Mumbai’s The Divine Comedy – the treasure for which Mussolini offered £1m

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.

Deep in the vaults of a Mumbai bank is one of the world’s greatest treasures. Every few years this priceless artefact is transferred to Mumbai’s Asiatic Society, under armed guard, where it is put on display, to be marvelled at by the public and experts alike. The treasure in question? A copy of Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia – The Divine Comedy – one the two oldest in the world, purported to be over six hundred years old.

The work features in my latest novel, The Dying Day. In this second instalment of the Malabar House series (the first was Midnight at Malabar House, recent winner of the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger), Persis Wadia is summoned to the Asiatic Society and informed that the Dante manuscript is missing, together with the Society’s curator, Englishman, John Healy. As she investigates, together with Archie Blackfinch, a forensic scientist from London’s Metropolitan Police, they uncover a trail of cryptic clues, including riddles written in verse… And then they find the first body.

The Bombay Branch of the Royal Society of Great Britain and Ireland has been around in one form or another in India’s ‘city of dreams’ since 1804 when James Mackintosh, a chief justice of the Bombay High Court, established a literary society in the port city. In the two centuries since, the society has grown, evolving into both an impressive storehouse of rare books and manuscripts, and a hub of intellectual endeavour. Today it is called, simply, the Asiatic Society, Mumbai.

The society houses a multitude of treasures: a five-tola coin from Emperor Akbar’s reign; a wooden bowl reputed to belong to Gautama Buddha; ancient maps from around the world, manuscripts so old they are written on palm leaves. And, of course, a priceless collection of books. A Shakespeare First Folio dated 1623 – there are only about 200 known copies in the world; a copy of both volumes of Voyages to the South Pole and Round the World by James Cook dated 1777; a two hundred-year-old History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh. In the Classics section, you can find a book on Greek grammar dating to 1495. An 1859 first edition of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection is another rare treasure, as is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a fully-illustrated work printed in Venice in 1553.

But undoubtedly the most valuable artefact owned by the society is Dante’s masterpiece. 

The manuscript was (purportedly) brought to the Society by a Scotsman – Mountstuart Elphinstone, former Governor of Bombay. In a 2008 Telegraph article Rahul Jayaram informs us that the manuscript “weighs around 400 grams, is of almost 450 pages, and was bound twice during the course of its stay”. 

For the uninitiated, Dante’s epic poem deals with the passage of a man’s soul through the three stages after death – Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). Historically, the work is important because it established the Tuscan dialect as Italy’s national language. In modern times the work has achieved newfound fame through Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novel Inferno, later turned into a blockbuster movie starring Tom Hanks.

Such was the fame of the manuscript stored at the Asiatic Society in Bombay that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is reputed to have offered £1m for its return in the 1930s, perhaps to Milan where the other oldest copy of The Divine Comedy is held. (Mussolini was a huge Dante fan, so much so that he encouraged a cult of Dante as national poet in Italy.) 

The mythology that surrounds the manuscript – and the undimmed global passion for Dante – as evidenced by the hundreds of Società Dante Alighieri that have been established around the world- is enough to ensure the ongoing popularity of La Divina Commedia

As for the Asiatic Society… Today the historical treasures stored at the Society continue to attract visitors, demonstrating the dual feelings many modern Indians maintain towards the British era – abhorrence at some of the cruelties of empire, as well as fondness for a people whose presence impacted every aspect of their lives for three centuries.

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. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, 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… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here. 

The Last King of Burma – a short story in the Malabar House series

This short story is one of three marking the publication of The Dying Day on July 8, the second in the Malabar House series, described by Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger winner, M.W. Craven, as “The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India.” Find out more here. The first in the series, Midnight at Malabar House, won the Crime Writers Association Sapere Books Historical Dagger 2021. To access all three stories and a competition to win both a box of crime fiction bestsellers and have your name as a character in the third book in this series, simply join Vaseem Khan’s newsletter here. Newsletter registrants will also receive a FREE digital book, in due course, with 50 articles about India’s past, present, and future.

1

Bombay, 1950

The two-storey bungalow on Nepean Sea Road had been used as a safe house during the freedom struggle. Surrounded by tall trees whose branches wound around the overhanging portico verandas and knocked on shuttered wooden windows, it had once been owned by a family that had made its fortune in the cotton trade, before the Independence movement had reignited a latent patriotism. Victory had proved bittersweet. The Muslim dynasty had fled to the newly-created Pakistan just months before Nehru took the helm of the reshaped India.

The man who had purchased the home from its departing residents now lay dead in a copper-bottomed bathtub on the upper floor.

Persis, called to the scene shortly after arriving at the nearby Malabar House station that morning, was led through the house by Mohan Kher, personal aide to the murdered man.

Kher, dressed in a chalk-striped grey suit and tie, cut a tall, slender figure, an urbane man in his forties, a hint of grey at the temples, a sharp chin, and wire-framed eyeglasses. His polished Oxfords clacked loudly on the wooden staircase. A trio of smudged white lines across his brow hinted, incongruously, at a recent visit to the temple.

‘The mali found the bodies,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘He telephoned me.’

They arrived on the second floor. Kher led her to an open doorway, paused for a moment with a hand on the frame, then entered.

The white man lay in the tub, head lolled back, one fleshy arm hanging limp over the side, the water opaque with blood. His name, she knew, was John Maxwell. She judged him to be in his fifties, a haggard face, made more so by death, a short beard, and greying hair.

His throat had been cut. She felt something uncoil in her guts.

She turned to Kher, who had blanched, his gaze held by the body.

‘Tell me about him.’

He shuddered, then turned to her. Grief darkened his features.

‘He was a great man. One of those Scotsmen who came to India as a boy and spent most of his life here. He worked for Burmah Oil. We both did. We were posted in Rangoon until the Japanese invasion in ’42. We were forced to abandon everything we’d built – our homes, the company – and trek across the jungle to Assam. From there we made our way down to Calcutta. In time, Burmah Oil gave John a position in the Bombay office.’

‘And you went with him?’

‘I’ve been his aide for almost two decades. He was more than my employer. He was my friend.’ He glanced again at the body, and then, in a whisper, ‘He saved my life on the road from Burma. And now…’ He waved a helpless hand at the greying slab of flesh.

She heard a clatter behind her and turned to find Blackfinch arriving with his young assistant, Mohammed, trundling a large, boxy case.

The Englishman greeted her awkwardly. ‘Persis.’

‘Archie.’

The stiffness between them flushed her insides with an uncomfortable heat. It was her own fault. She should never have stepped over the invisible line that kept whites and Indians apart in the new India. Now, like soldiers who had fought an indecisive skirmish, and didn’t know whether to return to their respective trenches or re-engage, they were at a loss. That they were forced to routinely work together was all but unbearable.

She introduced Kher. ‘Archie Blackfinch is a criminologist with the Metropolitan Police in England. He’s currently helping the Bombay police set up a forensics laboratory. I asked him here to examine the crime scene.’

Kher looked perturbed, then nodded. ‘In that case, perhaps I should show you the second body?’

2

The woman was young, in her early twenties, dressed in an olive sari, dark-skinned, and pretty.

She lay on the floor of the kitchen, the front of her sari soaked in blood, sightless eyes staring at the gently rotating ceiling fan.

‘Her name is Laxmi Vyas. She is – she was – the housekeeper.’

