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.

Race Reports, George Floyd, and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill…

Discussing anything to do with race is an incredibly difficult thing to attempt at the moment. The rhetoric that currently saturates the airwaves makes the voicing of an opinion akin to walking across a minefield in a WW2 film. You know somebody is going to get blown up – you just hope that somebody isn’t you.

Nevertheless, I’m going to wade in, and I hope you’ll be gentle with me. 

I’m not the type of person to point fingers. I tend to believe the best of my fellow humans and only react negatively when given evidence to the contrary.

Two things happened yesterday that gave me pause.

Firstly, we saw the release of a report in the UK by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. After nine months, this team of researchers stated that their evidence showed that the UK is “no longer” a system rigged against people from ethnic minorities. That the UK is not “institutionally racist” (though they were careful to point out that racism still exists), and that factors such as family structure and social class have a bigger impact on how individual lives turn out. They stated, effectively, that the UK is a “model” for race relations.

As you can imagine, the furore has been deafening. 

Throughout the day, I saw a chorus of voices rail in disbelief at the sentiments expressed in the report. I saw the authors of the report forced to defend themselves, at some points losing their cool and responding by going on the attack. 

My own thoughts are not straightforward.

I strongly believe in evidence-based research and I applaud the fact that the panel was, notionally, at least, independent. I also think that some of the points they make have merit. There’s no doubt that the social class (for want of a better word) you are born into plays a part in your chances in life, and that many complexities of the race equation are ignored in the emotive rhetoric around the subject. I also don’t believe that it is the job of a report such as this to worry about being ‘divisive’ as it has been labelled. The ‘job’ of research is to be accurate, not to pander to the views of any particular set of stakeholders.

But what the report seems to miss is the lived experience of millions of people of colour in the UK. It seems to suggest that if we were only fortunate enough to be born into the right household (and perhaps pulled up our socks a little bit) we’d all be elevated to the same level playing field as any other citizen of this country. This is not the life experience that many people from minority cultures recognise and thus I can understand, to a certain extent, the sense of scepticism and disbelief that has greeted the report from such communities.

The issue here is that the term ‘evidence-based’ is not a magic formula. The individuals you pick to carry out a project of this sort may enter into the work with conscious or unconscious biases. Thus, it doesn’t matter if some of the panel are ethnic minorities themselves. If they have come in loaded with preconceptions it can skew their perception of their task. The evidence they pick may be selective, and the data might be interpreted in different ways. I’m not saying that this is what has happened here, I’m merely suggesting how they might have arrived at their (controversial) conclusions.

Personally, the fact that the evidence this panel has chosen to focus on has been interpreted by them to mean that there are no structural problems in opportunity for people of colour in the UK is difficult for me to swallow. I come from a low-income background. Education helped me to climb out of that social setting and achieve relative success in life. But I do not for one second believe that every person of colour in this country could do the same. There are other factors (factors based on bias or prejudice, I mean) that can act as obstacles at every stage – from access to top university places for students of colour, to bias at interviews, to promotion prospects for people of colour, especially within the white collar sector. Many of these biases have been well-documented. 

Approximately 13-15% of the UK population is from a minority background. That being the case we would not expect to see an even split between white and non-white actors across society. For instance, in the makeup of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. But at present the proportions are far lower than 15% across most areas. This is one of the clearest indicators of a lack of equality in opportunity – and an institutional bias of the kind that the report states no longer exists.

I’m an optimistic person and I believe many industries are changing for the better, embracing the idea of diversity, not just as a basic requirement of operating in a modern society, but also as good business practise. In a globalised, multicultural world, consumers come from all races and backgrounds. If you want their custom, you need to show them that they are represented in your organisation.

The second thing that happened yesterday was the release of footage from the George Floyd trial currently underway in America. Watching the reactions across US media has been eye-opening. There seems to be a genuine feeling that this time something has to be done. The witness testimony of those in the store where George Floyd was shopping minutes before his arrest and killing indicates that they thought he might be high on narcotics and that he had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. They called the police. But, for anyone still in any doubt, Floyd’s actions do not legitimise the use of excessive force by police. He was not armed, and, once handcuffed, did not pose an immediate threat to the officers who had arrested him. 

