Inside India #44: Drought, suicide and Artificial Intelligence – the plight of India’s farmers 

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

The Indian farmer is as much a figure of mythology as any of the subcontinent’s pantheon of heroes.

From the earliest beginnings of civilisation, farming – in a largely fertile land, irrigated by multiple rivers and inundated by the annual monsoon – has formed the bedrock of Indian society. Even today some sixty percent of the country’s 1.5 billion inhabitants derive their livelihood directly from agriculture.

And yet, Indian farming is at a crossroads, at war with forces both old and new.

Image credit: FlickrNP India burning3 CC 2.0

The subcontinent has always relied on farming, agriculture serving as the economic backbone of every major Indian civilisation and the means by which local populations were sustained. This state of affairs, one that had lasted millennia, underwent a dramatic and, for the most part, debilitating, transformation with the arrival of Europeans.

The British enterprise on the subcontinent began in a spirit of mutual trade, but, within a century, became a venture of rapacious and one-sided income generation – a large proportion of that income was derived by pushing the local agricultural ecosystem towards growing crops that could be exported for cash. Thus began a stagnation of Indian farming, and a downward slide in the welfare of farmers.

The issue was exacerbated by the country’s longstanding feudalist architecture, known as the zamindari system. Wealthy landowners – and noble houses – owned large tracts of the most fertile land and employed farm workers on terms that left them little better than bonded labour. Under the British, this rigid hierarchy was used as a means for ever-increasing taxation, including the infamous ‘Land Tax’, which, in places such as Bengal, rose as high as 90% of the rental rate of the land.

Of course, those at the top of the food chain were protected from the consequences of these draconian tithes.

In essence, the East India Company – and later, the British Crown – treated India as a vast profit centre where almost all of the profits were made on the subcontinent and then transferred overseas.

This was particularly true of crops such as cotton.

Following the American Civil War, a world shortage of American cotton saw elevated prices around the globe. Once Britain realised that cotton could be grown more cheaply in India, vast swathes of the subcontinent were turned to this enterprise. This cheap cotton was exported to British mills, to manufacture fabrics. These expensive fabrics were then imported back into India and sold to the garment industry, all but forcing Indians to buy clothes they couldn’t afford.

Little wonder then that Gandhi, attuned to the increasing dissatisfaction of the masses, led a boycott of British cloth and began making his own khadi – a rough, hand-spun fabric – on a spinning wheel. (As a piece of revolutionary propaganda it was a masterstroke, so much so that till today the enduring image of the Mahatma is of him sat in front of his wheel.) In so doing, he gave new life to the swadeshi movement – the principle of boycotting British goods, a tactic that went on to become a cornerstone of India’s campaign of non-violent resistance.

Following Indian Independence, the new Nehru government – in line with Gandhian ideals – embarked upon a programme of forcible acquisition of land from noble houses and feudal landowners in order to make a more equitable distribution among those who actually worked the land.

The strategy was only partially successful and farming remained as one of the poorest sectors of the economy in the decades to follow.

In modern times, new challenges have risen to impact the livelihoods of those in the sector.

A 2017 study by the University of California, Berkeley suggested that climate change may have contributed to the suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers over the past three decades. Other statistics suggest a figure closer to 300,000 when including for those who have killed themselves due to crippling debt and other stresses associated with the sector. In 2015 alone 12000 farmers killed themselves across India; farmers immolating or poisoning themselves outside banks that held their loans have made headlines in recent years.

In response, the Indian government has enacted an insurance scheme to protect against crop failures. The scheme has met with limited success due, in part, to the old subcontinental bugbears of bureaucracy and corruption.

Some have turned to technology for a solution. For instance, farms are using sensors and connected IoT (Internet of Things) technologies to monitor crop and soil health. Artificial Intelligence-based algorithms are being used to predict the optimal time to sow seeds, or to alert farmers to risks from pest attacks.

The future is by no means secure for the Indian farmer.

But in a country where the burden of overpopulation is increasingly crippling, it is imperative that the agricultural sector innovate in order to remain productive and healthy. What can never be forgotten is that at the heart of India’s agricultural enterprise is the humble farmer, so often a hostage to fortune and to the vicissitudes of climate, economics, and political whim.

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

Inside India #43: “Hello, my name is Dave” – India’s call centre phenomenon

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

In 1998, in a small office in Delhi, a truly momentous event took place, though no one knew it at the time. An Indian entrepreneur named Pramod Bhasin invited his eighteen employees to begin taking calls on behalf of an American corporation located on the far side of the world.