‘She lived here?’

‘Yes. In a downstairs room. She joined the household six months ago.’ Kher shook his head sadly. ‘Do you think it was a burglary? Or do you think they came for him?’

‘They?’

He blinked. ‘Nationalists. The ones who won’t rest until every foreigner leaves India.’

The theory had some truth to it. Even now, three years after Independence, tens of thousands of Brits stayed on in the country. Some had known no other home; others could not imagine returning to the cold, wet suburbs of the old country. Here, like Maxwell, they were burra sahibs, little emperors, waited on hand and foot by their former subjects.

She recalled the strife-ridden years of the Quit India movement, the vehemence with which many had pursued the ouster of foreigners, the violence directed towards them, despite Gandhi’s pleas. There were still hardline elements who believed in forcibly cleansing the country of the remaining vestiges of empire.

‘Too early to tell,’ she replied. ‘Did he have any enemies?’

‘He had rivals. I wouldn’t call them enemies.’

‘Please explain?’

‘John was the key figure for Burmah Oil in a lawsuit against the British Government. In the retreat from Burma, British soldiers were ordered to set fire to our oilfields to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy. Burmah Oil contends that we should be duly compensated. The British government disagrees. The legal battle has become a bitter affair.’

‘You believe this murder was orchestrated by the British government?’ She allowed incredulity to modulate her tone.

‘The British so hate to lose, don’t they?’

The idea seemed far-fetched and she could not take it seriously.

‘I’d like to see the rest of the house.’

3

In Maxwell’s study, she found a photograph of him as a younger man, a red-faced son of empire posing beside the carcasses of a trio of leopards, a shotgun cracked open in the crook of his elbow.

A search of his desk turned up little of value.

‘I take it he wasn’t married?’

‘He was a widower,’ replied Kher. ‘His wife died in Burma.’

‘Children?’

‘No. They were childless.’

‘He never remarried?’

‘No. He loved his first wife very much.’

Blackfinch entered the room. ‘Banerji has certified the deaths.’

She nodded. The prim and unlikeable doctor, with his sallow face and prissy bow ties, was as efficient as he was uncommunicative. Or perhaps that had more to do with the fact that she was the force’s only female detective. Engaging her in conversation seemed to make him gag, as if he’d gargled with bitter-gourd juice.

‘We’ll need the post mortem to confirm,’ Blackfinch continued, ‘but, by my estimation, they were both murdered with a large-bladed knife. She was stabbed at least six times in the chest and stomach. His throat was cut. No sign of the weapon and, frankly, no other forensic artefacts at this time.’ He reached up and touched his spectacles. His green eyes blinked behind the round lenses. ‘I think our burglar came in over the compound wall late last night, entered through an unlatched door at the rear of the house, stumbled across the maid in the kitchen, killed her, then came upstairs. My guess is Maxwell was dozing in the tub, didn’t even realise anything was amiss until the killer had slit his throat.’

He articulated the gruesome scenario as if reading out a report of the day’s cricket.

She directed herself to Kher. ‘Can you tell me if anything of value is missing?’

‘I can try.’

4

Half an hour later, they had completed a search of the house.

Going through Maxwell’s wardrobe, she discovered a wallet in the pocket of a blazer. Inside, a few hundred rupees in cash, and a folded receipt, stamped with the crest of a prominent Bombay jewellery store: Premlal & Sons. The receipt indicated that Maxwell had purchased – and collected – an expensive diamond ring just days before his death.

On the receipt was the inscription he had asked to be engraved on the ring.

Punarjanmanē mriyāmahē

Her Hindi was good but this was more formal. Sanskrit.

She handed the slip to Kher. ‘Do you know what this means?’

‘“We die to be reborn.”’ He all but whispered the words.

A strange thing to inscribe on a ring. And why had Maxwell, a Scot, chosen Sanskrit? She pondered the words, then said, ‘Why would a widower buy a diamond ring?’

His lips pursed. ‘This must be for Miss Matilda.’

‘Matilda?’

‘John had been courting a woman for the past year. I hadn’t realised that he’d decided to marry.’ He seemed perturbed that his friend had kept such a decision from him.

‘The ring isn’t here.’

He handed back the receipt. ‘Perhaps our killer took it?’

‘What else did he take?’

Kher contemplated the question. ‘There were a pair of solid silver engraved thabeik bowls. They were the only items we managed to leave with when we abandoned Burma. They were exceedingly valuable.’

‘Who knew about the bowls?’

‘It was no secret. John would use them as props when retelling the story of our escape. Perhaps his killer came to steal them, and the murders simply… happened.’

It was as good a theory as any. But questions continued to nag at her. ‘I’d like to speak with his intended fiancé.’

5

Matilda Harrison was in her late forties, an austere-looking woman, impeccable in a yellow cotton wrap dress falling to just below the knees. Her blonde hair was styled into victory rolls – a hangover from the war years – and her cheeks were rouged. She could not have been called beautiful but there was a forced elegance about her that spoke to a certain sense of determination.

They met at a restaurant in Nariman Point.

As the lunchtime service clattered around them, Persis waited while the woman ordered a martini. This wasn’t the venue she would have chosen to break the news of a loved one’s demise, but Harrison had declined to step outside.

She explained the reason for her visit, observing the woman’s reaction. A freezing of the features, a tremble of disbelief, and then the realisation that this unusual woman in a khaki uniform had told her nothing but the terrible truth.

A silence yawned between them, and then Harrison lifted her glass and drained it.

‘John’s dead.’ It was not a question, merely an affirmation of fact.

Persis allowed a moment. ‘May I ask you a few questions?’

Harrison looked at her sharply. ‘It’s usual to offer condolences.’

She ignored her. ‘How long had you known him?’

Harrison took a deep breath, composed herself. ‘Almost a year. We met in Bombay, at a bridge game organised by mutual friends. We hit it off. Two Scots, two widowers. We had a lot in common.’

‘How did you lose your husband?’

‘He was a soldier. He served as a recruiting sergeant in the Punjab, raising Indian regiments. In the end, they shipped him off to war. He never came back.’

She said this matter-of-factly. Old wounds. The woman’s composure was remarkable. Having weathered the initial shock, her distress seemed to have evaporated. Intriguing.

‘Did John propose marriage?’

This earned her another sharp look. ‘What business is that of yours?’

She took out the receipt and handed it to her. ‘He purchased what looks like an engagement ring. It appears to be missing from his home.’

She continued to stare at the slip of paper. ‘Oh, John,’ she murmured. A tremor shook her shoulders. She still hadn’t wept, Persis noted. A woman in control of her emotions. Or was there something more to it? ‘I hadn’t realised he was intending to propose.’

‘But you hoped?’

She grimaced. ‘At my age, what is left except hope, Inspector? To be frank, he’d been increasingly distant these past months. I half expected him to break things off, not… this.’

‘Do you know why he chose that inscription? It means “We die to be reborn.”’

The crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes crinkled. ‘No. But that was John. He always did have a dark sense of humour.’

6

Something about the inscription continued to bother her.

She made her way to the store where Maxwell had made the purchase, and found herself in conversation with the man who had sold him the ring.

‘Yes. I remember Mr Maxwell very well.’ The young man was more than an attendant. He was the youngest son of the store’s owner, immaculately dressed in herringbone tweed and two-toned shoes. A pencil moustache, Brylcreemed hair, and an acrid cologne that made her eyes water and felled flies in mid-flight. ‘A gentleman who knew his own mind.’

