Inside India #2: Ashoka the Great – from mass murderer to Buddhist

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 January 26th 1950, the day that India officially became a republic, the new nation adopted an “Emblem of India” – a graphic representation of four lions standing back to back on an elaborately carved base. This emblem was derived from the Lion Capital of Ashoka, a sculpture originally placed on top of a pillar at a Buddhist site at Sarnath by the Emperor Ashoka in around 250 BCE. At one time, there were numerous such pillars dotted around the subcontinent bearing the so-called Edicts of Ashoka.

Who was Ashoka? Why did he leave such a mark on the subcontinent? 

The grandson of Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Maurya Dynasty; Ashoka ruled from 268 to 232 BCE. 

Upon ascending the throne, the young king quickly distinguished himself with his military prowess and a notable penchant for cruelty, particularly towards criminals. (A later Chinese visitor to India reported on a handed-down tale of a prison established by the former emperor known as “Ashoka’s hell”. Those unlucky enough to be sent there were routinely tortured and had no hope of leaving the place alive.)

Ashoka’s moment of revelation occurred following a destructive war against the state of Kalinga – modern day Odisha, on India’s eastern coast. Despite emerging as the victor in that conflict, the price of victory horrified the young king. Apocryphal stories tell of him walking through a battlefield strewn with a hundred thousand dead, facing up to the bloodthirsty necessities of empire-building. 

Soon afterwards, Ashoka converted to Buddhism, going on to become a tireless proselytiser for the faith. In time, he would despatch Buddhist monks to all corners of the subcontinent with his message of peace. Guided by the tenets of his new religion, he constructed thousands of monasteries and stupas, and pursued a programme of social welfare including the establishment of medical facilities – for both humans and animals, the digging of wells, and the mass plantation of trees. He began to issue a succession of now-famed edicts, instructing his officials to carve them on rocks and pillars throughout his kingdom. In these ‘rock edicts’, Ashoka talks about religious tolerance, charity for the poor, obedience to one’s parents, and respect for elders.

Ashoka ruled for over 30 years. At its zenith, his empire extended from present-day Afghanistan in the west to modern Bangladesh in the east. His inscriptions are a testament to the fact that he spent much of his reign in the propagation of the Buddhist concept of “dharma” – the achievement of ‘rightness’ or ‘justice’. Under him the subcontinent thrived, maintainingan estimated population of 30 million, higher than any of his contemporary Hellenistic kingdoms. Following his death, the Mauryan Dynasty came to a swift end and Ashoka’s vast empire crumbled into ruin. Yet his name – which means “without sorrow” – lives on. It is often remarked that he did for Buddhism in India what Constantine did for Christianity in Europe.

The great author H.G. Wells, wrote of him: “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star.” 

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 #1: The Indus Valley Civilisation – India’s oldest organised society

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 Indus river begins high up in the Himalayan mountains and flows nearly 3,000 kilometres to the Arabian Sea. In 1826, a British traveller in India stumbled across a series of mysterious brick mounds in the valley carved out by the river as it flows downstream. His name was Charles Masson and he described his find in his publication: Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, and the Punjab

Thirty years later, in 1856, engineers building a railway in the region found more bricks. Unbeknownst to them, these bricks were the first evidence of the lost Indus city of Harappa, one of the twin capitals of what would become known as the Indus Valley civilisation. 

It wasn’t until the 1920s that archaeologists finally began to excavate the sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. In so doing, they uncovered the remains of a civilisation that had settled the Indus Valley at least five millennia earlier. 

Today, over one thousand settlements have been identified in the region (with over one hundred now excavated), revealing asophisticated and technologically adept urban culture: city streets laid out in grid patterns, sewage and drainage systems more advanced than any found in contemporary sites in the Middle East, and massive citadels larger than most Mesopotamian ziggurats. The people of the Indus Valley developed pottery, metal working and a rudimentary written script – sadly, yet to be deciphered. They left behind few artefacts. The most telling are several small seals, made of steatite, depicting a variety of animals, both real—such as elephants, tigers, and antelopes—and mythological. Examples of Indus stone sculpture have also been found, representing humans or gods. The people of the Indus were among the first to develop a system of uniform weights and measures. They were primarily farmers, but trade flourished. 

By every measure this was a highly organised and technologically advanced society. 

This ancestral Indian civilisation emerged on the subcontinent in the western margins of the Indus river basin around 3300 BCE, rising to a peak around 2000 BCE. Yet, some three centuries later,most Indus cities had been abandoned and the empire had fallen into ruin. 

How did this apparently peaceful, well-organised civilisation collapse in such a relatively short span? Theories abound.