A simple thought experiment would be to place a white suspect in George Floyd’s car. Would Derek Chauvin have reacted with such force when arresting a white man accused of being high and passing a fake $20 bill? If you think not, then you are basically agreeing with those that suggest institutional racism in the American police – a bias that has possibly soaked into Chauvin over many years – guided his actions. I’m not going to try the case here or second-guess what was going through Derek Chauvin’s mind at that time. I personally believe that most police services around the world, including in the UK, have an incredibly difficult task in fulfilling their role with limited resources and in a climate of mistrust. Many brilliant policing efforts are ignored because they don’t make interesting headlines. Nevertheless, I would suggest that no criminal justice system can operate effectively if it cannot reflect upon its own shortcomings and seek to change for the better.

Last week, I re-watched A Time to Kill, an old film based on a John Grisham bestseller. A poor black man in the American south guns down two white men who raped his 9-year-old daughter, then threw her off a bridge, leaving her for dead. He knows he will never get justice in a southern courtroom and so decides to dispense his own. At the end of the film (spoiler alert!), his white attorney, believing the case to be lost, appeals passionately to the all-white jury: ‘Imagine if this girl was white!’. 

This, perhaps, is the best way for anyone who wants to understand what the fuss is all about to grasp the problem. Every time there is an outcry about racial injustice, try to imagine if the same could possibly happen if the actors involved were white. If you can’t, it means that something is probably wrong with the system.

I’ll finish simply by reiterating my personal belief that the vast majority of people – white and non-white – are good. Good in the sense that they are willing to take others as they find them, and to treat them as they would wish to be treated themselves. That is as good a foundation as any for us to work together to make the future a more equal place. 

Inside India #17: Simla – summer capital of the Raj

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

For over a century Simla – usually pronounced ‘Shimla’ – was the summer capital of the British in India. Each hot season, with the mercury touching forty on the plateau, Governor-Generals, viceroys, and senior bureaucrats, complete with their enormous entourages, would decamp to the hill resort that is now synonymous with the Raj. 

Picture attribution: Rsharma001. Commons Creative.

Simla is the capital and largest city of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. 

Before the arrival of the British, much of the present-day conurbation was little more than dense forest, dotted with a handful of huts and a dilapidated old temple on Jakhoo Hill where locals believed the God Hanuman had once rested. (The area was named ‘Simla’ after the Hindu goddess Shymala Devi, an incarnation of Kali.) Simla is spread across seven major hills namely –Prospect Hill, Observatory Hill, Inveram Hill, Summer Hill, Jakhoo Hill, Elysium Hill and Bantony Hill. 

British forces took control of the area in 1815, and, by 1830, had established a makeshift town to take advantage of the cooler conditions. In 1864, Simla was officially designated the British summer capital. 

Within two decades, the Viceregal Lodge had been built on Observatory Hill, as the official residence of the British Viceroy. 

As the British summer capital, the city hosted many important political meetings including the Simla Accord in 1914 – a treaty negotiating the status of Tibet between China, Tibet, and the British government. In 1945, the Simla conference was hosted there by Lord Wavell to approve the Wavell Plan for Indian self-government. It was here that the final draft of India’s Partition Plan was hammered out by the likes of Lord Mountbatten, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel.

Throughout the Raj, Simla remained a relatively small town, the streets narrow and steep, the altitude making it difficult to move around the place with any degree of comfort. For years, only the viceroy was permitted to take his carriage along the Mall. For the rest, there were coolies pulling upholstered sedan chairs up the stepped slopes. 

Today, Simla is one of India’s most sought after tourist destinations. 

For Indians, the city represents a welcome break from the dust and heat that marks the rest of the country; for foreigners, Simla is a gateway to the Himalayan foothills. There are miles of hillside paths for walking, spectacular mountain views, and the occasional meadow to stop for a picnic. The British marked the area with more than just the stamp of colonial architecture. They grew green bell peppers in the region – even now, north Indians call green bell peppers ‘Simla Mirch’. 

The city itself has changed little since its earliest days. The principal thoroughfare, the Mall, was built over a century and a half ago, and, until recently, might have been recognisable to those early wayfarers. Scandal Point – so named due to the supposed elopement of a British viceroy’s daughter with an Indian maharajah – remains a fixture of curiosity. The tallest hill on which the city is perched levels off at approximately 7,000 feet to a promenade called the Ridge, at one end of which lies the Christ Church, a Simla landmark. Even recent additions only add to the charm and sense of history. A new one-hundred-foot tall statue of Hanuman, Hinduism’s monkey god, at Jakhoo Temple is taller than Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. 