‘Did you suggest the inscription to him?’

‘No. He expressly asked for it.’

‘Didn’t it seem unusual to you? We die to be reborn? It hardly seems apt for an engagement ring.’

He gave her a condescending smile, flashing a set of white teeth. ‘Have you received a great many engagement rings, Inspector?’

She resisted the urge to wipe the smirk from his face. He seemed to notice her irritation, and coughed abruptly. ‘He told me that he’d chosen those words because they symbolised his union with the woman he intended to marry. In a sense, he was being reborn. He was leaving behind his old life, everything that he had been. I suppose he’d become somewhat possessed by romantic notions.’ He indulged in a cautious smile.

A sudden thought gripped her, as clear as a tolling bell.

‘Did he mention the name of his intended fiancé?’

‘No.’

‘Did you ask him?’

‘Yes. But he declined to share that information.’

‘Why?’

The question seemed to perplex him.

‘What I mean is, why keep it from you?’

‘Well, I-I don’t really know.’

7

Malabar House was all but deserted.

She found Roshan Seth in his office, scribbling in a notepad, and in a rare good mood.

The superintendent had once been a rising star on the Bombay force before Independence had run a tank over his ambitions. Accused by rivals of pursuing his duty a little too zealously under the British, he was now sidelined to the force’s smallest station, ostensibly in charge of others similarly in bad odour.

She went over the details of the case.

‘What makes you think it wasn’t a random burglary?’

‘There’s something about it. Something too precise.’

He grunted. ‘Perhaps his aide is right? If Maxwell was picking a fight with the British government, he was asking for trouble. Losing such a case would set a terrible precedent. I mean, the powers that be would hardly wish the British army rendered answerable for its actions.’ His tone was dry.

‘It doesn’t seem credible. Even the British would baulk at having a man killed on foreign soil.’

He snorted, derisively.

Back at her desk, a peon arrived with Blackfinch’s initial findings from the crime scene, and a set of photographs taken by his assistant. Autopsies were scheduled for the following day, though she doubted there was anything more they could learn. The cause of death was not in any doubt. Blackfinch’s preliminary analysis had been thorough.

Her eyes flicked over his description of the wounds…

Something snagged.

Blood on the fingers of the dead maid’s left hand. Blackfinch’s report stated that the blood came from cut marks on the fourth finger.

He’d speculated that she’d cut herself while cooking. But the cuts were fresh. What would she have been cooking that late at night? Why had she even been in the kitchen?

A sudden burst of electricity arced in her stomach like trapped lightning.

The shape of an answer.

8

‘Tell me about her.’

The mali was a small man, with hoary, sunken cheeks, a shirt limp with sweat, and a dhoti wrapped around his narrow hips. He seemed confused and agitated at the unexpected interrogation.

‘Madam, I had nothing to do with Mr Maxwell’s killing.’

‘I haven’t accused you of anything.’

She understood the terror in his eyes. A poor man had much to fear from the city’s police. If a scapegoat was needed for the murders, he was the perfect fit.

She chose not to reassure him.

He lifted his bidi to his mouth with a trembling hand and sucked on it. Blowing the smoke skywards, he said, ‘She was a Dalit, like me.’

A Dalit. An untouchable. Gandhi had called them harijans, children of God. But for the majority of India’s Hindus, they remained at the bottom of the social pyramid, the lowest members of a caste system – technically, below the lowest rung – that stretched back into antiquity, codified by the British in official documents, the basis for ongoing strife and hatred in spite of the efforts of the Mahatma and, now, Nehru’s fledgling government.

Social engineering had made little impact on millennia of entrenched prejudice.

‘Did she have family?’

‘No. She was an orphan.’

‘Was she married?’

‘No.’

‘Was she seeing someone? What I mean is, was there a man in her life?’

His agitation increased. ‘Why are you asking me these things?’

‘You’re here almost every day. Tending the garden. You must have seen something.’

He refused to meet her gaze.

She reached out and touched his elbow, startling him. ‘Two people are dead. If you know something, you must tell me.’

9

She found Mohan Kher at the Cuffe Parade offices of Burmah Oil.

The building, as imposing as anything the British had built during their imperial project, was in keeping with the company’s stature. Founded in Glasgow in the late 1800s, the fledgling outfit had struck it rich after British warships moved from coal to oil, supplied via Burmah Oil’s Rangoon oil fields.

Kher sat behind an enormous desk that might have doubled as a dining table in a medieval castle. The office had belonged to John Maxwell and had all the trappings of a wealthy man, including a tigerskin hung on the wall, the tiger’s expression one of extreme surprise, as if it had not anticipated such an ignominious fate.

‘I’m working through John’s papers,’ said Kher. ‘It helps to keep my mind occupied.’

His face was drawn. He had lost some of the energy she had witnessed in him that morning.

‘Tell me about Laxmi.’

His pen missed a beat. He set it down and looked at her.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Laxmi. The housemaid. She was murdered too. Or had you forgotten?’

He chose not to reply.

‘She was a Dalit. An Untouchable.’

‘I believe that word is now considered impolite.’

‘Changing a name doesn’t change the reality. Not in the minds of those who refuse to acknowledge that there was ever a need for change.’

‘I’m not certain what you’re getting, Inspector.’

‘John hired her, didn’t he? Without consulting you.’

‘What of it? It was his house. A private matter.’

She waited a beat. ‘It couldn’t have been easy for a man like you. Interacting with someone like her.’

His face had turned to stone.

She tapped her forehead, indicating his own. The three white stripes had vanished, but she saw that he understood what she meant. ‘You’re a Brahmin. She was a Dalit.’

A silence stretched. ‘Are you suggesting I had something to do with this woman’s killing?’

‘“We die to be reborn.”’ If John Maxwell truly believed that his intended marriage was a way of being reborn, that it would mark a leaving behind of his old life, then he couldn’t have been intending to marry Matilda Harrison. She was a continuation of the life he already knew, a fellow Scot, a woman who shared his old sensibilities, his upbringing, his religion.’ She stepped closer. ‘You found out that Maxwell was intending to marry his maidservant. Laxmi. You couldn’t allow that. In a sense, she would have become your superior. The mistress of the house. A Dalit able to command a Brahmin? It was unthinkable.’ Another step. ‘Once you decided to kill her, you knew you had to kill Maxwell too. He’d never let it lie. He was besotted with her. In your mind, he’d betrayed you.’

He was breathing heavily now, blinking rapidly behind his eyeglasses. ‘Conjecture. It means nothing.’

She stepped closer, then leaned over and set down the package she had been carrying.

He stared at it as she’d placed a grenade under his nose.

Eventually, he picked it up and removed the brown packing paper.

Inside were two silver bowls, heavily engraved.

‘I ordered a search of your home. We found them hidden at the bottom of a wardrobe. You couldn’t bear to leave them behind. The last memory of a man who once saved your life on the Burma Road.’

Find out more about the next book in the series, The Dying Day.

The Dying Day

by Vaseem Khan

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Cancelling Enid Blyton and Chimamanda’s “It Is Obscene” essay – is it possible to have a balanced discussion?