Some speculate that the cities became overcrowded leading to the spread of disease. In 1953, British archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, proposed that the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization was caused by the invasion of an Indo-European tribe from Central Asia called the “Aryans”. As evidence, he cited a group of thirty-seven skeletons found in various parts of Mohenjo-daro, and passages in ancient Hindu poems called the Rig Veda (dated around 1500 BC) that describe northern invaders conquering Indus Valley cities. Today, many scholars believe that the collapse was triggered by drought and a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia. It has also been suggested that deforestation, floods, or changes in the course of the Indus river may have been contributing factors.

The Indus Valley peoples did not disappear overnight, and many elements that characterised their societies can be found in later cultures. In effect, this ancient civilisation provided the foundation for the long evolution of the Indian culture that we see today. These were the very first Indians.

The Indus Valley Civilisation lay forgotten and undiscovered for thousands of years. Today, it is recognised for its many achievements. Mohenjo-daro was, at its time, probably the greatest city in the world – 4,500 years ago, as many as thirty-five thousand people lived there. The name India is itself derived from Indus, which originates from the Old Persian word Hindu. The latter term stems from the Sanskrit word Sindhu, which was the historical local appellation for the Indus River. Even the ancient Greeks referred to the Indians as Indoi which translates as “The people of the Indus.”

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.

My best reads of 2020

I read a lot of books, across a wide range of genres. These are my favourites from 2020 – one for each of the 12 days of Christmas.  A mixture of crime, literary, non-fiction, and contemporary novels. Something for everyone!

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens

Undoubtedly, my read of the year. The New York Times calls this “At once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative and a celebration of nature.” It’s a well written story about a girl abandoned by her family in a marshy outpost of a North Carolina town in the 1950s. As she grows to adulthood – wild, intelligent, lonely – she interacts with the townsfolk in different ways, some pleasant, mostly not so. Most look down on her as ‘marsh trash’. The man who does take an interest, the former high school quarterback and town lothario, later ends up murdered. This is a contemporary novel that happens to include a crime. I found it a wonderful read, with terrific descriptions of the marsh and its wildlife, and a compelling mystery that takes centre-stage in the third act. There’s a reason the book has already sold 8 million copies around the world.

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This book won the Pulitzer Prize and a hatful of other literary awards and you can see why. A satirical masterpiece, written with verve, flair, and extraordinary skill, the novel follows a Vietnamese double-agent forced to flee Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, only to discover that life in 1970s America is not quite what he has been led to believe. The book mercilessly slaughters both American and Vietnamese cultural icons, exposing the hypocrisy and lies that characterise that turbulent time in the history of these two nations. A landmark novel and a recommend for those who enjoy wicked historical satire.  

PRAGUE FATALE by Philip Kerr

I am a recent convert to the Germany-set Bernie Gunther crime novels. This one takes place in 1942, as Nazi ideology makes its jackboots felt across the country. Gunther is brilliantly drawn, a cynical, hardboiled detective, part of the German machine, morally compromised, yet at the same time contemptuous of its hateful rhetoric and actions. In Prague Fatale he is coerced into acting as protector for one of the most evil of all Nazis: Reinhard Heydrich, a principal architect of the Holocaust. Murder ensues at a closed base for German officers in Prague and Bernie must find the culprit. 

QUEENIE by Candice Carty-Williams

This hugely successful debut won book of the year at the British Book of the Year Awards. Full of wit, contemporary humour, and a no holds barred attitude that infuses every page, I found this an exhilarating read. Queenie is a wonderfully drawn character, a mass of contradictions, at once loud, vulnerable, committed, flaky, tender, ridiculous, and insightful. The world through Queenie’s eyes is well worth a look. 

DOMINION by Tom Holland

This non-fiction work by noted historian Holland applies itself to the question of how Christianity came about and how it then grew to become so influential. I found this a fascinating read, full of intriguing historical anecdotes, vividly depicted characters, and a narrative that brought to life in new and interesting ways some of the great stories of Christianity that many of us have imbibed. All told in Holland’s fluid, engaging and often provocative style. 

THE CURATOR by M.W. Craven

The Curator is the latest entry in this dark crime series, powered by its two contrasting but perfectly cast police protagonists: the burly no nonsense supergrouch Washington Poe, and the genius but socially awkward young Tilly Bradshaw. On the trail of another serial killer, they are confronted by a murderous psychopath with a penchant for leaving body parts in odd places – together with a strange clue. The book won multiple awards this year and it is easy to see why.