The romance between the British and Simla lasted right up until the British departed India. Today the hill station remains fondly regarded by the former colonialists, nostalgically recreated in fiction and in misty-eyed travelogues. 

As for Simla… the city known as the ‘Queen of the Hills’ goes from strength to strength, a picture-perfect slice of the subcontinent’s past.

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 #16: India’s Freemasons – ritual, mystery, and Imperial legacy

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

Friday 24th November 1961. The Ashoka Hotel, New Delhi. Gathered at this prestigious location: three delegations from the Freemasons’ Grand Lodges of Scotland, Ireland, and England. Their purpose: to constitute the Grand Lodge of India. 

Freemasonry, long the subject of myth and hyperbole, traces its roots to stonemasons’ guilds in medieval Europe, whose members built the great castles, cathedrals and churches of the age. Chancing upon each other on scattered building sites across the region, they found themselves in need of a means of recognising fellow craftsmen and sympathetic souls: thus was Freemasonry born. 

Picture attribution: Igustavinho. Creative Commons.

Over time, membership was opened more widely, drawing in gentlemen members from across a range of professions. This new ‘symbolic’ Freemasonry began to adopt pseudo-religious rites and convoluted ceremonial practises, including the much-lampooned masonic handshakes we now associate with the organisation. 

Some of the earliest Freemasons’ lodges appeared in Scotland. (The oldest surviving minutes in the world are said to come from Lodge Aitchison’s Haven in East Lothian, dated 1599). By the late 1500s there were lodges across the country from Edinburgh to Perth. 

In 1717, the first Grand Lodge was founded in England. Within 15 years, there were Masonic lodges around the world, from the outer edges of Europe to North America. 

Freemasonry is often considered a Christian phenomenon, but in reality Masons have encountered considerable hostility from the Church over the centuries, one reason why conspiracy theorists adore them. (Freemasons are required only to believe in a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.)

The Freemasons commitment to secrecy has long fuelled the idea that if you join you will become privy to ‘ancient mysteries’. This supposed cache of ‘secret wisdom’ drives wild speculation. Some say Freemasonry is a cult with links to the Illuminati. Others believe it to be a global network of powerbrokers secretly pulling the world’s strings. One popular story involves the Knights Templar and the lost treasures of King Solomon’s Temple.

Today there are millions of Freemasons around the world. It’s hard to know exactly how many because a certain degree of secrecy is still part and parcel of the order. In most lodges, Freemasons are categorised via a ranking system: apprentices, fellows of the craft, and master masons. (Within these ranks are numerous sub-ranks known as degrees.) 

From the seventeenth century onwards, freemasonry was transported to every corner of the globe on the back of the advancing British Empire. 

In India, the Masons go back to the early 1700s, when officers of the East India Company began to meet in Calcutta’s Fort William, site of the notorious Black Hole, the dungeon where over a hundred British prisoners died of suffocation in a single night. It was here, at Fort William, that the first Indian Lodge was constituted, in 1729, with the exhortation “to Empower and Authorize our well beloved Brother Pomfret….that he do, in our place and stead, constitute a regular Lodge.” That first lodge was listed as Lodge No. 72 in the rolls of the Freemasons, its coat of Arms adopted from the East India Company. 

Within two decades, lodges had been constituted in Madras and Bombay, and in 1775, the first Indian Mason was initiated: Omdat-ul-Omrah. However, it wasn’t until 1872, when the first Hindu Freemason was initiated – a P.C. Dutt – that the doors were truly flung open to Indian members. 

Today India has over 500 lodges and more than 25000 Freemasons. 

In the city of Mumbai, for the past 120 odd years, their base has been Freemasons Hall in the city’s iconic Fort District. This is where Mumbai’s 44 lodges welcome new initiates.