This week saw two incidents that exploded into the literary firmament, the shock wave propagating out into the public domain and inciting worldwide comment and debate. At the risk of stepping into a political minefield and having my metaphorical legs blown off, I present here my own take on matters.

Firstly, English Heritage updated its online entry for Enid Blyton, a recipient of the organisation’s blue plaque honour. For those not familiar with the scheme, blue plaques are awarded in England to figures of historical significance. You can see them dotted around the country on the walls of buildings where the recipients once lived.

English Heritage’s revised description of Blyton notes that her work was criticised – during her lifetime and after – “for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit”. Such updates are being made, according to English Heritage, “to provide a fuller picture of each person’s life, including aspects that people may find troubling.” Clearly, much of this is in reaction to the Black Lives Matter summer of last year, and the global reckoning that followed in its wake, a reckoning that included, for instance, the toppling of statues and the desire to reframe one-sided historical narratives with relevant context. 

Blyton’s revised entry has caused particular angst, namely because her books sold some 600 million copies in innumerable countries around the world, and formed a cornerstone of many people’s childhoods. This army of nostalgic, middle-aged readers has taken to Twitter to express their ire, defending Blyton – sometimes with an ardour that borders on fanaticism – and demanding the cancellation of English Heritage and all those who have dared to impugn their literary heroine’s moral virtue.

Once again, battle lines have been drawn and we are all being urged to take up one position or the other. 

The truth, as always, is a little more slippery.

My own feelings, for instance, are ambivalent. Enid Blyton’s books are one reason I am an author today. The Famous Five and The Secret Seven novels were staples of my childhood, foundational elements of my earliest forays into ‘serious’ reading. I cannot recall being aware of any overt racism in those books at that time and I’m not going to pretend that my fond memories of them have now soured in light of current revelations. Neither am I going to pretend that I’m not affected by some of the things I’ve discovered this week.

Many of Blyton’s defenders argue that she was merely a product of her time, picking up on the cultural cues swirling around her, cues that she may have grown up with. They argue that it is unfair for us to critique her through a lens ground from our modern ‘woke’ sensibilities. 

Yet the truth is that she was criticised even as far back as 1966 by the politician Lena Jeger writing in The Guardian in the wake of proposed amendments to the Race Relations Act. She highlighted one of Blyton’s books, The Little Black Doll, a book I’d never heard of till this week. 

In the book, Sambo, the black doll of a white girl, is told by our heroine that “I think you are ugly Sambo. I don’t like your black face”. The heartbroken doll runs away. Ultimately, magic rain washes off Sambo’s black face and suddenly everyone loves him. A pixie squeals “You aren’t black anymore, Sambo. You’ve got the dearest, pinkest, kindest face I ever saw!”

For all those suggesting that Blyton was merely reflecting her social environment, I can only say that any writer penning such words must surely have had some semblance of an idea that they would be offensive. It beggars belief that Blyton couldn’t have anticipated the effect such sentiments might have on people of colour. The book was published in 1965 not 1765!

Here’s a little thought experiment.

Imagine a prominent black author from Blyton’s time. Now imagine he or she wrote a children’s book where a white child was vilified for the colour of his skin or his blue eyes or blond hair. Imagine, if you, a white parent, found this book in your child’s hands. How would you feel watching your child imbibe such a negative message about their identity?

I can only imagine the mixture of confusion and sadness black children might have felt reading a book such as The Little Black Doll. And consider the effect on millions of white children who read it. What’s the takeaway message? White face good. Black face bad. How does that shape their thinking at a formative time in their lives?

This is racist messaging of the worst kind and I feel particularly embarrassed that so many supposedly well-read people from the subcontinent have taken to Twitter vowing to defend Blyton to the death without taking account of the sensibilities of those who might have been offended by such offerings.

And there are other examples. 

Blyton’s The Three Golliwogs included characters named Golly, Woggie, and a third name beginning with N which I won’t repeat, but which can be guessed at. I’m afraid that all the buttered scones and ginger beer in the world cannot wash away the bad taste left by such creations.

Having said this, there is no doubt that Blyton’s extraordinary oeuvre brought millions upon millions of children to reading, myself included. That cannot be a bad thing and to try to erase that achievement or to suggest that her books have no literary merit is disingenuous in the extreme. 

The problem is that we are not allowed, in today’s ‘cancel culture’ era, to participate in a nuanced, complex debate about the issue. We’re expected to take up arms and choose one side or the other. We have all been enlisted in the so-called ‘culture wars’, where sitting on the fence, or being confused as to how one should feel is simply not permissible. To do so invites the ire of the pitchfork-wielding mob.

And this leads me to the second incident from this week: Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay tackling cancel culture and the ‘worrying homogeny of thought’ in today’s environment. 

Adichie writes: “There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion… People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy… People… who have no compassion for anybody genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Ask again for clarity and be accused of violence…What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness… It is obscene.’

The essay, needless to say, went viral, crashing Adichie’s website. Adichie appears to have tapped into a depth of feeling that many of us would like to express but haven’t been able to. The despair and anger we feel when we see important discussions hijacked by immoderate loudmouths who only seem to want to tear down others for the sake of their own virtue-signalling. 

On the subject of Enid Blyton, this is what Adichie had to say in a past interview in Net-A-Porter. “I like the worlds she created. I wanted to be in the circus or The Famous Five, and I had this hankering for ginger beer – which turned out to be a bit disappointing when I tasted it… I know she was supposed to be terrible and a racist, but I enjoyed her books. I’m not someone who goes around trying to disapprove of writers; it’s the lack of choice and differing point of view that matters, and which I want to highlight.”

The truth is that none of us enjoy seeing our heroes torn down. When that happens, we feel as if a small part of ourselves is also lost, a measure of innocence that will never be regained. I felt the same way when I discovered that Roald Dahl had once made anti-Semitic comments. How could the creator of one of the seminal books of my childhood, Danny, the Champion of the World, have voiced such bigoted opinions? 

We are all guilty of hagiographic excess when thinking of our idols, of portraying them in the best possible light. In reality, they are people like us, with complex emotions, sensibilities, and all too human frailties. The fact is that if we look hard enough we can find fault in practically every historical character. This is not necessarily a bad thing. For human society to progress we must be willing to acknowledge past errors so that we can learn from them. But it makes no sense to erase or ‘cancel’ history; historical revisionism benefits no one, unless it is employed to highlight those elements that will serve to aid our understanding as we face the future.

In that sense, I believe that English Heritage’s attempts to contextualise some of Blyton’s work is probably in the right spirit. They have made it clear they do not intend to remove the blue plaque that honours her contribution. They aren’t in the business of ‘cancelling’ historical figures, no matter what the Twitter mob and the mouth-frothing, self-proclaimed upholders of our national virtue would have you believe. 

The fact is that without discussion nothing changes. 

What we could all do with is less of the rhetoric and beetroot-faced rage, and a calmer, more balanced conversation. Maybe over a cup of tea with some buttered scones of the type Blyton so favoured. 

Note: I am currently releasing a series of 50 articles about India via this blog. 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, short stories, and lots of other interesting content. 

My latest paperback, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here. The follow up, out in July 2021, is The Dying Day, described as ‘The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India,’ by M. W. Craven, winner of the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger.