THE SECOND SLEEP by Robert Harris

Harris has been one of my favourite authors ever since his brilliant debut Fatherland, a crime novel set in an alternate future where Hitler survived and the Third Reich persisted. Since then he has become a household name. In The Second Sleep he again excels, both in fashioning a gripping plot that unwinds slowly and the measured quality of his writing. It is difficult to say too much without giving essential plot elements/twists away, but the book begins in 1468 with a young monk arriving in a small English village to investigate the death of a priest. It soon turns out the priest in question may have been flirting with heresy. Be warned: this isn’t really a crime novel. 

THE CACTUS by Sarah Hayward

The book follows a 45-year-old single woman with a prickly persona and a unique outlook on life. She becomes embroiled in a legal battle with her brother over her mother’s will whilst trying to manage an unexpected pregnancy. The protagonist reminds me of another quirky character – Eleanor Oliphant – star of the recent bestseller Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. If you enjoyed that you’ll probably enjoy this, though there are perhaps fewer outright laughs here. 

DEATH IN THE EAST by Abir Mukherjee

The fourth outing in the captain Sam Wyndham and Surrender ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee series sees Sam detoxing from his opium addiction in an ashram in the north-eastern state of Assam. The narrative alternates between 1922 India and 1905 London where a young Sam tracks the killer of an old flame. Seventeen years later a ghost from that past crosses his path in Assam. Mukherjee not only steeps us in the atmosphere of the Raj but also recreates a teeming early-nineteenth-century London, exploring issues of migration and xenophobia, matters all too relevant to our current moment. 

HUMANS by Matt Haig

An intriguing contemporary read. An alien comes to Earth and takes over the body of an eminent British professor who has just made a mathematical discovery that will, apparently, have dire consequences for the cosmos. Our alien protagonist is tasked to erase any sign of the discovery and anyone who may know of it. But the more time he spends with these strange creatures called ‘humans’ the more he comes to understand what makes them so unique… Haig writes in a fluid way and keeps the pages turning with a blend of wit and quirky happenstance. The third act may be a little too preachy for some, but overall I found the book enjoyable.

FORCE OF NATURE by Jane Harper

I loved Harper’s debut The Dry, which became a megaseller and won numerous crime fiction awards around the world. This book again features Australian cop Aaron Falk, this time on the trail of a woman who goes missing in the Aussie wilderness after trekking out with four other women as part of a corporate bonding exercise. Is she alive? If not, who killed her? It was always going to be difficult for Harper to recreate the brilliance of her debut, but this book is pacey, well plotted, nicely written, and keeps the pages turning. 

THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER by Nelson DeMille

An oldie but a goodie. For those of you who have seen the film the plot won’t come as a surprise. A brilliant young female officer – daughter of a general, no less – is found naked, strangled, and staked out on a rifle range at a southern US military base. Army CID officer Paul Brenner, accompanied by rape specialist Cynthia Sunhill, is called in to investigate. Nothing, of course, is quite as it seems. Nelson DeMille is a giant of the thriller genre, and a former army officer. His prose is sharp, his plotting meticulous, and he brings Brenner to life with a dry, laconic style that really appealed to me. 

And if you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If intrigued, registering takes a few seconds here

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

Great Indian Novels #10: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

Revered Indian novelist Khushwant Singh’s most famous work was published in 1956 at a time when the wounds of Partition were still raw. Since then it has courted controversy, both in its original form and in several subsequent attempts at bringing it to the screen, only one of which was successful, and that after a protracted battle with the Indian censors. 

Train to Pakistan shines a spotlight on one of the most harrowing periods in the subcontinent’s history, when the cataclysmic effects of Partition reverberated throughout communities around the country, setting Muslim against Hindu and Sikh, pitting neighbour against neighbour in an orgy of violence that left over a million dead. 

The novel is set in the fictional village of Mano Majra, on the border between Pakistan and India. The village is populated by Muslims and Sikhs, who have lived together peacefully for generations. Singh introduces us to a small cast of characters, most prominently Juggut Singh, a violent scoundrel; Iqbal Singh, a weak-willed social activist newly arrived in the village to proselytise on behalf of his political masters; and Hukkum Chand, a local magistrate. 

The villagers of Mano Majra, a close-knit community, are largely uninformed of what is happening around them in the country at large; but when rumours begin to trickle in of atrocities being committed in neighbouring villages the seeds of trouble are sown. 

