‘Is this a Dagger I see before me?’ – Lessons from 30 years of writing

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Teeth on the canvas

Trying to make a career as an author is like a boxing match in a Rocky film. You come in with wild expectations, buoyed by mindlessly-optimistic rags-to-riches stories. You showboat your way to the ring, play to the crowd a little, maybe blow a few air kisses… and then reality punches you in the face. You get knocked down, get back up, get knocked down a few more times, and then, if you’re lucky enough to stumble to the end with half your teeth, you end up narrowly losing on points.

OK. So maybe it’s not as bleak as that. There are moments that remind you why you set out on this journey of self-flagellation in the first place. Finishing your first novel. Getting an agent. Seeing your debut in print. Positive reviews. Meeting readers. Meeting other writers (yes, that is a positive). Bestseller status. Awards. And so on and so forth.

Last year, Midnight at Malabar House, my sixth published novel, won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger. It is with a sense of poignancy that I now hand over the crown to another worthy winner. (Of course, like any normal author, I considered making voodoo dolls of the nominees and stabbing them repeatedly with a letter opener. But I’ve never been very good at handicrafts, so I’ve settled for being magnanimous instead.)

In this piece, written on the eve of the CWA Daggers awards night, I look back on 30 years of writing, unpublished and published. That’s a lot of getting knocked down and getting back up again. A lot of teeth on the canvas. Has it been worth it? Undeniably, categorically… yes!

Pre-publication wilderness

Mumbai, 2004. I’m standing at a hole-in-the-wall photocopy shop, a stray goat nuzzling affectionately at my crotch, traffic blasting by behind me. I’d been working in the city for seven years (having been born and raised in London) and I’d just paid a small fortune to photocopy thirty odd bundles of the first three chapters of my latest completed novel. I was 31 years old and I’d been writing since I was 17. This was the fourth novel I’d completed, the fourth I would send in to a hatful of British agents, bracing myself in advance for the inevitable fusillade of rejection letters that would follow. (I’d already collected enough of them to wallpaper the Great Wall of China. Twice.)

Everyone tells you that writing is about perseverance. What they don’t tell you is how bloody hard it is to keep picking yourself up off the floor each time a book you’ve sweated over for a year or more is rejected. It’s difficult to be zen when what you really want to do is drive round to the agent who’s just sent you another standard rejection note, drag them into the street like the cur they are, and pummel them in the gonads until they agree you’re the best thing to hit the literary scene since Hemingway.

I wrote my first novel aged 17, an epic SF comic fantasy in the vein of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I sent it in to several agents confident that my first book deal was on its way – along with the fabled Money Truck – thus proving to my parents how wrong they were to insist I go to university and get a ‘real job’. There was one small problem. The book was sh*t.

Fast forward 23 years and six more novels, of ever decreasing levels of awfulness. I know this because by the final entries I was receiving the odd rejection note carrying a few words of encouragement. I can’t thank those agents enough. That faint praise – as tepid as the light from a distant galaxy – nevertheless meant everything. I wrote literary novels, SF, romance… anything I thought might get me into print. It wasn’t until I decided to write something purely for myself, following a decade in India, that I was finally published.

Euphoria

At the age of 40, and back in London, I found an agent – Euan Thorneycroft at A.M. Heath, one of the oldest agencies in the country. A few months later, Euan called me at the office to tell me we had a four-book deal with Hachette for the Baby Ganesh Agency series, beginning with The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. I may have shouted. Possibly even soiled myself in the excitement. (A quite natural reaction, I’ve been assured.)

The series is set in modern India, aimed at fans of the wildly successful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency books, though mine are a little darker in tone. They reflect the ten years I lived in India, and my desire to showcase a changing, modern country. Chopra, a Mumbai policeman forced into early retirement and who must solve a local murder – while dealing with the unusual problem of inheriting a one-year-old elephant – is a mouthpiece for my own feelings towards the social issues I saw in a country being transformed by globalisation but weighed down by legacy problems.

Here’s the first lesson you learn. There are a LOT of books published. You think you’re up on a pedestal, the spotlight shining down on you and you alone, like Beyoncé at the Superbowl. Wrong. You’re not Beyoncé. Your publisher – and your publicist – is probably handling a dozen books out that week. Big names. New names. You’re just another horse in the stable. That’s not to be sniffed at, but it’s worth taking a dose of the realism salts before buying that velvet jacket, checking yourself in at the Dorchester, and inviting your chums around to gawp at your newfound status as a big literary wheel.

Having said this, I was relatively lucky. My publicist managed to bully BBC Breakfast into interviewing me. The book went on to become a bestseller, published in 16 languages and was picked by the Sunday Times as one of the 40 best crime novels published between 2015-2020.

I was on my way.

Navigating the publishing industry

Fast forward almost a decade. With eight books published, across two series, and a new three book deal – all with Hachette – I’m relatively settled in the industry… which is a bit like saying I have a berth on the Titanic.