Inside India #23: When Tagore met Einstein – India’s Nobel Prize-winning poet meets the great scientist

In the pantheon of great writers to have emerged from the subcontinent, Rabindranath Tagore holds a unique place. In his book Raga Mala, Ravi Shankar, the renowned musician, argued that had Tagore been born in the West “he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.” 

For Indians, particularly those of Bengali extraction, Tagore has always been a towering figure. His poems, songs, novels and other writings have enriched the nation’s cultural legacy, justly celebrated, and elevating him to the status of national icon. But the truth is that, outside of the subcontinent, he remains, other than to those of a literary bent, a relatively unknown quantity.

Who was the man they called the Bard of Bengal?

Picture attribution: cea +  Creative Commons 2.0

Tagore was born in 1861 in Calcutta, a Brahmin Hindu. A child prodigy with a restless mind, his talent manifested at an early age. He wrote poetry as an eight-year-old and released his first poetry collection aged just sixteen. His father, however, had other plans, packing his dreamy-eyed son off to a public school in Brighton, England in 1878, followed by a brief stint at University College London where he read law in accordance with his father’s wish that he train as a barrister. Tagore found the endeavour less than inspiring and soon dropped out, instead opting to study Shakespeare – on his own. 

In 1880, he returned to Bengal – without a degree, much to his father’s chagrin – and embarked on his career as a creative artist, quickly moving beyond his initial forays into poetry. A polymath, Tagore became a key figure in the so-called Bengal Renaissance. His vast canon comprises paintings, sketches, poetry, novels, essays, short stories, and some two thousand songs. 

As he grew towards adulthood, he became infected with the sensibilities of the era – an ardent nationalist streak emerged within the stately artist, encouraging him to use his public platform to advocate for Indian Independence. 

He gained worldwide attention with Gitanjali (“Song Offering”), a selection of one hundred and three prose poems for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, the first non-European to earn that honour. 

For years thereafter, he became the doyen of European literary circles, touring to packed audiences. In 1915, he was awarded a knighthood by King George V but renounced it after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India’s Punjab region where almost a thousand unarmed Indian civilians were murdered in cold blood as they gathered to protest the continued occupation of their country.

This nationalistic bent can be found in one of the most famous works from Gitanjali – “Where the Mind is Without Fear”, a clarion call to Tagore’s fellow Indians to rise up against the Raj:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection:
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action–
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

By the 1930s, however, Tagore-fever had ebbed. (Graham Greene even remarked that “As for Rabindranath Tagore, I cannot believe that anyone but Mr. Yeats can still take his poems very seriously.”) Nevertheless, he remained an important literary and international figure, an ambassador for his country, his white kurta and striking long white beard instantly recognisable. 

During this period, he became a fashionable guest of western luminaries.

On July 14, 1930, he was welcomed into the Berlin home of Albert Einstein where the pair discussed, amongst other things, the age-old friction between science and religion. Einstein and Tagore had a genuine curiosity about each other’s views of the worldand explored the fundamental questions of existence, touching on science, philosophy, consciousness, and beauty.

In one exchange Einstein asked, “Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?”

Tagore replied: “Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the Universe is human Truth. I have taken a scientific fact to explain this. Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly, humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature, and the religious consciousness of man.”

Einstein discovered that he apparently believed more in absolute truth than the ostensibly spiritual man he was debating, causing him to exclaim, “Then I am more religious than you are!”

Tagore’s legacy lives on today in Indian and Bangladeshi schools, where children are required to sing the national anthem. In both countries, they are singing compositions by Tagore: in India’s case Jana Gana Mana (“Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people”) and in Bangladesh Amar Shonar Bangla (“My Golden Bengal”).

As India moves into a future increasingly influenced by western culture, Tagore remains a much revered and affectionate touchstone of her great literary past.

Inside India #22: The Indian Mutiny – how a bullet cartridge ignited a rebellion

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.

29 March 1857. At Barrackpore, near Calcutta, an Indian soldier named Mangal Pandey, of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry, brazenly announces his intention to rebel against his British commanding officers. Having got wind of Pandey’s plan, a Sergeant-Major James Hewson arrives on the double to investigate, only to find bullets flying in his direction. Several of Pandey’s comrades join in the protest, but refrain from attacking the British officer. 

This then is the beginning of the so-called Indian Mutiny.

What caused the uprising? And what effect did it have on how the British operated in India in the years to follow?

Photo attribution: Photo NA54586. Public. Resource. Org. Creative Commons 2.0.

The immediate catalyst for Pandey’s act of rebellion: a bullet cartridge.

That spring, Indian troops had been issued with the new Enfield rifle. Rumours had swiftly spread throughout Pandey’s unit that the cartridges accompanying the rifle were greased with pig and cow fat, thus making them offensive to both Muslims and Hindus. The blindness to local sensibilities lent credence to existing fears that the British were intent on forcing Indian troops to convert to Christianity. Underlying factors for discontent also included poor terms of service for Indian soldiers, low pay, and a marked racial insensitivity by their British officers, few of whom interacted with their Indian subordinates or made any attempt to understand them or their lives. 

This, then, was the touchpaper that lit the Indian Mutiny, which properly began six weeks later, on 10th May 1857, when eighty-five members of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, who had been jailed for refusing to use the new cartridges, were broken out of prison by their comrades. They immediately went on the rampage, ransacking a nearby military outpost, and putting to death any Europeans luckless enough to cross their path. 

In the days that followed, the situation rapidly escalated, with mutinies springing up in various locations outside of Bengal state. 

The rebellion quickly reached Delhi, where the Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was declared Emperor of Hindustan. His reign was to be short-lived.

The British East India Company – at the time the de facto rulers of the subcontinent – responded with overwhelming force, and Delhi was retaken by the end of September, but not before barbaric acts of cruelty, perpetrated by both sides, had left their mark on the national psyche. 

One of the worst such incidents took place at Kanpur, in the infamous Siege of Cawnpore, as it was then known.

Rebelling sepoys at Cawnpore besieged the European settlement there for three weeks, inflicting numerous civilian casualties. On 25th June, they made an offer of safe passage, ostensibly seeking to bring hostilities to an end. On the morning of 27th June, the European party left their entrenchment and made their way to the river where boats waited to take them to Allahabad. 

But, once they arrived at the dock, firing broke out. 

In the ensuing carnage, almost all of the Europeans were killed. The surviving women and children – some two hundred individuals – were held hostage in the home of the local magistrate – a place known as the Bibighar. Once word arrived that British military reinforcements were due to arrive at any moment, and it became clear Cawnpore could not be held, the hostages were murdered in bloody fashion, hacked to death by locals armed with knives and hatchets, and their bodies thrown into a well. 

The Bibighar Massacre hardened British attitudes against the mutineers. 

Cawnpore became a rallyingcry, galvanising the British armed forces to end the Indian Mutiny, a goal that was pursued with a bloody-mindedness (including the razing of several Indian villages and slaughter of all residents) that is still reflected in historical accounts today.

It took a further year for the mutiny to be fully brought to an end.

On 1st November 1858, the British granted amnesty to all rebels – at least, those not involved in murder – though they did not declare the hostilities to have formally ended until 8th July 1859.

As for the man who started it all… After failing to incite his comrades into open rebellion, Mangal Pandey tried to take his own life, by shooting himself in the chest with his own rifle. Alas, he managed only to wound himself. 

He was court-martialled on 6th April 1857, and hanged two days later. 