India’s first modern call centre was up and running.

Picture credit: Employees operate the telephones at the Touch Solutions Ltd call centre. ©ILO/Benoit Marquet. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 IGO License.

Bhasin could not have envisaged that within a decade, hundreds of other entrepreneurs would follow in his wake, employing hordes of eager young Indians, and making India the call centre capital of the world.

This bonanza could not have been possible without a vast, English-speaking local workforce, and a low-cost telecoms infrastructure that allowed Indian companies to price out call centre operations in western nations. The economics of moving to the subcontinent made sense, outweighing concerns about accents, the infamous Indian approach to bureaucracy, and an untested workforce.

The industry saw immediate and explosive growth – over 50% per annum, year on year – some of it fuelled by an economic slowdown in the west which only encouraged more companies to cut costs by shifting back office operations overseas.

By 2015, there were more than 350,000 call centre workers in India, making it one of the most lucrative sectors in the New India economy. Blue chip companies from around the world transferred call centre ops to India. American Express, British Airways, Axa Sun Life, Top Shop, even Harrods. And why not? With starting salaries at a fifth of their British call-centre counterparts, the savings for these organisations were more than significant – they were irresistible. 

Call centre owners left nothing to chance.

Extravagant offices and inviting working environments – to levels previously unseen in India – attracted the best young workers – largely under the age of thirty, unmarried, and college-educated, both male and female. Late night buses were laid on for those working the graveyard shift. Salaries were five times greater than average. For young men on the make this sort of relative wealth made them highly sought after prospective sons-in-law.

For those serving British markets, a training regimen of British TV (e.g. soap operas such as Coronation Street and EastEnders) was imposed, aiming to familiarise workers with regional accents. Call centre operators were expected to take crash courses in British culture, celebrities, the royal family, cuisine, and how to maintain endless discussions about the weather. Local newspapers became essential reading. Many were asked to adopt western names while calling (though, in time, this strategy soured, and was later dropped), and to undergo accent neutralisation training.

Not everything went smoothly.

In many western countries, a backlash followed, initially, from workers’ unions – India’s gain was the western worker’s loss. Complaints began to flow in from customers, too – accents they couldn’t follow, the length of time it took to get someone on the line, shoddy follow-up.

And for the call centre workers themselves, the relentless grind, unsociable hours, and high expectations took their toll. Burnout led to high churn rates. Rampant consumerism saw pay packets squandered. Isolation led to mental health issues. Drug abuse became a problem.

In recent years, these failings have seen the meteoric rise of rivals in China, Eastern Europe, and, most notably, the Philippines, which, according to some, is now the world leader in call-centre services.

The response of Indian companies has been to aim higher, to evolve from just offering voice services to securing lucrative BPO – or Business Process Operations – work from their overseas clients. These more complex “non-voice” services include such offerings as running recruitment services or providing outsourced legal advice. Advanced data analysis services are another key battleground, with western retailers, in particular, keen to use Indian companies to sift through mountains of customer data in order to seek insights into their customer base.

Many Indian companies have also decided to fight their rivals the old-fashioned way – on the ground. Opting to open their own operations in rival countries, such as the Philippines, they aim to secure their future revenue streams by a combination of hard-won expertise combined with their rivals’ local assets.

Who will win the call centre war? Only time will tell.

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

Inside India #42: Slumdogs and skyscrapers – what Danny Boyle got wrong about Mumbai’s slums

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

In Danny Boyle’s Oscar-Winning hit, Slumdog Millionaire, we are confronted with a vision of life in Mumbai’s slums that has been accused by some critics of “aestheticizing poverty in India”. While this may not be entirely the case, Boyle’s depiction of a Mumbai slum and those who dwell there is more a concoction of western wishful thinking than reality. The truth is that such slums starkly represent the inequality evident in not just India, but many nations, but also act as a reminder that no matter how terrible their circumstances human beings usually find a way to adapt, survive and, in their own way, thrive.

Credit: Nishandtd85 CC 3.0

Today Mumbai is one of the world’s wealthiest cities. The past two decades have seen an enormous influx of riches – and migrants. Mumbai’s architectural map now boasts vast shopping malls, fashionable new suburbs replete with coffee shop chains, boutique hotels and megaplex cinemas, and some of the tallest skyscrapers on the subcontinent. Indeed, the world’s richest private home is in Mumbai – it belongs to one of India’s wealthiest men, a 27 storey tower worth $2billion and boasting three helipads (because, of course, one helipad just wouldn’t cut it in India’s city of dreams). Property prices in the city are among the highest in the world. 