Freemasons Hall is a venue steeped in tradition. Upon entering, one observes the foundation stone, located at the northeast corner of the building, in line with the edicts of freemasonry. The reception is crammed with portraits and statues of prominent Indian Masons, some of the country’s most famous and accomplished men – women, alas, are still not permitted membership. A staircase leads down to a chandeliered banquet hall in the basement, and upstairs to the main temple, resembling an enormous courtroom. There are three high chairs in the temple, for the Sun, Moon, and Master of the Lodge, located at the East, West, and South of the temple respectively. A letter G hangs from the ceiling, signifying that God is always watching.

And that brings us back to 1961 and a truly momentous occasion in the history of Indian freemasonry: the constitution of the Grand Lodge of India.

The consecration was led by the Grand Master Mason of Scotland, and the Deputy Grand Master of Ireland, with the traditional words: “In the name of the Grand Lodges of England, Ireland, and Scotland, and by the command of their Grand Master, I constitute and form you, my good Brethren into the Sovereign Grand Lodge of India.” 

As in other parts of the world, the influence of freemasonry has been pervasive, though largely invisible, bringing together the wealthy and the powerful. Because of their influence and secretive bent, over the centuries, the Freemasons have been accused of peddling bigotry, racism, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, and class prejudice. (The Freemasons themselves claim that their mission is, and always has been, a moral one.) 

Others argue that the British used Freemasonry to strengthen Imperial rule, especially in India, employing the bonds of masonry to bind networks of influential Indians to their cause. This may well be true, but, for the most part, the conspiracy theories that surround the Masons are more the invention of writers than based in fact. 

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 #15: India’s railways – nostalgia, bloodshed, and records

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

There are few aspects of the subcontinent that evoke as much nostalgia for the days of empire as the Indian railways. Young or old, foreign or native, rich or poor, the railways have cast a collective spell over our psyches for well over a century. Indeed, no trip to the subcontinent would be as memorable without at least one such bone-rattling journey. 

But dig a little deeper, and you discover that there is more to the Indian railways than a sense of colonial grandeur. The network is a living, breathing entity, as integral to India as the wheat fields of her hinterlands, or the skyscrapers of her urban metropolises. 

Picture attribution: A crowded train in India by Dennis Jarvis. Creative Commons.

The Indian railway began life almost 170 years ago, under Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General of India, as part of a push from London to make traversing the vast spaces of the subcontinent an easier affair. The first train, inaugurated on 16 April 1853, ran between Bombay and Thane. During the decade that followed, British engineer, Robert Brereton, expanded the network relentlessly, ultimately making it possible to travel directly from Bombay to Calcutta.

Expansion continued apace into the new century. WW1, however, left the railways in a state of disrepair and collapse. This was partly rectified during a period of interwar growth, but the Second World War again crippled the network, with forty percent of the rolling stock hijacked to the Middle East, and railways workshops converted to Allied munitions factories. 

By 1946, the network had been taken over by the government. With steady investment, the service carried on its tradition of innovation, though some innovations have always taken longer to arrive than others. For instance, it was some five decades after the first locomotive steamed out of Bombay that trains finally boasted toilets, only installed after an irate passenger wrote a furious letter to the railway office in 1909. (One can only speculate as to how passengers accommodated their bodily functions prior to his outburst.)

Today, the Indian railway network is the largest in Asia, with 115000 km of track running between 7172 stations, carrying almost 25 million passengers daily. Staffed by 1.5 million people, it is one of the world’s largest employers. 

The network is record-breaking in other respects. 

The Nizamuddin Rajdhani is the longest running non-stop train in the world – 528 kms in 6.5 hours. The shortest named station is Ib; the longest Venkatanarasimharajuvariipeta. (How would Western train announcers fare with that, I wonder?) 

It is the history of this marvel of engineering that particularly beguiles us. 

The Fairy Queen that runs between New Delhi and Rajasthan is the oldest working steam locomotive in the world. Four railway stations have been declared world heritage sites, including Mumbai’s CST, and the Darjeeling station on the Himalayan Railway. 

The railways played a particularly poignant part in the story of Partition. 

They became the scene for violent bloodshed as millions of Muslims and Hindus migrated towards Pakistan and India respectively in 1947. Thousands met grisly death as gangs of men entered the carriages and slaughtered all inside. (In the sometimes grand latter-day vision of empire, it is also forgotten that tens of thousands died to make the network a reality, the blood of labourers literally seeping into the ballast between the tracks.)

The echoes of that cataclysm continue to haunt the subcontinent, in spite of attempts to find common ground.