In spite of his ignominious end, Pandey’s act of rebellion has gone down in Indian folklore, inspiring countless retellings, including books, and a major Bollywood movie. The man may have become a myth, but the mutiny he inspired remains one of the bloodiest periods of the British time in India. In the immediate aftermath, the British government decided to remove the East India Company from its position of power and opt for direct rule. A policy of greater consultation with Indians at a political and legislative level was adopted, in the hope that future insensitivities leading to conflict might be averted. 

For the Indian population, the failure of the mutiny – and the fact that it had failed to galvanise either the masses or the ruling class – would hold back the progress of nationalism until the turn of the century.

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. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Inside India #21: The Bombay Dog Riots

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 city of Bombay has long been associated with stray dogs – ‘pie’ dogs, as they are often known. These feral canines can be seen everywhere in India’s city of dreams, nosing through garbage, hanging around markets, running along deserted streets at night in vociferous cut-priced wolf-packs. They are often cited as a nuisance, a threat to public safety and hygiene. At various times in the city’s history, there have been calls for them to be culled. 

Some of those calls have, regrettably, been acted upon.

Picture attribution: Image by PicsbyFran from Pixabay Pixabay License. 

In 1813, the city’s British overseers brought in a regulation that allowed for the killing of dogs – or, rather, dogs with no apparent owners. The cull would only be permitted during the hottest parts of the Bombay summer, a time when dead carcasses putrefy quickly. This regulation was not enforced in any meaningful way, but in 1832 the then Bombay police magistrate chose to make several critical changes to the law – extending the period during which dogs could be culled, and offering a bounty for each one killed – that resulted in uproar. 

Clearly, he hadn’t counted on the venality of the local populace. 

Within short order, specially appointed police dog killers were roaming the streets doing away with anything remotely resembling man’s best friend. Many dogs that could not have been described as ‘stray’ fell victim to the cull. There were even reports that overzealous dog catchers were sneaking into private homes just to club poor Fido over the head and take back the corpse to collect their bounty.

Though some lauded this canine holocaust, not everyone was impressed. 

One community, in particular, was outraged by the new law and its deadly consequences.

The Parsees came to India from Persia, chased out of their native Iran by local persecution. They settled in Gujarat, and later Bombay, where they became stalwarts in the city’s rise to commercial prominence. Parsees brought with them their own religion: Zoroastrianism. 

The Parsees do not bury or cremate their dead – they leave them out in stone structures called Towers of Silence, to be eaten by vultures. Vultures are thus revered in Parsee culture. Dogs hold a similarly sacred position – they are thought to act as guides for the soul towards heaven. Indeed, a key Parsee funerary rite is for a dog to be brought before the deceased’s body in order to confirm death in a ritual called sagdid – dog-sight. If the dog stares steadily at the body, then the person is deemed to be still alive. If the dog does not look at the body, then death is confirmed. This method of diagnosing death might not be one often utilised by modern pathologists; but what cannot be debated is the high regard in which Parsees hold our canine friends. 

Indeed, one of the reasons for fleeing their native Iran was the purported cruelty towards dogs displayed by the new rulers of the region. 

Fast forward to 6th July 1832: a holy day for Parsees. 

In Bombay’s Fort area, the police canine killers continue their grisly task, unaware of growing Parsee resentment. Word spreads. A crowd gathers – two hundred or so Parsees – and two dog-constables are attacked. In short order, the city’s commercial nerve centre – run largely by Parsees – is shut down, all but paralysing Bombay. Soon Muslims, Hindus and Jains join the protest.

Later that evening, the city’s British garrison swung into action. The Riot Act was (literally) read to the crowd, and succeeded in breaking up the protest. The ringleaders of the strike were arrested and thrown in jail. 

This, unsurprisingly, had the effect of pouring oil onto the fire. 

In the days that followed, negotiations between the British and the Parsees became heated, but eventually a détente was reached. It was decided that, rather than cull stray dogs, an attempt would be made to relocate such dogs outside of the city’s limits. The Parsees were duly appeased by the underlying commitment to preserve canine life, however practical the reality of following through on the initiative might be. 

The Bombay Dog riots – considered to be the first of the many riots that have plagued India’s premier metropolis – demonstrated the power base that the Parsees had managed to create in a relatively short time on the subcontinent. The riots also exposed the vulnerability of British policies to local religious sentiments and helped reinforce the general policy of non-interference in religious practise that marked the British time in India. 

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. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Inside India #20: The truth about the Black Hole of Calcutta

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 20, 1756. A night that continues to live in infamy in the annals of the British colonial era in India. On that sweltering summer night, one hundred and forty-six British prisoners – including two women, several wounded men, and a number of Indian civilians – were herded into a tiny dungeon inside Fort William in Calcutta. The eighteen feet by fifteen feet lock up had only two small windows, almost no natural light, and was known as the fort’s ‘black hole’. The climate at that time of year was roasting and it wasn’t long before the prisoners were trampling on each other in an attempt to snatch a gasp of air from the tiny windows. 

Throughout that night, they begged for mercy, for water, for a show of decency from their captors. Their pleas and prayers went in vain. 

The next morning, when the door was unlocked, the dead came tumbling out.  A quick count revealed that only twenty-three of the prisoners remained alive. 

At least that’s how the story goes.

The truth of the Black Hole of Calcutta may be not be quite so cut-and-dried.

Picture attribution: Tarunsamanta Creative Commons 4.0

First, a little scene-setting.  

By the end of the seventeenth century, power in the Mughal empire that ruled over much of the subcontinent had fallen into the hands of the nawabs, provincial governors – with the trappings of sovereigns – presiding over regional territories. Meanwhile, the British, relative newcomers to the subcontinent and represented by the East India Company, had established a trading base in Calcutta in the 1690s, building Fort William as a defensive measure. They quickly became influential across the region, but this nascent power base came under threat in the mid 1700s from competing French interests. 

In response, the British garrison, suspecting imminent hostilities, began to strengthen Fort William’s defences. Here the law of unintended consequences may have taken effect.

The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daula, newly succeeding his grandfather in 1756, and fearing the increasingly aggressive British posturing, sent orders to the British Governor of Calcutta to stop work on the fortifications. 

When the British took no notice, the impetuous Siraj-ud-daula marched on Calcutta with an enormous army – a force of some fifty thousand men, fifty cannon, and, for good measure, a few hundred elephants.

The nawab’s forces arrived on June 16th, 1756, and began to move through Calcutta, encountering little opposition. The city’s British residents ran for cover to the ships in the harbour. Behind them, remained a garrison of just one hundred and seventy English soldiers, tasked to defend the fort. The garrison was commanded by John Zephaniah Holwell, a tax collector with no military experience – he surrendered on June 20th. 

That night, according to his own account, one hundred and forty-six prisoners were marched into the ‘black hole’. 

His description of the event – summarised above – was written after his return to England the following year, in the dramatically entitled A Genuine Narrative Of The Deplorable Deaths Of The English Gentlemen And Others, Who Were Suffocated In The Black Hole. The story caused an instant furore, stoking rage against Indians and a rabid nationalistic fervour throughout Britain.

A relief expedition led by Robert Clive, an East India Company lieutenant, was immediately assembled and arrived in Calcutta in October 1756. 

Within a few short months, after a prolonged siege, Fort William fell to the British. 