And yet … Mumbai has the largest slum population of any urban centre in the world. More than half of the city’s population lives in slums that often lack access to clean water, electricity, and public transportation. Foremost among Mumbai’s insalubrious enclaves is Dharavi.

Founded in 1883, during the colonial era, Dharavi grew rapidly, with a significant growth spurt during Partition when incoming refugees from the newly-created Pakistan flocked to the city. Today Dharavi houses a population of 700,000-1 million (no one is entirely sure) in an area of just over two square kilometres, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the world. And yet, with a literacy rate of 69%, Dharavi is also the most educated slum in India.

Many of Dharavi’s inhabitants are second-generation migrants who have lived here for decades. They work as potters, tanners, weavers, and soap makers, and in a thousand micro-businesses whose offices are located beneath living spaces and in tiny bedrooms.The slum’s economy produces around $1 billion a year. In addition to artisan workers, Dharavi benefits from a massive recycling industry reported to employ approximately 250,000 individuals. Dharavi exports goods around the world, leather products, jewellery, accessories, and textiles. Markets for Dharavi’s goods include stores in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. 

Yet for many, the abiding image of Dharavi is as a sort of twilight zone, where houses are constructed from whatever materials are available to hand – corrugated tin, plywood, pukkah bricks, asbestos and cardboard sheets; where black smoke from the potters’ kilns creates a constant artificial cloudbank; where hundreds of thousands of shopkeepers, street vendors, ragpickers, tinkers, tailors, black marketeers and miniature moguls operate beyond the reach of the municipal authorities; and where the sound of hammering from the metalworkers’ smithies is a constant background noise. In some ways, Dharavi is Mumbai compressed into a smaller-scale version of itself. Thousands of little one-room dwellings sprout aerials for TV connections; posters of the latest Bollywood releases are plastered on every paint-peeled wall; old men discuss the elections while smoking beedis and defecating into open sewers; women gossip as they fill buckets from communal spigots. There are even beggars here. 

As India continues to modernise, plans to redevelop the slum are regularly mooted, though little has changed on the ground. In the meantime, the slum dwellers carry on, in their own way ennobled by their life of hardship. 

And one more thing worthy of consideration. It is outsiders looking in who label them slum dwellers. To the residents of Dharavi, their environment is simply home.

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

Inside India #41: From Bombay to Mumbai: India’s city of dreams

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Contrary to the expectations of many, Mumbai – formerly Bombay – is not an ancient city.

Once a series of seven islands occupied for millennia by Koli fisherfolk, it was the Portuguese who gave the city its earliest identity, establishing a trading centre there in 1534 and calling it Bom Bahia – meaning ‘Good Bay’ – from whence the name Bombay is derived.

Image credit: Arian Zwegers, CC 2.0

A century later the Portuguese gifted the territory to King Charles II of England as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza. Charles, presumably less than impressed with this marshy offering, promptly leased the islands to the East India Company – for the measly sum of ten pounds of gold per year.

The East India Company immediately set about transforming the disparate islands, silting in the marshes to create a single landmass, and commencing their grand project of building an important entrepôt on India’s western coast.

By the end of the 1700s, Bombay, with its deepwater port and established trade routes, had become the ‘Gateway to India’. A few short decades later, the first railway was built, connecting Bombay to the country’s vast interior. With settlers arriving from Britain – and her many colonies – in pursuit of the Empire’s expansionist mission, and native residents drawn to Bombay by the prospect of employment, the city began to grow at breakneck pace, such that, today, there are twenty million residents living cheek-to-jowl within the greater municipal area that demarcates Mumbai from its environs.

In 1995 Bombay was rechristened, to be named after Mumbadevi, the stone goddess of the original Koli fishermen. There is both nostalgia and a certain perversity in the renaming: the Koli fisherfolk have been driven by the city’s relentless growth into a narrow enclave in one corner of the great city, all but forgotten in the jumbled tapestry of Mumbai’s recent history.

Like most Indian metropolises, the past two decades have seen the city face a cultural onslaught from the twin forces of globalisation and westernisation. Mumbai has changed almost beyond recognition: malls, skyscrapers, coffee shops, and shiny new apartment blocks have proliferated, transforming the city’s architectural physiognomy, and aimed at accommodating the aspirations of a burgeoning middle class. With one of the youngest – and hippest – populations of any major city in the world, Bombay is India’s ground zero for the latest fashions and fads, both homegrown and imported.