I’m often asked: what’s the number one lesson you’ve learned? The answer is one that surprises most people, especially eager newbies, waiting starry-eyed for pearls of literary wisdom to fall from my lips. Bless their little hearts.

Friendships are the single most important ingredient for both your sanity and your survival. It’s a lonely business, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the most wonderful things I’ve learned about the writing community is how friendly it is. Most of the time we share a grisly esprit de corps, comparing war stories as we send another book out to meet the machine guns of literary No Man’s Land. When good news comes along, we clap each other on the back, and hope it’s our turn next. We’re a bit like the Amish – we’re clannish and build metaphorical barns together, such as when we turn up to each others’ launches, the token author among the bemused mob of friends and family who thought they were coming to a birthday party (or a wake). Or when we rampage through a quaint English village hosting its first lit fest after we’re told the bar has run dry.

I’ve been particularly astonished by the support those established in the industry – authors, reviewers, editors, agents, booksellers – have been willing to offer newbies. Alas, I don’t have space to mention all the wonderful friends and lovely gestures over the years. I’d also be mortified about missing someone out – beware the brittle-egoed, slighted, slightly-unhinged author! (Anyone remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining?) But suffice to say that, if I’ve achieved anything today, it’s because – to use the words of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois – of the ‘kindness of strangers’.

Five lessons I’ve learned…

OK. I see not everyone’s sold on my Forrest Gump ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ argument. You cynical so and so’s. So what practical advice can I offer? Here goes:

#1 – Themes matterMidnight at Malabar House is set in 1950s Bombay. Persis Wadia, India’s first female police detective, is consigned to Malabar House, Bombay’s smallest police station, with a gang of fellow ‘undesirables’. And then the murder of a prominent British diplomat falls into her lap… The book is more than a crime novel. It explores India at a turbulent time, just a few years after Independence, Gandhi’s assassination, and the horrors of Partition. Persis is operating in a paternalistic environment, in an era when few women were given license to pursue careers. I invoke these themes in the series because I believe they can teach us something about the society we live in today. Publishers  love a theme because they know it can elevate a book above the crowd. It gives marketing departments something solid to work with. Themes are everywhere in crime fiction. For instance, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy Stieg Larsson showcased his favourite theme: violence against women.

#2 – Be different, but be the same – The industry works on a phenomenon known as ‘comping’ – of comparing new acquisitions to previously published books to determine sales potential. Why else do you think so many books, covers, and titles are similar? Don’t get me wrong. Originality is always valued. But, often, your next great idea needs to be similar enough to an existing idea that, in a publisher’s mind, it can attract a current audience, but also be just different enough to pass muster as something new, with the potential to attract a wider readership. By all means, write the next Gone Girl or Rebus, but what is the fresh angle you can bring to it?

#3 – Learn from Hemingway – In my early thirties, I set myself the challenge of reading one hundred of the greatest literary novels ever written. I selected them from the Guardian and Telegraph’s lists of such novels, and Booker, Pulitzer and Nobel prize winners, classics and contemporary works: Ulysses, 1984, The Tin Drum, Catch 22, Schindler’s Ark, Money… I could go on. The project took five years, and I made notes as I went. No writing class could ever have taught me as much. Jaded agents and editors are turned on by quality writing. Well written prose stands out. A turn of phrase. An acute observation. A scene handled deftly. You can’t afford to squander a good idea by submitting it in substandard prose.

#4 – Characters matter more than plot – Sacrilege? No. Publishers know that a great character is more profitable than a single great plot. Great characters encourage loyalty and facilitate a series of novels. Secondly, if readers fall in love with characters they will forgive the occasional plot inconsistency. The trick is creating characters that stand out. Decide early on what is the unique persona, insight, skill, or approach that your protagonist can bring to an investigation that makes them worth following. Persis is India’s only female police detective, ruthless and single-minded in an environment that undermines her at every opportunity. She works with Archie Blackfinch – an English forensic scientist from the London Metropolitan Police. But this is post-Raj era India. An Englishman and a headstrong Indian women?… It can’t work. Or can it?…

#5 – Don’t be afraid of borrowing stuff that works – My last novel was The Dying Day, the follow-up to Midnight at Malabar House. M. W. Craven, CWA Gold Dagger-winner calls it: ‘The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India.’ In the book a 600-year old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy goes missing from Bombay’s Asiatic Society. As Persis investigates, she uncovers a trail of cryptic clues, including riddles written in verse… and then she finds the first body. Dan Brown’s series has sold 300 million copies for a reason. In crime fiction, there are many tried and trusted formulas. We can all learn and build on the work of others. Not copy – but take a leaf out of. If you want to see this in action, please do invest in a copy of The Dying Day… Another thing I’ve learned – authors need to be forthright about selling their work!

What lies ahead?

The times they are a-changing. A piece like this wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the dreaded ‘d’ word now permeating the publishing industry… No, not drunkenness… Diversity.