The Samjauta Express (the ‘Friendship’ Express) has run between India and Pakistan for over 40 years, intermittently suspended as relations break down between the two nations. 

A certain temperament is needed to navigate the rails. Punctuality is non-existent. For instance, the Guwahati-Thiruvanananthapuram Express is one of the world’s most unreliable trains – it is, on average, 10-12 hours late. Unlike in Japan there is no apology, no expressions of remorse or offers to commit hara-kiri. It just is. 

Stories abound of the democratic nature of the train travelling experience. 

Tales of stolen footwear, arguments over luggage racks, the fraught atmosphere of mealtimes. Yet, there is a genuine sense of camaraderie as the train hurtles on into the country’s vast interior, stopping at rural outposts where fare-dodging locals clamber onto the roof like an army of silent langurs. 

One of my own favourite memories is of a magician’s act, boarding the train to beguile us with sleights of hand and a knife-swallowing demonstration. (I later discovered that this was a ruse to enable pickpocket assistants to perform their own sleights of hand.) 

One last thing: it just so happens that the mascot of the Indian railways is an elephant dressed as a train guard. How perfectly apt.

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.

Why literary inspirations are overrated… or… a better way to ask this question

Who are your literary inspirations?

Every published author is asked this at some point. After a while it becomes one of those questions that you answer on autopilot, trotting out a carefully curated and eclectic list of famous and avant-garde authors (i.e. authors no one has ever heard of) designed to make you seem both widely read and also a litterateur of immaculate taste, all the while trying to hide the fact that your soul is dribbling out of your ears.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with holding up an author as a literary inspiration – I certainly have my own writing heroes – but most writers rarely articulate exactly how that author has impacted upon their work, instead simply gushing on about how much they revere them, how they’d willingly give up all their worldly possessions and spend the rest of their lives worshipping at their feet in blissful adoration. Or words to that effect.

A far more interesting way of framing this question – interesting for the author and for listeners, in my opinion – is to ask how certain books have inspired us, and what lessons we learned from the way those books were put together by their wonderful authors.

I read a lot. Easily a hundred books a year. I estimate that over forty years of reading I must have read at least 5000 books. Maybe more. 

So here is what I’ve learned from…

Watership Down by Richard Adams

A children’s classic. Who would have thought a novel about rabbits could be full of adventure, intrigue and excitement? I read this book as a kid and was hooked on the story of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other rabbits, displaced from their warren, moving across the English countryside to find a new home. On their epic journey they encounter every conceivable danger, and then meet the ultimate rabbit foe: General Woundwort, surely one of the most villainous villains in children’s fiction. 

What I learned: That it doesn’t matter what shape, colour, creed etc your protagonists are. The only thing that matters is writing a story that makes readers want to turn the page.  

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett 

I first read this novel as a teenager. For me it is the very best of the Discworld canon. I was instantly entranced by Pratchett’s ability to blend pathos and humour, at the ease with which his prose rolls along, and at the way we quickly become invested in his larger-than-life characters. In Guards! Guards! we are introduced to the recurring characters of the city of Ankh-Morpork’s Night Watch: Captain Sam Vimes, Corporal Nobby Nobbs and Sergeant Fred Colon, as they tackle a dragon threatening the city – with predictably hilarious consequences.

What I learned: If you can make people laugh they will retain warm memories of your writing and return to the well. Thirty years after first encountering the Discworld I still dip into my collection for inspiration. Pratchett is the reason I wrote my first novel aged 17 (a rubbish comic fantasy). He’s the reason my books embody humour.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Science Fiction rarely touches the heights of Dune, consistently voted the very best SF novel ever written. A space opera, written to a near literary standard, this novel spawned a dozen sequels, none better than the original. The novel follows the story of Paul Atriedes, son of Duke Leto, as he grows to manhood on the desert world Dune. The galaxy is ruled by the Emperor and his forces, in uneasy alliance with Great Houses and other corporate agencies, but power in this galaxy is controlled by access to the spice melange which gives users the gift of extended life. This novel has everything: adventure, mystery, great revelation, amazing SF concepts, and a sympathetic protagonist.

What I learned: That great writing transcends genre. SF isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Dunedrew readers from across genres because of the strength of characterisation, the plot, and the incredible world-building. Dunetaught me that there are no limits on inventiveness.