And yet the past continues to exert a tangible hold. Religion and tradition still play an enormous part in the lives of most Mumbaiikers. This dichotomy is also visible in the city’s physical landscape. New multiplexes and flashy call centres sit side-by-side with slums and older buildings built by the city’s various past occupiers, each of whom have left their imprint – from ancient Hindu temples, to Mughal architecture, to a slew of Raj-era colonial edifices built by the British.

Modern visitors to the city often talk of a relentless assault on the senses. The colour, the heat, the noise, the smells, the spectacle, and the sheer exuberance of so many people packed into such a small area.

It often takes a trip through the city’s less salubrious enclaves, the slums of Dharavi, for instance, to see beyond the immediate and recognise that this is a city – like most world metropolises – where life exists as much in the shadows as it does in the light.

In the slums, poverty is endemic, but what is more endemic is the acceptance of poverty – by both the residents of such enclaves and the city’s overseers. There is a seemingly unbridgeable gap between rich and poor, and betterment – for those on the lowest rungs of the ladder – proceeds at a snail’s pace.

And yet there remains something mythopoetic about the city.

Mumbai is India’s city of dreams. People come here to make their fortune. They come to become famous, glorified on colourful billboards as the latest stars of the world’s most prolific movie industry – Bollywood. They come to start businesses, often one-man, one-woman operations whose premises are hidden away in the slums, and whose staff are urchins with little more than bright smiles, ragged shorts and an insatiable work ethic.

In between the glamour and the gutters there is something uniquely human about the great monster-city. This intangible quality is perhaps best summed up by a quote from Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta, who describes Mumbaikers running to catch a train, being hauled aboard by waiting hands: And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable, or whether you were born in the city or arrived only this morning, or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari; whether you are from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.”

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

Meeting Agatha : a visit to Christie’s home

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For a crime writer, particularly one who writes ‘traditional’ or ‘Golden Age’ crime fiction, the home of Agatha Christie is something of a Mecca. One feels the urge to make a pilgrimage to the late, great crime novelist’s Greenway estate, perched atop a hill overlooking the River Dart, just a half hour or so drive from the ‘riviera’ town of Torquay, on England’s southern coast.

Picture attribution: Le Salon de la Mappemonde CC 2.0

Greenway is now a British National Trust property, preserved as a monument of cultural significance. And why shouldn’t it be? Aside from the fact that Christie is the biggest selling writer of all time (bar Shakespeare and the authors of the Bible) her influence now cuts across social, geographical, and linguistic boundaries. With film and stage adaptations cropping up all over the world, and her books continuing to sell by the truckload in a veritable babel of languages, she has become more than just a highly successful author. She is a bona fide artistic and cultural phenomenon.

Her house – one of many that she owned, and where, we are told she “would spend summers and Christmases with friends, relaxing by the river, playing croquet and clock golf, and reading her latest mystery to her guests” – is a touchstone for writers such as myself. My 1950-set Malabar House novels have been compared in style to Christie – The Observer newspaper commented on the first in the series, Midnight at Malabar House : “A beautifully complex plot and an Agatha Christie-ish denouement make for a thoroughly satisfying read.”

Last week I travelled to Torquay to speak at the International Agatha Christie Festival. Thirty years earlier I had first fallen in love with Christie’s work while watching the brilliant Poirot series starring David Suchet. So to now speak at the festival held each year in her home town, and to then visit her home, was something of a surreal experience.

But enough preamble! Let’s begin the tour…. Here I am outside Greenway. It’s a beautifully whitewashed Georgian property, sitting in a secluded grove, reached via a long pathway connected to the tourist entrance. There are, as you can see, some deckchairs placed outside. I can imagine Christie sitting in something similar, on a sunny day, doodling in a notebook…

During the war, the property was taken over by American coastguards (as preparation for D-Day), billeted there, with a navy vessel moored on the River Dart below. One of those soldiers, an artist, painted this wonderful frieze in Christie’s library.

Christie travelled the globe with her second husband, Max Mallowan, who she married in 1930. Max was an archaeologist and Christie became a keen amateur in his company. She brought back wonderful art and artefacts from her trips. Here are a couple of examples.

I particularly love this wonderful cobra doorstopper in Christie’s dining room, not least because the cover of my latest book, The Lost Man of Bombay offers something very similar!

And speaking of dining rooms… Here is Christie’s! I can’t be the only one imagining how many well-heeled dinner guests fell face first into their fois gras following a glass of cyanide-laced champagne…

And here I am in bed with Agatha… Well, not quite in bed with her, so much as next to her bed….