I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘pioneer’, though in some respects I, and many others, have established a beachhead for authors of our background. In my opinion, the industry is making a genuine attempt to tackle the issue of inclusivity. But it’s not as straightforward as just publishing more authors from underrepresented communities. For instance, the reason it has taken so long for British Asian crime writers to find their feet is not entirely to do with risk-averse publishers. In some part the dearth of such writers is because Asian parents (including my own) react with horror at the notion that their progeny might willingly embark on a profession that might see them eventually busking on the Underground to make ends meet.

Perhaps the truth that lies at the heart of the current debate on diversity in the arts is that the only thing that really matters is that we all share a singular dream, to enrich the world with stories that spring from inside us.

We are here; we have a voice; and we are delighted to be a part of this fraternity.

My quarterly newsletter contains articles, competitions, giveaways, short stories, book news, and recommendations. Simply register here

Find out more about my books here at: www.vaseemkhan.com

Inside India #37: Bombay’s jazz era

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.

Jazz. A musical form considered by some as the hippest yet invented by humankind, by others as tuneless noise. Merriam Webster defines it as “American music developed from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre.”

That definition goes a long way to explaining why jazz is an acquired taste. But for those who follow it, it has a rhythm and a beauty all its own.

Duke Ellington and Orchestra in India: Picture attribution: US Embassy New Delhi CC.2.0

What few will argue with is that the birthplace of jazz is recognised as New Orleans, in the southern American state of Louisiana, around the beginning of the twentieth century. The greatest names of the genre have hailed from the city known as the ‘Big Easy’, including Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Harry Connick Jr., and Kermit Ruffins.

Given this provenance, it is often surprising to many to discover that a city half-way around the world, a city once heralded by the British empire as the Gateway to India – namely, Bombay – enjoyed its own jazz era, a musical legacy that is today dimly remembered and has flown somewhat under the radar of those chronicling the history of India’s ‘city of dreams’.

Jazz arrived in Bombay in the 1930s, crashing into the city’s five-star hotel ballrooms and upmarket cafes via live band performances, and into homes through the advent of phonograph records. The Bombay of that era was a cosmopolitan city, a good time city, India’s cultural and showbiz capital, with a diverse population drawn from all corners of the country, and a significant contingent of westerners.

With the country embroiled in an increasingly urgent and volatile national independence movement, Bombay remained, to some extent, in its own bubble.

Catering to the foreign residents of India’s premier port city were establishments that provided music and entertainment tailored to remind them of home. House orchestras were common, as were big band sets, cabarets, and ballroom dances.

Encouraged by such culturally welcoming attitudes, famous jazz musicians began to tour India, introducing the genre to the elite set.

In 1935, jazz legend Leon Abbey brought a musical troupe to Bombay, forming a resident band at the Taj Hotel. Soon, hotel ballrooms and nightclubs became jazz hubs where Europeans could mix freely with the Indian upper classes, as well as politicians, company men, and aristocrats. In many ways, these hotel jazz rooms became a means of shutting out the world outside, which was becoming an ever more precarious place for foreigners.

The epicentre of the city’s jazz scene was Bombay’s famous Churchgate Street (now Veer Nariman Road). This bustling thoroughfare became home to numerous clubs, hotels and cafes all employing their own jazz musicians: a dizzying array of piano-fronted groups, trios, quartets, and solo saxophonists.

Once jazz became a mainstay of the local scene, Indian musicians quickly took to the new musical form and made it their own, so much so that it soon began to feature in soundtracks for Bollywood’s conveyor belt of Hindi language films. Following independence in 1947, jazz’s popularity was maintained by this assimilation of the genre into the film industry.

The Bombay love affair with jazz continued well into the sixties and early seventies – with Indian musicians such as Remo Fernandes even recording their own brand of ‘Indo-jazz’ – until finally petering out as modernity overtook the country.

Nevertheless, for those who know their history, Bombay’s jazz years are another reminder of how the city has taken on board influences from around the world, continually adding to its colourful mosaic.

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.  

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 #36: India after Independence – Nehru’s defining decade

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.

At around midnight on 14 August 1947, on the eve of Independence, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, delivered one of the most widely remembered of all public addresses. Even today his words resonate for the hope they embody: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny; and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India, and her people, and to the still larger cause of humanity.”

Picture attribution: Prakash pandey07 CC 4.0

In summing up India’s emergence from centuries of colonialism, and laying out a vision for her future, Nehru sought to capture the essence of the long struggle to freedom and the India that he hoped to help shape.

In the years following Independence, many of those hopes stumbled, blighted by the difficulties of fashioning unity out of a nation that was fragmented along multiple lines including class, religion, caste, and economic need: the Fifties would prove a difficult decade for Nehru.

Having stepped into Gandhi’s symbolic shoes following the revolutionary icon’s assassination in 1948, Nehru found himself battling for leadership of the Congress Party. He was criticised by conservative Hindus for not adopting a strong enough stance towards the new neighbours, Pakistan; by socialists demanding a more equitable society; and by economic liberalists insisting India’s future lay in opening up the economy to capitalist forces.