Less than a year later, in June 1757, Clive and a force of just three thousand, defeated the nawab’s army at the infamous Battle of Plassey, where the informal British policy of ‘divide and rule’ was employed to stark effect. 

Deposing Siraj-ud-daula, Clive replaced him with his uncle Mir Jafar, a key commander in Siraj-ud-daula’s forces, to whom he had promised the ‘throne’ in return for Jafar sabotaging Siraj-ud-daula’s efforts during the battle. For this privilege, Jafar paid Clive the astronomical sum of £235,000. More importantly, he gave the East India Company power to tax Mughal lands and command Mughal troops. 

Overnight the East India Company went from being merely powerful traders to India’s de facto rulers, a turn of events that most Britons looked upon with great favour – finally, they had an excuse to ‘civilise’ the subcontinent. The fact that India had had many advanced civilisations for thousands of years was completely lost on the invaders. 

The success of the British at Plassey is often cited as the start of the colonial era in India, an era that would last uninterrupted until independence in 1947. Over time, the Black Hole incident attained mythical status among the colonisers as a demonstration of British stoicism, and was used as propaganda to smear Indians as capable of the worst sort of barbarism.

And yet… Many have long disputed Holwell’s defining account.

In 1915, scholar J.H. Little published an article entitled The Black Hole–The Question of Holwell’s Veracity in which he pointed out several flaws in the Englishman’s story. He showed Holwell to be an unreliable witness and claimed the incident was exaggerated by Holwell in an attempt to pass himself off as a hero. 

Indian scholar Brijen Gupta, writing in the 1950s,suggests that the total number of prisoners shut in the ‘black hole’ was probably sixty-four, of whom twenty-one came out alive. He has also produced evidence that he claims refutes the notion that Siraj-ud-daula ordered the prisoners to be shut in. He suggests that the nawab knew nothing about the imprisonment, and subsequent deaths, until afterwards.

The above picture is claimed to be the site of the Black Hole, now located in the premises of the General Post Office, Kolkata. Picture attribution: Dassurojitsd Creative Commons 4.0

Where lies the truth? The best that can be established is that the captives marched into the dungeon that fateful night numbered between sixty-four and sixty-nine and no more than forty-three of the garrison at Fort William was unaccounted for afterwards. Therefore, it is most likely that forty-three people died that night, in terrible circumstances. 

Whatever the numbers, the incident remains one of the most notorious of many brutalities – on both sides – to have marked the British time in India.

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. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Am I brown enough?

Earlier this week a fuss ensued when it was suggested that Idris Elba’s depiction of the TV detective Luther wasn’t ‘black enough’ because he ‘doesn’t have any black friends,’ and ‘he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food.’ The point being made was around how ethnic characters are portrayed in fiction and on screen – a point that isn’t entirely without merit, and a point that became lost in the storm on social media.

I’m not in a position to comment on whether Luther is or isn’t ‘black enough.’ But what I can say is that this idea that someone of a particular ethnicity – be they white, black, Asian or anything in between – should conform to certain expectations when depicted in fiction is one that often incites debate. 

From my point of view, as an author, I’ve always found it quite restrictive that the publishing industry often requires writers of colour to write to their heritage or to stick to tales of immigrant life. Various reports have shown that most authors of colour have found this to be the case, though the industry seems slowly to be changing its thinking. A new generation of minority writers are making inroads into genre fiction where previously they might have met with limited enthusiasm.

My parents are from the subcontinent. I was born in East London and grew up there. I went to India during my twenties, to work, but for the past sixteen years I’ve been back in the UK. I consider myself British, but retain a strong affinity to the heritage of my parents. 

In our house, growing up, we ate mainly Asian meals. We watched Bollywood films. We – mainly me – loved cricket. We had a huge circle of Asian relatives and friends. We went to big fat Asian weddings that were loud and colourful and raucous and bankruptingly expensive. In all these aspects, we probably conformed to the expected narrative. We were Asians in every sense that fiction and screen has portrayed us to be.

And yet…

I am an individual, just as we all are. Many of my likes and habits diverge from those ‘expected’ of Asians. Many of those likes have evolved over the years, as I have travelled and experienced more of the world. Yet, even from an early age, some aspects of my personality were not what you might call ‘authentically’ Asian.

As a family, we watched Only Fools and HorsesBlackadder, and the brilliant David Suchet as Poirot. Our culinary tastes expanded as we grew, forcing my mother to experiment with pasta, noodles, and tuna and cucumber sandwiches – I still remember the look of horror on her face at my claim that this was a healthy alternative to a lunchtime biryani.

When I was in my teens I came across a CD with music from the fifties. As I listened to it, I was instantly beguiled by the simple beats and catchy a capella performances. Even now I am a huge fan of what is known as ‘doo-wop’ – much to the bemusement of many of my Asian friends who wouldn’t know a good melody if it punched them in the face. (I say this in jest, of course, but you know who you are.) 

At school, it wasn’t cricket that I first played. I fell in love with football in playground games, charging sweatily around at lunchtime in my school uniform. Even now I play five-a-side as often as I can. Cricket is still my favourite sport, but my brother is football mad and lukewarm about cricket. In fact, many younger British Asians are first and foremost passionate football supporters. Many couldn’t give a hoot about cricket.

When I was in my early teens, I discovered a biography of Lord Admiral Nelson left behind in the house we’d moved into. Nelson’s story, the tale of England’s greatest tragic hero, cut down in the very hour of his triumph, a flawed genius, valiant yet vulnerable, instantly resonated with me. Why? I don’t really know. I suppose I loved the adventurous retelling of Nelson’s exploits on the high seas, a realm so far from my own Asian East London upbringing as to be akin to fantasy. Caught as I was between cultures, I found in Nelson an inspirational figure, a man who defined what it meant to be English. (He remains one of my great heroes.)

Today, I write novels about India, but they’re laced with my very British sensibilities. 

Today, many aspects of my life are Asian… and many others are far from what you might have in your mind’s eye when you think of the British Asian community.

So… the question is, am I brown enough? 

Well, let me ask you: who is out there making the rules? Who decides what is or isn’t authentic for a given culture or group of people? 

I suppose the point I’m making is this: in today’s world, none of us are just one thing. We’re all a mishmash, to a certain degree. Just think of the food you eat, the films you enjoy, your hobbies. Unless you live a very restricted existence, you will find your life crossing socio-cultural boundaries. That doesn’t take away from the essence of your identity or the heritage you claim as your own. For me, this is simply a natural extension of the increasingly connected world we inhabit.

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is currently on 99p Kindle offer in the UK. The book is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

I am currently releasing 50 articles about India’s past, present and future. They 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 #19: Christian missionaries in India – churches, cartridges, and the clap.

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.

Anywhere else in the world a religious community of some thirty million would be considered numerous. But in India, a country of 1.4 billion, it is very much a minority. Such is the status of Christians in India.

Picture attribution: This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Source: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/bc/b5/d809223ecdd4791e15d39805278b.jpg Creative Commons 4.0.

The exact arrival of Christianity on the subcontinent is a matter of some debate, with perhaps the most popular tradition holding that it was introduced to the country by Thomas the Apostle, who (supposedly) reached the Malabar Coast (modern day Kerala) in 52 AD, and established the ‘Seven Churches’. In 57 AD, he is said to have overseen the construction of India’s oldest church – a building that some claim to be the world’soldest existing church structure – in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. (It is called St Mary’s Orthodox Church, known locally as Thomaiyar Kovil.)