And a little glimpse into her wardrobe… Not sure I’d look good in that furry off-the-shoulder number…

Here’s Christie’s ‘thunderbox’. If she was anything like me, she might have had a book or two to read while sitting on the ‘throne’…

No trip to Christie’s home would be complete without a meeting with her beloved typewriter. It was quite a moment coming face to face with the actual machine that Christie typed some of her work on!

And lastly, here are a collection of family photos sitting on Christie’s piano. She was a keen pianist, though too shy to ever play much publicly…

All in all, a wonderful visit and one that will stay with me for quite a while. It goes without saying that I thoroughly recommend a trip to Greenway for any Christie lover.

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

And don’t forget to register for my newsletter for updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

The Queen…

The Queen was born before both my parents and died after they had both passed on. She was here when they migrated to the UK 50 years ago. She was their Queen. They liked her, admired her and, were they alive today, would have mourned her passing.

I was born here. For me, she’s always been there, a part of the fabric of the UK and of our lives, a constant reassuring presence. Many people are born into privilege. It’s what you do with it, that matters. She spent her life serving in the best way she could, with dignity and, I believe, compassion. She’s seen incredible change in the country and weathered good times and bad. Now, at a time that is difficult for so many, I would have loved for her to been with us, calmness personified, delivering a reassuring Xmas message.

One of my earliest memories of her came with Roald Dahl’s BFG, where she made an appearance as ‘Your Majester’… Later, while working in India in my twenties, I became aware of how well she was regarded there, by so many.

When I think of her now, I simply think of a good person who did the best she could, bound by tradition and protocol, a consummate stateswoman, and a warm, intelligent individual whose life will be judged by the absence many of us will feel now that she is no longer there.

So yes, I am sad. And I don’t mind admitting I’ve had a lump in my throat since the news came through yesterday. We can debate the monarchy as much as we wish. But this isn’t about the monarchy. This is about an individual who made a promise to serve when she was crowned Queen and fulfilled that promise beyond all expectation.

I will miss her. It’s that simple, really.

Inside India #40: The Emergency Years

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

June 25th, 1975. At the stroke of midnight, a presidential decree instigated by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of internal ‘Emergency’ in India and the world’s largest republic went from democracy to authoritarianism.

Today, many look at this 21-month period as India’s darkest political era.

Picture accreditation: Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 CC 1.0

The Emergency was officially declared by India’s President, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, under Article 352 of the Constitution following Indira Gandhi’s claims of imminent ‘internal and external threats to the country’. The Emergency bestowed upon the Prime Minister the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed.

During the Emergency, many of Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned and the press censored.

What was the background to this extraordinary state of affairs?

Between 1967 and 1971, Indira Gandhi achieved near-absolute control over the Indian government and the Indian National Congress party – the party of Gandhi (no relation) and Nehru (Indira’s father and India’s first prime minister following the advent of Independence in 1947). Within the Congress party, she outmanoeuvred her rivals, forcing the party to split in 1969: the majority of Congress MPs sided with her; most also swiftly realised that their political careers depended solely on their loyalty to the party chief.

Gandhi was popular with the masses. The PM was viewed as a socialist, standing up for the poor and for minorities. In the 1971 elections, her populist slogan ‘abolish poverty’ swept her to a rampant majority in parliament. In December of that year, she took India to war against Pakistan, a conflict that led to the independence of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.

This success marked the zenith of Indira Gandhi’s political career.

Things began to sour soon after, as political and civil unrest convulsed the nation. When the largest union in the country – the railway employees union – decided to strike, the action was brutally suppressed on Indira’s instructions, with thousands of employees arrested and driven out of their state-owned family quarters.

Things came to a head in 1975 when cases that had been lodged against Indira in the Allahabad High Court for election fraud and “use of state machinery for election purposes” were finally ruled upon. In a landmark ruling – made on 12 June 1975 – the Prime Minister was found guilty. The court declared her election null and void and banned her from contesting any elections for an additional six years.

Gandhi challenged the High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court, but failed. Soon after, she requested a compliant President to issue the proclamation of a state of emergency.

What was life like in India during the Emergency?

Indira and her son, Sanjay Gandhi, proposed a 25-point economic and social development plan; the Emergency became the vehicle that allowed them to enact that plan all but unchallenged. Opposition was ruthlessly shut down; according to Amnesty International 140,000 people were arrested without trial during the Emergency. The press was similarly hamstrung with local censors tasked to cut out anything that looked like criticism of Indira or the government. (For instance, in the state of Karnataka, the Inspector General of Police became the de facto editor of The Indian Express.)