Transforming an agrarian nation ruled by an authoritarian elite into a modern, democratic, economically-viable society was to be a monumental undertaking for the new government. Partition and the British exit had badly disrupted economic networks and created a substantial refugee population, particularly in urban centres such as Bombai, Delhi and Calcutta.

Nehru’s response was to draw up a Five Year Plan (with distinctly socialist leanings) and to ask the people of India to back his vision.

In 1951, they did so.

In the largest election in human history 173 million eligible voters (out of a population of 360 million) voted Nehru’s Congress Party to a landslide victory and he became the first democratically-elected Prime Minister of the country.

Nehru responded to this vote of confidence by implementing several key initiatives. He abolished the caste system and addressed unjust religious practises through the reform of Hindu law.

He attempted (but didn’t quite succeed) to alter India’s uneven distribution of land ownership. Various land reform initiatives were hampered by fierce opposition from feudal landowners – the zamindars of old – and royal houses, and the vested interests of regional state legislatures.

Another failure was the inability to make significant headway in educating the citizenry. India began the decade with only 18% of its population classed as literate; by 1960 that figure was still under 30%.

On the other hand, the Fifties were a largely peaceful decade for India. Aside from the ongoing sabre-rattling with Pakistan, the country adopted a foreign policy that favoured maintaining a measured distance from conflict. Indeed, Nehru became a leading spokesman for ‘nonalignment’ – the refusal to take sides in the mounting Cold War between the USSR and the United States.

At home, the urbane Nehru was able to force through the integration of former princely states into the Indian union, and managed to suppress burgeoning movements for greater autonomy in regions such as Punjab. 

Ultimately, Nehru won three consecutive terms, serving as Prime Minister until his death from a heart attack in 1964.

Known as ‘Pandit’ Nehru because of his roots in the Kashmiri Pandit community (‘pandit’ means Hindu priest or wise man), he was, like Gandhi, trained as a lawyer at Inner Temple in London.

That legal expertise – and a savoir faire that was the envy of many statesmen of the time – served him in great stead throughout his tenure as Prime Minister of the world’s most populous democratic republic. 

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.  

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. 

A request from Vaseem…

Hi all,

I have a quick request… My book, Midnight at Malabar House, is currently longlisted for one of the UK’s biggest crime fiction awards, the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Fiction Novel of the Year. The shortlisting stage involves a public vote. As I’m up against some very big popular names I’m asking for every vote I can get! If you wish, do vote for me here – scroll down on that page and click on the red VOTE NOW button…  IT ONLY TAKES A FEW SECONDS… Make sure you select Midnight at Malabar House from the dropdown box! Do let others know. Thank you.

Inside India #35: Killing Gandhi – the man who assassinated the Mahatma

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.

One of the great ironies of history is that Mohandas Gandhi, a man who changed the world through non-violence, died in an act of supreme aggression. Gandhi – called the Mahatma by his devotees, meaning ‘great soul’ – spearheaded the campaign for Indian Independence in the first half of the twentieth century. That campaign culminated in India becoming a sovereign nation on August 15, 1947, but also led to the country being divided into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan – the historical cataclysm known as Partition.

The trial of persons accused of participation and complicity in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in Special Court in Red Fort, Delhi on May 27, 1948. Left to right front row: Nathuram Vinayak Godse, Narayan Dattatraya Apte and Vishnu Ramkrishna Karkar. Picture attribution: Public.Resource.Org, Flickr, CC 2.0

Gandhi’s dedication to satyagraha – literally: ‘insistence on the truth’ – earned him the support and affection of hundreds of millions of Indians. Alas, his own example could not prevent the communal disharmony that broke out across the country before, and after, Partition became a reality. Widespread rioting saw thousands dead and millions displaced.

Gandhi, horrified by the violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, and the eviction of thousands from their homes, attempted to restore harmony using the methods that had worked for him in his long fight against the British.

On 13 January 1948, he undertook a fast unto the death, a tactic he had successfully employed during the Quit India years. His objective was to shame those who continued to participate in communal strife into adopting a more conciliatory outlook.

Messages of support flooded in from around the world. Some Hindus, however, believed that Gandhi should never have agreed to India being partitioned in the first place and that his insistence on non-violence and non-retaliation prevented them from defending themselves against the nation they saw as the ‘new enemy’ – Pakistan.

Some even advocated that he should be allowed to die.

On 20 January, a group of Hindu nationalists made an attempt on his life in Delhi, where Gandhi was living at Birla House, detonating a bomb just yards from him. Gandhi was unharmed and undeterred. ‘If I am to die by the bullet of a madman,’ he said, ‘I must do so smiling. There must be no anger within me. God must be in my heart and on my lips.’

On 29 January one of those nationalists, Nathuram Godse, a thirty-seven-year-old Hindu activist, the son of a postal employee, returned to Delhi.