There is, alas, little in the historical record to underpin much of this. What is reasonably well established is that by the sixth century Christianity was flourishing in the region. 

The next major injection of Christian doctrine came almost a thousand years later with the arrival of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, accompanied by Irish and Italian priests. This Roman Catholic invasion left an indelible imprint on India that has lasted into the modern era. Innumerable schools, hospitals, convents, and charitable institutions were established by these tireless (some say overzealous) missionaries and add to the country’s rich mix of nomenclature by continuing to bear the names of Catholic saints.

The final wave of Christian influence to wash over the subcontinent came with the Raj in the 18th and 19th centuries and Anglican Protestantism. 

Unlike earlier forays, this latest invasion was met with opposition from an unexpected quarter. 

At the time, the East India Company was the de facto power on the subcontinent. Operating on the basis that Indians would be easier to govern if allowed to persist in their millennia-old traditions, they eschewed a muscular approach to the dissemination of Christianity.Alas, the Company’s flagbearers hadn’t counted on the lobbying power of the Evangelical movement back in England. 

In 1813, the British government made it a condition of renewing the Company’s Indian charter that they grant the Church’s missionaries full and free access to the subcontinent. 

These missionaries arrived buoyed by a spirit of holy enterprise with the aim of ‘rescuing’ the natives from their primitive, superstitious ways. Their actual success was limited, with relatively few recorded conversions, but achieved much in terms of alienating local populations, so much so that history now suggests that their extraordinary zeal helped provoke the 1857 Indian mutiny. (New ammunition introduced to the Enfield musket required soldiers to bite into a cartridge to release the powder before loading it into the rifle. The grease used on these cartridges was rumoured to include tallow derived from beef – offensive to Hindus – and pork – offensive to Muslims. Already primed by the belief that missionaries were seeking to undermine their faith, this proved to be the flashpoint that ignited the insurrection.) 

It was at this time that Anglican missionaries were also accused of helping spread the clap – by forcing the closure of regulated brothels. Aside from the angst this caused to both those who worked in the flesh trade and their customers – many of whom were Europeans – the medical impact of the Church’s moral crusade was widely felt.

Perhaps the most egregious crime ascribed to these modern apostles was that they managed to instil the idea in locals that white Christians were racially superior to the ‘heathen’ races of the subcontinent, pagans operating beyond the one true God’s grace. The shadow cast by this demeaning characterisation persisted for generations, causing Indians to doubt the legitimacy of their own ancient socio-religious heritage – a heritage that predated Christianity by at least five millennia. Some even argue that this undermining of the Indian psyche delayed the advent of the independence movement.

Not everything Christian missionaries did in India was to the detriment of the locals. 

Protestant Christian missions campaigned on many fronts to improve the lives of natives in line with the tenets of their own faith. For instance, they helped abolish the practise of sati (widows immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres), campaigned against female infanticide, and pushed through a modern English-based education system.

Today Christianity makes up barely two per cent of India’s population. But its oft-times tortured history on the subcontinent means that it retains a place of prominence in modern India, alongside the country’s other major religions. 

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. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Inside India #18: Eating the dead – the Parsees of India

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 Parsees of India are unique on the subcontinent because they do not cremate or bury their dead. Instead they leave them out in stone structures called Towers of Silence for vultures to eat. This process is called excarnation.

So who exactly are the Parsees and why do they hold vultures sacred? 

Picture attribution: Tower of Silence, Bombay by GSV, Creative Commons

Parsees originate in Persia, in the region we now call Iran. They are known as Zoroastrians and believe in a deity called Ahura Mazda – the wise lord. Fire is a physical representation of that deity. The principal prophet of Ahura Mazda was a man named Zoroaster – or Zarathustra – who lived around 600 BCE. He spoke about the concept of judgement after death, and of heaven and hell, greatly influencing some of the later Abrahamic religions. 

When Muslims conquered Persia in 640 BCE, they gradually began persecuting the Parsees – razing their fire temples and initiating the jizya tax – a levy on non-Muslims. When they began to mistreat dogs, an animal revered by Parsees, it proved to be the final straw. The Parsees fled Iran and headed towards India where they eventually settled, first in Gujarat, and then in Bombay. 

In many ways, the Parsees have helped shape the course of modern India, with a particularly strong influence in the development of Bombay (now Mumbai). Today, Parsee heritage and influence can be found in every nook and cranny of the city – from the various Parsee businesses that have powered Mumbai’s economic growth to the city’s historic Parsee cafés. (No visit to Mumbai would be complete without a trip to Britannia & Co, the famous Parsee joint on Sprott Road whose recently-deceased and gloriously eccentric owner, an Anglophile Parsee by the name of Boman Kohinoor, kept a painting of Queen Elizabeth II on the wall side-by-side with a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.) 

Bombay’s Parsees leave behind a rich legacy. There’s Sir Sorabji Pochkhanawala, a pioneer of Indian banking (he helped establish the Central Bank of India), and Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress; Cowasjee Davar who set up the country’s first cotton mill; more recently, Ratan Tata, descendant of the legendary J.R.D Tata, who, aside from building one of the country’s biggest conglomerates, was also India’s first licensed pilot and established the nation’s first airline in 1932 – Tata Airlines (now Air India), and Cornelia Sorabji, Bombay University’s first female graduate, the first woman to study law at Oxford University, and India’s first female legal advocate… the list goes on.

The first Parsee I met was during my years living in India. His name was Homi and we bumped into each other at a management workshop in Bombay. During the breaks, we chatted and I became instantly intrigued by Parsee culture, knowing little about it until that point. For instance, I had no idea that Parsees consider fire and earth holy and thus do not bury or cremate their dead. This distinguishes them from Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians in the country. Instead, Parsees dispose of their dead by allowing vultures to consume the corpse after it has been laid out in a dakhma, a circular stone structure also called a Tower of Silence. 

Vultures, like dogs, are considered holy by Parsees, who recognise that these incredible animals, abhorred my many, are valuable members of the world’s ecosystems. Blessed with an astonishing sense of smell and iron stomachs, they perform a vital service in cleaning up carcasses – for keeping India’s roads free of roadkill alone they deserve to be lauded. Instead, they are maligned in popular culture, routinely equated to lawyers and newsmen, which, frankly, is an insult to vultures. (I’ve never heard of a vulture printing false stories or bending the truth in court.) 

Indian vultures have been on the Critically Endangered List since 2002, the population decimated by manmade chemicals, such as Diclofenac. Diclofenac was once administered to working animals to reduce joint pain – to arthritic cows and horses in order to keep them slaving for longer. The drug is believed to be swallowed by vultures with the flesh of dead cattle. The result? An astonishing 99.7% disappeared from the Indian ecosystem in less than 10 years, making this the fastest collapse in any avian population ever recorded.

As the vultures have declined, the Parsees have had to adapt in surprising ways, just one of many changes this small but powerful community has had to make to survive in the modern world, a world where dwindling Parsee numbers threaten their ancient heritage.  

I explore the Parsee community and the Towers of Silence in the fifth book of my Inspector Chopra series, Bad Day at the Vulture Club. In this one, Chopra investigates the murder of a wealthy Parsee. You can buy a copy at your local bookseller or by clicking 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. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.