Hundreds of cases of police torture were logged. One of the most shocking was the murder of P. Rajan, a student of the Regional Engineering College, Calicut, who was arrested by police for his ultra-left leanings and who later died in custody. His body was never found.

In 1976, the Congress Party appointed a committee to ‘review’ the Constitution resulting in a list of amendments designed to cripple the judiciary and to give Parliament untrammelled power to alter the Constitution. This included the infamous ‘39th Amendment’ designed to bar courts – with retrospective effect – from entertaining election petitions against the Prime Minister, a shameless stratagem to enable the overturning of the 1975 High Court verdict that had found Indira guilty of corrupt electoral practice.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in a bid to promote Indira and Sanjay Gandhi’s unpopular reform programme, roped in celebrities to act as mouthpieces, with varying degrees of success. For instance, when famed actor and singer Kishore Kumar refused to cooperate, the Ministry ordered that he “should be banned from All India Radio” and all films in which Kumar had acted were to be “listed out for further action”.

Meanwhile, Sanjay Gandhi, convinced that curbing population growth was the key to India’s future success, spearheaded a campaign of forced sterilisation. His method was to give Indian states ‘quotas’ to achieve. Such was the level of sycophancy to the Gandhis that several chief ministers of these states doubled or even trebled the sterilisation quotas fixed by the Centre, leading to numerous instances of abuse.

The Emergency officially ended on 23 March 1977 with Indira announcing general elections. The overwhelming defeat of her Congress Party in March 1977 by an anti-Congress coalition was, for many, a fitting end to the period, though it wasn’t the end for Indira. She returned in 1980 as Prime Minister and served until her assassination in 1984 by her own Sikh bodyguards after she ordered military troops to enter the holy Sikh Golden Temple in pursuit of a militant religious leader.

The Emergency years remain a blight on India’s 75-year-old democratic republic.

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

Inside India #39: The Headhunters of Nagaland

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Nagaland is located in Northeast India, bordering Myanmar (formerly Burma) to the east and the tea state of Assam to the west. It is one of India’s smallest states, with a population of barely two million, largely Christian; it is also one of the country’s most politically volatile regions.

Nagaland became the 16th state of India on 1 December 1963 and has been consistently wracked by insurgency, inter-ethnic conflict, and political violence, originally stemming from a Naga call for independence from the state of Assam.

Supposedly descended from the Mongols, the Naganese settled as a series of tribes in eastern India from the twelfth century onwards, only coming together in modern times around a desire to establish a collective identity within the new India created by Partition and the advent of Independence in 1947.

Picture attribution: Avantikac98 CC 4.0

Of the many tribes that inhabit the forested state, the Konyak warrior tribe hold a special place in Indian folklore. Known for their ferocity and penchant for engaging in war with rival tribes, they become infamous for their headhunting prowess, routinely beheading enemies and returning with the severed heads as trophies that they then carried into future battles.

It was believed by the Nagas that these heads exuded a spiritual force that benefited crops and brought prosperity to the village. The decapitated heads also served as intriguing home décor, proudly displayed on the walls and doorways of Naga longhouses.

Europeans first encountering this fierce Naga tribe were fascinated by this macabre practise, writing of “skull houses”. Commentators also noted that each man in the village was expected to contribute to the grisly collection – any man unable to take a head in battle was considered lacking in courage, an unworthy warrior.

In much the same way that modern gang members in Latin America and inner city Los Angeles use tattoos to display the status of their ‘kills’, the Konyak warriors used patterned body tattoos to mark their skill in battle. Face tattoos, however, were reserved for those who had returned with enemy heads, hand-tapped into the skin using sharpened rattan canes and tree sap pigment.

The arrival of Christian missionaries in the region during the second half of the 19th century gradually began to erode the Konyak’s warrior ideology. As the British pacified the area and intertribal conflict declined, the need for battle also waned.

In 1935, the British officially banned the taking of heads with the Indian government following suit, post-Independence, in 1960, though the tradition lingered on for a few years in remote hilltop villages. By the mid 2010s the last generation of Naga headhunters were gradually dying out.

With them dies their ancient tradition. 