At 5:17pm on the afternoon of the 30th, the 78-year-old Gandhi, frail from fasting, was being helped across the gardens of Birla House by his great-nieces on his way to a prayer meeting when Godse emerged from the crowd, bowed to him, and shot him three times at point-blank range in the stomach and chest with a Beretta automatic pistol.

Witnesses later stated that Gandhi raised his hands in the Hindu gesture of greeting, as if welcoming his murderer, before falling to the ground. Some said that he cried out, ‘Hey, Ram’ (‘Oh, God’). He died within half an hour.

Godse, meanwhile, tried but failed to shoot himself and was seized and taken away before the crowd could lynch him.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his voice breaking, addressed his countrymen with emotional words over All-India Radio: ‘Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more.’

Within the year, Godse and several conspirators were tried in court at Delhi’s Red Fort.

At his trial, Godse, a devout Brahmin – a Hindu of the highest caste – did not deny the charges nor express any remorse, stating that he killed Gandhi because of his complacence, holding him responsible for the violence of Partition.

Godse was found guilty and executed in 1949.

The impact of Gandhi’s killing cannot be understated. Gandhi’s assassination dramatically altered the Indian political landscape. His death helped marshal support for Nehru’s new government and legitimised the Congress Party’s control over the country, a political dominance the centrist party enjoyed for decades until the advent of a strong right-wing opposition.

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.  

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 #34: The Ghosts of Partition

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.

We often think of the Partition of India in 1947 as a macro-level historical event involving nation states and major world figures. But the truth is that Partition had – and continues to have – an enduring effect on individual lives. Millions died, millions more lost their homes, their businesses, the lives they had known.

So what exactly happened?

Picture attribution: Technark-1, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1947, the Indian struggle for independence culminated with the departure of the British following a three-hundred-year presence on the subcontinent, the last ninety of which is remembered as the colonial era known as the Raj. Lacking the resources to continue occupying a nation of 300 million that, led by lawyer-turned-statesman Mohandas Gandhi, had turned non-cooperation into a revolutionary weapon, the British departed in a hurry, practically running out the door, with little regard to the mess they were leaving behind.

That mess was Partition.

Following agitation by the All-India Muslim League for a separate Muslim state, and communal riots that wracked the country, the British had agreed a Partition Plan and then, in a matter of months, slashed the country into three parts: Muslim-majority Pakistan and East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh), and Hindu-majority India.

There followed mass migrations between these states – migrations accompanied by murder on a colossal scale.

In a June 2015 New Yorker article, historian William Dalrymple tells us: “Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented.”

The violence was particularly intense in the states of Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East, both of which, Dalrymple goes on to state, witnessed: “massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence.”

By the time the dust had settled in 1948, fifteen million were displaced, and anywhere from one to two million lay dead.

What was particularly horrendous was how individual communities that had lived together peacefully for decades – if not centuries – suddenly hurled themselves at each other’s throats in a murderous frenzy.

Why did this happen?

Muslims and Hindus had co-existed on the subcontinent for at least a thousand years since the arrival of Turkish and Arab traders and, later, invaders. That millennia saw a constant back and forth between Hindu and Muslim rulers across the vastness of the subcontinent, culminating in the Mughal empire which, with the exception of the markedly intolerant reign of Emperor Aurangazeb, was largely characterised by relative stability interspersed with bouts of military conflict.

With the coming of the British, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs found themselves thrown together in common cause against a mutual enemy. During the early years of the Independence struggle an unprecedented communal harmony rallied behind the likes of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the three men at the heart of India’s leading Congress Party.

But once these three political titans fell out, the path to divergence became inevitable.

Jinnah, once a strong supporter of Muslim-Hindu unity, eventually came to believe that a separate nation was the only solution to preventing Hindu dominance in the post-colonial India. He became the leader of the Muslim League and the country’s most vocal proponent of Partition.

Things came to a head when the political rhetoric turned to violence on the streets of Calcutta in August 1946. The so-called Direct Action Day riots led to five thousand dead in a paroxysm of savagery that shocked the British, reduced to the status of ineffectual referees.

In March 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Britain’s final Viceroy to India, arrived to sort out the mess. A few months later, unable to find consensus among the political factionalism, he shocked everyone by announcing that the British would transfer power on 15 August of that same year – well ahead of schedule – and that Partition would become a reality.

As Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs began to move between territories – both before and after Independence – the violence spiralled out of control. Villages were set alight, trains were attacked and their passengers murdered wholesale, refugees were waylaid and cut down by sword, scythe, and a savagery that later led Bombay-based writer Saadat Hasan Manto to lament that “human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry . . . slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.”

The chaos of Partition cannot be blamed solely on Mountbatten and British policy or even on the machinations of subcontinental politicians. Ordinary citizens must shoulder their share of the blame, those who allowed themselves to be incited into hatred and religious xenophobia, who set aside decency and longstanding neighbourliness, who took up sword and flame to terrorise their compatriots, to murder men, women, and children in a frenzy of bloodlust that even now is difficult to comprehend.

