guess at her upbringing, her schooling, her lifestyle. In other words, the assumptions I make (which I admit, might be wrong) allow me to bring this woman to life, if only as a semi-fictional character drawn on the canvas of my imagination.
There is something else about her that drew my eye – an almost palpable sense of insolence.
The India of the late 40s was a country coming to terms with the end of the Raj and the advent of Indian Independence in 1947. On the one hand, India had every right to a sense of accomplishment, having ousted the British, and thrown off the colonial yoke. On the other hand, this was an incredibly fractious time: social, economic, religious, and political turmoil wracked the country. The Partition riots had seen two million dead and a lingering animosity between Muslims on the one side, and Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Prime Minister Nehru, following Gandhi’s assassination, had taken the reins and was wrestling with the country’s economic future.
Many Indians were struggling to adapt to the new reality, and to reimagine their own identity now that the British were no longer around to trammel their sense of self-expression.
That, I suppose, it what I see most in this woman.
An Indian unafraid of the future.
In a very real sense, the persona that I projected onto her became the catalyst for me to think about the role of women in the India of this period, a paternalistic and often misogynistic society. Unearthing the exploits of women who went against the prevailing order, those female pioneers who refused to tow the line, led me to examine the fortunes of one Shanti Parwani, India’s first female Inspector of police.
And that, in turn, led me to conjure up Persis Wadia, the protagonist of my Malabar House series.
Trawling through history is a highly rewarding endeavour, yet the sheer wealth of material can sometimes make it feel like battling through whitewater rapids, constantly assailed by the churn of information. But, every once in a while, a single fact or image will arrest time, history will stare you in the face, and challenge you to fill in the blanks.
From such moments is inspiration born.
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My latest novel is Midnight at Malabar House. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.