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

Inside India #38: India’s billion dollar temple treasure and its cobra guardians

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

India is a nation steeped in spirituality, birthplace to several of the world’s most important religions: Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and home to adherents of many others such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The oldest of these is Hinduism, with a billion adherents worldwide, and which has existed in one form or another for thousands of years, reflected in a vast pantheon of gods, all leading back to the one absolute essence of the cosmos, known as Brahman. As a consequence, the country is dotted with temples, shrines, and other centres of worship, old and new, storied and humble. Many are world heritage sites, visited by millions, pilgrims and tourists alike.

Of these, one that has garnered intense press coverage in recent years is the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the state of Kerala, the so-called ‘richest temple in the world’.

Picture attribution: Chiyaruchi CC 4.0

Originally built in the sixth century A.D. this Hindu temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, was run – until a recent Supreme Court of India ruling – by the royal family of Travancore. One of the temple’s older names is believed to be ‘The Temple of Gold’ – a reflection of both its immense wealth, and the fact that such prosperity existed even in antiquity.

That wealth came to light in a blaze of publicity in 2011 when hidden chambers some twenty feet beneath the temple were ordered opened by the Supreme Court. A team of archaeologists eventually discovered eight vaults, and labelled them A-H.

Six of the vaults were opened – for the purposes of an inventory – and subsequently closed again.

The revelations of that inventory astonished the world.

Among the reported findings were a three-and-a-half feet tall solid pure golden idol, studded with hundreds of precious stones, and a solid gold throne. Sacks of gemstones lay in the vaults, and pots of coins including thousands of gold coins from the Roman Empire and from the Napoleonic era; there was also an 18-foot-long pure gold chain, a 500 kilo gold sheaf, gold elephants, and gold coconut shells. The valuables are believed to have been accumulated by the temple over several millennia, having been donated by royal dynasties and worshippers.

It is conservatively estimated that the value of the hoard stands at over 20 billion dollars, making the Padmanabhaswamy Temple the wealthiest place of worship in the world.

Yet the temple hasn’t given up all its secrets.

Vault B remains unopened. Deemed the most sacred place within the temple, the enormous steel door fronting the chamber is adorned with two massive cobras and has no visible means of entry. The cobras are said to protect the vault and its treasures – legend has it that only the wisest sages can open the vault by the chanting of special ‘snake’ mantras.

It is also said that, like the tomb of Tutankhamun, anyone attempting to penetrate Vault B’s secrets will be cursed with ill fortune, and that disasters will follow around the globe. This notion of a curse was given credence when a key petitioner for the opening of the vault died an untimely death.

Such is the centrality of religion on the subcontinent, that the vault remains unopened to this day.

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

Theakston’s at Harrogate: a criminally good crime writing festival

Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, the world’s largest crime fiction fest, returned in full, post-pandemic splendour last week. With a record-breaking heatwave sending the UK into a literal meltdown, I found my train to the northern English spa town of Harrogate (where the festival takes place each year) cancelled. Rather than attempting to brave the heat-crazed crowds beating each other senseless at King’s Cross station to board the one train running that afternoon, I threw my luggage into the boot of my car, and set off on the four-hour journey from London to Harrogate, expecting wildfires, massive tailbacks, and possibly an appearance from the Rock to save us all from Armageddon.

Instead, I enjoyed a very pleasant, traffic-free drive on a tropically warm afternoon. I even had time to stop by a Yorkshire field burnt golden brown by the sun – dazed sheep milling around in sweaty confusion – to contemplate my oneness with nature.

Arriving in Harrogate, I made my way to the Old Swan, perennial venue for the festival and the hotel where Agatha Christie turned up during her infamous eleven day vanishing act back in 1926, an incident that led to a nationwide search operation involving, among others, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, and a psychic employed by Doyle who proved about as useful as a chocolate hammer.

The famous grass chairs at the Old Swan

Christie herself would later claim amnesia; others suggest she staged the disappearance to get back at her errant husband, Archibald Christie, who’d decided to leave her for his mistress. Some may feel Archie’s behaviour warrants censure, but I’m from the school of thought that believes that, without his wandering eye, Christie would not have ended up at the Old Swan and thus we probably wouldn’t have the Theakston’s festival today. It’s about time we acknowledged Archie’s heroic contribution to crime fiction.

The next day, Thursday, I ran a workshop at the hotel on how writers can write outside their own lived experience, particularly their own cultural heritage. I firmly believe authors should have the right to write whatever they wish, yet the fear of being accused of cultural appropriation has created a climate of fear in the publishing industry. There’s a lot of red-faced vitriol, but very little in the way of actual advice, something I’ve tried to rectify.