A generation of older Indians and Pakistanis who remember those times understand the hateful rhetoric that today pits the two neighbours against one another at regular intervals.

That is the true legacy of Partition. The way it has coloured the perceptions of two peoples who were essentially one, the way it continues to serve as a means by which political interests on both sides of the border can employ hatred and prejudice as a means of deflecting criticism of their regimes.

One can only hope that the wounds of history are healed in the fullness of time. Only then might the ghosts of Partition, the millions of dead and missing, find peace.

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.  

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 #33: India’s Tiger Legion – when Indian soldiers fought in the German army

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.

3 April 1941. Indian revolutionary leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, arrives in Berlin.

Bose, a native of Bengal and former President of the Indian National Congress (the party of Gandhi and Nehru), is already high on the list of those causing heartburn for the martinets of the British Raj.

Arrested numerous times for ‘anti-Imperialist’ activities, Bose had fled the subcontinent to Germany in order to enlist the German army’s help in ousting the British from India. Operating by the old adage ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, Bose, managed to convince the German foreign ministry to recognise his provisional ‘Free India Government’ in exile, and to help him raise a force to fight his cause. That army was to be called the ‘Free India Legion’ – later known simply as the Indian Legion or, more colourfully, the Tiger Legion.

Picture attribution: Aschenbroich CC 3.0

Bose’s plan was to lead an invasion of British India, once his legion had been suitably armed by his hosts.

But where did the Bengali leader find fighting men willing to serve under a German flag?

Bose began by recruiting Indian students living in Germany at the time. Next, he toured POW camps in the country, home to thousands of Indian soldiers captured by Rommel in North Africa. The charismatic Bose found little difficulty in convincing these men to join him. The Indians, mistreated as they had been by centuries of colonial rule, had very little loyalty for their former British commanders.

Ultimately, Bose managed to recruit between three and four thousand men, but only a small contingent of these soldiers ever saw action.

By 1943, a disillusioned Bose had given up on German promises. The German Army’s retreat from Russia had left their leadership with little stomach for an assault on India.

Cutting his losses, Bose left his Tiger Legion behind, and travelled, in secret, to Japan, where he would raise a second, larger, force to march on India through Burma.

Left rudderless, the Tiger Legion remained largely stationed in Europe pursuing non-combat duties, with a few posted to Holland and, later, south-west France, where they helped fortify the coast for an expected Allied landing.

Following D-Day, the legion’s by-now disillusioned soldiers found themselves in a desperate retreat through France, alongside regular German units.

With the fall of Germany, the remaining men of the Tiger Legion were captured by American and French troops and shipped back to India to face charges of treason. However, these trials – considered by many in India to be the trials of men fighting for the patriotic cause of freeing India from the British – caused such uproar that, ultimately, they foundered.

Bose himself died in August 1945, in an air crash, his Japanese bomber crashing in what is, today, Taiwanese territory. His body was engulfed in flames and he died from third-degree burns. Immediately cremated by the Japanese, his death was announced five days later to a shocked India. The suddenness of the death, and subsequent cremation, has fuelled conspiracy theorists ever since, many of whom claim that Bose survived the crash.

Today, Bose is revered as a patriotic hero of the Indian revolution, with numerous institutions named after him, his face appearing on Indian stamps, and his uncompromising ideology finding new meaning as modern India bestrides the global stage.

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.  

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 #32: The Indo-German Conspiracy in WW1

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.

On July 30, 1916, a massive explosion rocked New York harbour. The explosion – centred on a munitions depot housing some 100,000 pounds of TNT – killed four people – including a ten-week-old infant – wrecked warehouses, caused $20m worth of damage, and sent fragments hurtling across the harbour, damaging the Statue of Liberty.

Picture attribution: Wing Cheung, CC 4.0

Windows were shattered twenty-five miles away.

The attack took place on a small island in the harbour called Black Tom Island. The island is artificial, created by land fill, and linked to the mainland via a causeway. During the First World War, it served as a major munitions store for the Northeastern United States.

A little context: until 1915, US munitions companies were at liberty to sell their wares to any buyer of their choosing. With WW1 underway, and following the commencement of a blockade of Germany – aimed at preventing the supply of goods to Germany and her allies – this policy was overhauled, with sales restricted to the Allied Powers.

An incensed Germany responded by sending agents to America to disrupt the production and delivery of munitions to its new enemies.

Black Tom became an obvious target.

The initial American investigation into the explosion identified a Slovak immigrant by the name of Michael Kristoff as the mastermind behind the operation.

Under questioning, Kristoff admitted to working for German agents.

A later investigation – in the wake of a gun-running plot involving India’s Ghadar Party, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the German Foreign Office – part of the so-called ‘Indo-German Conspiracy’ – suggested an Indian connection.