The Firm by John Grisham 

The best thriller I have read. Mitch McDeere, a young law graduate, is recruited by a Memphis-based law firm offering an incredible pay package. It’s too good to be true – he soon discovers that the firm is a front for the mafia. This book – which made Grisham a star – moves at a breakneck pace and is written with a terrific mix of legal insider knowledge, humour, and great plot twists.

What I learned: That a good thriller is impossible to put down – it has that incredible quality that every writer wants to achieve: making readers want to read just one more chapter before they turn out the lights. The Firminspired me to start writing crime fiction. It’s the reason I write crime today.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

I still remember the first time I read this, the overwhelming feeling of discovering something magical. This book was voted the best Booker prize winner in 40 years. It tells the story of modern India, using magical realism, through the eyes of Saleem Sinai who was born “at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence.” People may know Rushdie because of the controversy around The Satanic Verses, but this is the book that proves he is a literary genius. 

What I learned: That through words you can make readers nostalgic for a time and place they have never seen. I started reading a lot of classic literary fiction after this book, and that really improved my technical prose writing skills. Midnight’s Childrenis also one reason I now write about India.

Finally… It’s World Book Day… A perfect time to buy a book and help an independent bookseller and an author. Doesn’t even have to be one of mine!

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 #14: India’s tea plantations and why there’s no such thing as chai tea

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

India is the world’s largest consumer of tea and the second largest producer. In many ways, tea has become synonymous with the subcontinent. In recent years, Indian tea companies have acquired foreign tea brands that may be familiar to many, including the likes of Tetley and Typhoo. This simple brew serves as an ongoing reminder of the shared past between Britain and India, though the two nations may disagree violently over the best way to prepare the iconic beverage. (I myself have never been a big drinker, though my parents loved the stuff, preferably in its milky and sugary avatar – “chai”, as it is called on the subcontinent. I do, however, remember, as a child, scouring the bottom of PG Tips boxes for the collectible cards hidden there.) 

How did tea become one of India’s top exports? 

Some varieties of tea are native to the country, but tea also made its way to the subcontinent via the Silk Road from China where it is first purported to have been drunk. The ancient Hindu text, the Ramayana documents tea consumption in India around 700-500 BCE; a thousand years later we have stories of monks using tea as part of their daily ritual.

Commercial production of tea in India began with the British, and efforts by the East India Company to break the Chinese stranglehold over the global tea trade. The native variety of the Camellia sinensis plant was discovered by Scotsman Robert Bruce in 1823 in Assam. The story goes that a local merchant introduced Bruce to the Singpho people who were using the dried leaves of the plant, exposing them to dew before placing them inside a hollow bamboo tube and smoking the whole thing until the tea flavour matured. Bruce sampled the result and found it to be similar to tea from China. Sensing a business opportunity, he began to experiment, his initial forays in the Assam valley later expanded to the mountains of Darjeeling using transplanted Chinese seedlings.

Following years of failure and false starts, tea cultivation in India began to boom, enabling the production of a tea that was equal to, if not better than, its Chinese counterpart. The result was the first commercial plantation in Darjeeling, the Tukvar Tea Estate, established in 1850. 

Wind the clock forward 150 years and, today, there are over one hundred thousand tea gardens across Assam, Nilgiris, and Darjeeling. Thanks to the Tea Act of 1953, teas produced in these regions must be certified to ensure their authenticity. 

Tea drinking in India has evolved in many ways, with every region of the country now making its own variant. Humble roadside chaiwallas pour steaming half-glasses for passers-by, connecting all strata of society, from businessman to beggar. On the other end of the spectrum are the gourmet stores selling the very finest Indian tea, usually for a king’s ransom. 

Although tea continues to reign supreme in India’s rural regions, in the metropolises, the modern coffee shop phenomenon threatens to turn a generation of urban Indians away from the traditional beverage favoured by their parents.

Finally, a word to the wise. Never order “chai tea” on the subcontinent. Chai just means tea (and ordering “tea tea” is just plain silly), albeit the black version with milk, sugar, and, sometimes, a hint of spice, such as cardamom. Oh… and, according to the Tea Board of India Darjeeling, tea is best drunk in porcelain teaware – without any sugar or milk.

My parents would be turning in their graves.

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.