Thursday evening saw the presentation of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. I was shortlisted for Midnight at Malabar House, the first of my historical crime series set in Bombay, 1950, and was invited up on stage to crack a couple of jokes before the eventual winner, a very deserving Mick Herron (of Slow Horses fame), was crowned, with Jo Knox getting a Highly Commended nod.

Here I am with my fellow shortlistees, Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Jo Knox, Will Dean, and Elly Griffiths, friends and wonderful writers all. When Mick’s name was announced we all instinctively got up to give him a big, non-sexual group hug. That’s the crime fiction community in a nutshell. (Though I may have tried to steal Mick’s wallet while I had him in a close embrace.)

That same evening my favourite crime writer, American Michael Connelly, creator of the Harry Bosch novels, was awarded a lifetime achievement gong. Chatting to him onstage, somewhat awestruck, was a wonderful moment, though I may have started to ramble under the pressure, going on about the correct way to play a forward-defensive stroke in cricket and the sexual proclivities of nematodes. The brain does weird things when you meet your heroes. (But this may explain the restraining order Connelly took out against me the next day.)

On the Friday, I chaired a session in the Orion Incident room, with authors Mari Hannah, Winnie Li, and Robin Morgan-Bentley, discussing authenticity in fiction. An inspiring session for those who attended… and for those of us speaking!

In the evening, I enjoyed a Thai meal in a very loud dining room, bellowing at the top of my lungs into the ears of fellow Hodder & Stoughton authors, including a favourite of mine, the brilliant John Connelly whose The Dirty South I’d just finished reading. I even managed to showcase some origami skills over dessert. (It’s a bloody boat! The number of people who’ve commented that it looks like some sort of deformed hat from the Napoleonic era…)

On Saturday, I played a role in the murder mystery written by Denise Mina for the gala dinner. My character was, apparently, into cricket and so, given that I own a cricket sweater, I decided to wear it – I believe in the Daniel Day Lewis school of method acting. (And, yes, I may have hammed it up a little.)

I then spent the evening wearing the sweater to the Val McDermid and Mark Billingham quiz – I think a few people might have got the impression that I’m an eccentric who likes to wander around in sports outfits at author gatherings.

Our team – comprising Craig ‘the Brain’ Sisterson, Jo ‘Heavy Metal’ Knox, Jon ‘Coatsey’ Coates – was assembled like DC’s Suicide Squad following a trawl of local prisons, with fifth member, the urbane Sophia Bennett, press-ganged into joining simply because she found herself standing in the queue behind us. As it turns out, we became greater than the sum of our parts. For one brief hour we soared, touching heights we could never have dreamed of, eventually finishing second out of over forty teams, behind Mick Herron’s gang, a win that courted controversy, with wild accusations of rampant rule-breaking…

On the Sunday, I spoke on a historical crime fiction panel with my great friend and Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast co-host Abir Mukherjee, alongside Chris Brookmyre and Dr Marisa Haetzman (the husband and wife couple known as Ambrose Parry), Leonora Nattrass, and Robbie Morrison. The panel was a riot and we stumbled back into the sun afterwards to be led, like lambs to the slaughter, to the book signing room where we were astonished to find queues of readers waiting to meet us – and not to pelt us with fruit. One can only assume they were gathered out of pity or had been forced along at gunpoint…

A highlight of the festival throughout the four days was the big tent where authors and industry professionals congregated all day and well into the night. Conversation flowed – among other things. I met old friends I hadn’t seen in ages, and made new ones. Here’s me with the amazing Kate Mosse, author of Labyrinth – I’ve been reading her for years. Meeting your literary heroes: a feeling that never gets old.

The big tent was where much of the real action took place: weepy re-unions, scurrilous gossip, bleary-eyed deckchair duels, drunken vows of eternal friendship. It’s a unique atmosphere and impossible to explain unless you’ve been there, in the thick of it.

Returning home, I find myself already looking forward to next year’s event. The consensus appears to be that this had been a terrific Theakston’s, one of the best ever. Kudos to the programming team and the brilliant onsite Harrogate International Festivals team, in their intimidating black outfits with sexy SWAT-team earpieces, led by the inimitable Sharon Canavar. Here they are before … and after – enjoying a well-deserved rest.

If you’ve found this remotely worth reading you might want to join my newsletter. I regularly use it to post articles, competitions, giveaways, etc. You can join by clicking here: https://vaseemkhan.com/book-club/

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up, with only a series of cryptic riddles left in their wake… Buy from an indie bookshop, a book chain or online, such as here