The Indo-German Conspiracy, in essence, refers to a series of actions carried out between 1914 and 1917 by Indian nationalists to foment rebellion against the British Raj during WW1.

Indian exiles and rebels formed the Ghadar Party in America and the Berlin Committee in Germany. Their aim was to push for Indian Independence through any means necessary, including violence. The Ghadar Party was particularly incensed that the Gandhi-led Congress Party had agreed, in 1914, to back the British war effort, leading to a million Indians being conscripted. They took umbrage at the idea of Indian blood being spilled on behalf of India’s colonial overlords.

The Germans were only too happy to help.

A key tenet of the ‘conspiracy’ was the moving of arms, clandestinely, from America to the subcontinent in order to help Indian nationalists fight the Raj. Germany hoped to sap the British Empire, by attacking one of her strongest assets, the ‘jewel in the British crown’ – India.

In the country itself, Germany sought allies among the revolutionaries of Bengal and Punjab, and a smattering of Indian nobles disgruntled with British rule.

Meanwhile, in May 1917, following the Black Tom explosion and the investigation carried out in its wake, eight members of the Ghadar Party were tried in America on charges of ‘conspiracy to form a military enterprise against Britain’. The British hoped that the conviction of the Indians would result in their deportation from the United States back to India. To their intense dismay, the Americans refused. By then, public support had swung in favour of the Indians, and the Americans were loath to cave in to British demands.

Nevertheless, moments after the closing arguments were heard, one of the defendants, Ram Singh, pulled out a gun and shot his former comrade, Ram Chandra – Singh was incensed that Chandra had confessed and made a deal with the prosecution.

Singh was subsequently shot dead by a US Marshall.

The British – working with American intelligence agencies – expended enormous effort in combating the Indo-German alliance and managed to largely subdue the conspiracy by the end of the war. Nevertheless, the various actions undertaken by the conspirators played an important role in both the Indian independence movement and in re-evaluating British policies in India.

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.  

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 #31: Gandhi’s Salt March – bringing down an empire with a handful of salt

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.

Picture the scene. India’s iconic revolutionary leader, Mohandas Gandhi (known as the Mahatma or “Great Soul”) striding confidently along a dusty rural road, dressed in his trademark homespun white cotton shawl and sandals, a delegation of acolytes trailing in his wake. The group arrives in a village – another of the thousands of Indian hamlets that dot the subcontinent – where Gandhi is greeted like a rock star, a gaggle of foreign media hanging on his every word and adding to the circus-like atmosphere.

This was Gandhi’s celebrated Salt March, an act of non-violent, non-cooperation that became a symbol of India’s independence movement.

Picture attribution: CC.0 https://www.maxpixel.net/photo-67483

Gandhi, a trained lawyer, had returned to India (from South Africa) and swiftly found himself drawn into a stand against the continued British occupation of the subcontinent. He joined the Congress Party in 1915, where he quickly rose to national prominence with a protest philosophy based on a concept that he coined as “satyagraha” – the force of truth.

By the early 1930s he’d already spent years in jail pursuing this peaceful brand of anti-imperialism, including stints for encouraging Indians to boycott British goods, such as cotton.

Gandhi chose the 1882 British Salt Act as a key target for his campaign, a decision met with scepticism among many of his colleagues who felt that salt was hardly a topic worthy of a national protest movement. Gandhi disagreed.

As with many other commodities, Britain had controlled the salt trade in India for over a century, forbidding natives from its manufacture or sale, instead forcing them to buy it at exorbitant prices from British merchants. Gandhi knew that salt was used by Indians of all classes, creeds and castes and thus had the potential to unite his countrymen.

His idea was simple. To march to the coastal town of Dandi and ‘make’ his own salt from the sea, in defiance of the Salt Laws, and to do so in full view of the media.

He set off at dawn on March 12, 1930, from his ashram near Ahmedabad, clutching a wooden walking stick, and with several dozen companions in tow. The British, nervous of Gandhi’s plans, but wary of a public backlash should they attempt to stop him, had little choice but to allow the march to proceed.

Along the way, Gandhi stopped at dozens of villages to address the masses. In his unassuming, yet utterly compelling manner, he condemned the Raj and asked government workers to emulate his philosophy of non-cooperation by quitting their jobs. Stirring up public sentiment, he urged his countrymen to bring the system of administration that had allowed so few Brits to rule over so many to a grinding halt.

As the march wore on, thousands joined Gandhi’s cortege, swelling the ranks of the marchers into a miles-long procession. The images of celebratory crowds cheering Gandhi’s every step, and walking in the great man’s shadow, made the front pages all around the world.

Gandhi finally arrived in Dandi on April 5, having walked 241 miles in just 24 days. The next morning, thousands gathered to watch him wade into the Arabian Sea to commit his symbolic crime.

Gandhi’s act of defiance galvanised the nation. Tens of thousands followed his example. Over the next months, non-cooperation paralysed the country with several incidents making international headlines, in particular a peaceful march on a government salt works at Dharasana where protestors were struck down by truncheons but refused to lift a finger to defend themselves.

Gandhi, who had originally intended to participate in the Dharasana march, was prevented from doing so by his arrest. He would remain in prison until early 1931.

It would not be his last stay.

During the 1930s and 40s Gandhi would ramp up his non-violent protests – and ultimately lead his country to independence in 1947.

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.  

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 #30: Older, bigger, and brasher than Hollywood – India’s film industry

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.

Lights. Camera. Action.

In recent years, the Indian film industry, led by Mumbai-based Bollywood, has achieved global prominence. Yet, outside of the subcontinent, the industry’s incredible history is little known or celebrated, obscured by the veil of glamour cast by its all-singing, all-dancing façade.

Indian films are often called masala movies because they are composed of multiple, sometimes conflicting elements. A typical Indian potboiler might include action, romance, comedy, melodrama, songs, and those signature dance set-pieces that are so much a part of the subcontinent’s celluloid tradition.

Where did it all begin?

The subcontinent’s first motion picture was released in 1899, eleven years before Hollywood made its debut. The first full-length feature followed in 1913, an epic based on the Hindu pantheon. By the 1930s, the industry was producing over two hundred films a year. This was the era of the talkies when individual stars began to take centre-stage. Prominent among these was Fearless Nadia, a Scottish-Australian woman who starred in daredevil Bollywood action films, skimpily attired in black leather, and with a Tom Cruise-like penchant for performing her own stunts.

The Thirties and Forties saw the Indian Independence movement gather momentum, and this was reflected in the cinema of the age, with producers and actors boycotting onscreen depictions they felt were overly reflective of the British presence in India.

The Fifties and Sixties are known as Bollywood’s ‘golden age’, with one of the fathers of modern Bollywood, Raj Kapoor, making his debut, as actor and producer. His movies – with their overt socialist messaging – became hugely popular, not just in India, but in markets as far afield as Russia and China. Kapoor’s seminal 1951 classic Awaara (The Vagabond) introduced his ‘tramp” character to global cinemagoers, a portrayal influenced heavily by Charlie Chaplin. (In 2012, Awaara was included in the All-Time 100 greatest films list by TIME.)

In 1958, Mother India became India’s first ever film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film – losing by just one vote. Mother India reflected a changing India struggling to find her feet in the aftermath of Partition and Independence. In one poignant scene, we see the eponymous “mother” urging her fellow villagers not to give up on their home after severe blight; through song she convinces them to stay and tend the land, a thinly-veiled allegory for India’s own plea to her bruised and battered populace to stand firm during those difficult years.

The Seventies and Eighties were an era of further turmoil. Civil unrest, accompanied by a growing disillusionment amongst the young, culminated in Indira Gandhi’s Emergency – a government crackdown that saw the Constitution suspended. This period saw a grittier, more visceral cinema emerge. This is also when India’s legendary superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, rose to prominence, capturing the nation’s simmering rage with a range of roles that led to him being anointed as Bollywood’s ‘angry young man’.

It was during this period that the criminal underworld gained a foothold in the industry. With the Indian government refusing to allow producers access to regular sources of finance, the door was left open for India’s notorious criminal gangs. The combination of glamour and the opportunity to launder dirty money proved irresistible. Lurid cases of producers and actors being blackmailed and threatened by ‘Bollywood dons’ made headlines. (It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Indian government finally legitimized the industry.)

This is also the decade that arguably India’s most famous film Sholay (Embers) was released. The story of two petty criminals hired by a village landlord – and ex-cop – to fight bandits, the film was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, and epitomized the masala movie at its zenith.

In the Nineties, liberalization transformed the industry. With new sources of funding opening up, film makers began to take risks. A new ‘genre’ of Indian film emerged, one that catered for the vast Indian diaspora and an aspirational home audience with films that showcased ‘western’ sensibilities.

One of Bollywood’s most iconic movies Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (“Big-Hearted Guys Win the Bride”) started it all in 1995. With a storyline spread across the UK, Europe and India, the tale of a romance between a spoilt, rich Indian boy played by Shah Rukh Khan and a British Punjabi girl set the blueprint for a new type of Bollywood movie. The film made Shah Rukh Khan a superstar – today he is known as the king of Bollywood. (In 2011, the LA Times declared him to be the most watched film star in the world, in terms of pure eyeballs on screens.)

Bollywood continues to evolve. Rising revenues mean rising production standards; straight genre movies are taking over from the old ‘masala’ format. Film centres across the country, including in the south, generate huge revenues.

The future of the industry looks bright.

The third novel in my bestselling Baby Ganesh Agency series, The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star is set in India’s premier film industry. In this book Inspector Ashwin Chopra (Retd) and his faithful one-year-old elephant sidekick, Ganesha, are on the trail of a kidnapped Indian film star. As Chopra begins to investigate he soon discovers that, in Bollywood, as in India, truth is often stranger than fiction … 

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.  

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.