In due course, a train arrives from Pakistan, loaded with corpses. This becomes the catalyst for the local police to force Muslims to leave for Pakistan – ostensibly for their own safety. They are housed in a refugee camp overnight awaiting a train to Pakistan. But then Sikh agitators arrive, demanding that the remaining villagers pick up their swords and come with them to seek vengeance…

What sets Kushwant Singh’s novel above earlier attempts to depict the horror of Partition is his focus on the individual. There is little in the way of political grandstanding. Instead, we see an understanding of human motivations, the murkiness of decisions made when fear, rumour and peer pressure combine, and a moral commentary that deftly infuses the work. This perspective gives the story a harrowing, visceral believability – we are never in any doubt that the horrific events that he depicts are a representation of actual incidents. 

The book is relatively short, but all the more powerful because of it, condensing a series of literary gut-punches into less than 200 pages. Singh’s writing style is similarly punchy. He eschews elegy, preferring to offer a clean, precise narrative akin to reportage. His method brings to life villages such as Mano Majra, caught in the eye of the storm during that terrible time. He also makes it clear that the blame for the violence cannot be placed on any one group – all were responsible.

“Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.” 

This is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Some of the atrocities Singh describes are difficult to stomach. The idea that humans could – and did – do this to one another calls into question everything we believe about ourselves as moral, intelligent, supposedly enlightened creatures. Yet it is precisely this refusal to shy away from the reality of what occurred that makes the novel a landmark in world literature. 

Today the work is just as relevant. India and Pakistan continue to rattle sabres at one another, exchanging hostile rhetoric at every opportunity. Kashmir is the issue that, more often than not, sparks political angst and the corresponding civilian unrest. But the seeds of this strife were sown during those short years around 1947 when the country was engulfed in something akin to madness. 

No writer has captured that sense of bloody anarchy better than Kushwant Singh in this enduring classic. 

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

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

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

Great Indian Novels #9: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

Rohinton Mistry has the distinction of seeing each of his three novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He is a literary novelist par excellence, a chronicler of Indian life whose wonderful prose and acerbic eye have incited controversy, soul-searching and literary delight in equal measure. 

A Fine Balance was published in 1995,going on to win the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. (Later it would also become an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection.)

The book is set in “an unidentified city” in India – one that bears a remarkable resemblance to Bombay – opening in the 1970s during the turmoil of the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency – a suspension of the Indian Constitution after the then Indian Prime Minister was accused of political chicanery. Defying a court order calling for her resignation, Gandhi instead used the Emergency to throw her opponents in jail, as well as a slew of others who didn’t quite see the world in the same way as she did – activists, intellectuals, journalists, even students.

To make matters worse, she and her son, the now notorious Sanjay Gandhi, launched a forced sterilization campaign that preyed upon the poorer sections of Indian society, causing irretrievable damage to tens of thousands of Indian citizens and serving up a harsh political lesson that has reverberated down the ages, hampering subsequent attempts at checking India’s population growth. 

Mistry’sbook focuses on four characters hailing from across a spectrum of backgrounds – Dina Dalal, Ishvar Darji, his nephew Omprakash Darji, and Maneck Kohlah.

College student Kohlah rents a room in the house of Dina Dalal, a 40-ish widowed seamstress. Dina’s husband died young and since then she has lived a life of carefully repressed emotions. Dina makes ends meet by taking on tailoring work. As the work mounts up, she hires itinerant village tailor Ishvar Darji and his firebrand nephew Omprakash, whose father, a village “Untouchable”, was murdered as punishment for daring to cross caste boundaries in a bid to better his station. Omprakash seethes with resentment, class resentment, caste resentment, a resentment that captures the bitterness felt by hundreds of millions across India’s starkly divided society. 

Mistry stitches together a vast narrative that seeks to highlight the travails of India’s poor, focusing on the way they are forced to navigate penury, corruption, bureaucracy, and outright bigotry. 

In a 2011 Guardian review, Hannah Booth was effusive in her praise for the novel, commenting on how it brought to life so vividly the India that she had recently visited. This quote, in particular, I found very evocative of my own time in India: “The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limits.” 

Some have accused the novel of meandering, of failing to bring together the strands of its protagonists’ lives in a satisfying way. For me, this vast, intricate novel is worth reading simply for the preponderance of fine detail and the warmth and compassion Mistry brings to his characters and their predicaments.

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

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

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

Great Indian Novels #8: Sacred Games by Vikram Chanda

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

Sacred Games was published in 2006 to widespread acclaim. The manuscript had earned its author a million-dollar advance – as it turned out sales didn’t quite match that exuberance. Nevertheless, over the years, the novel has garnered something of a cult following, so much so, that in 2018 Netflix released a big budget TV adaptation, resulting in renewed interest in the source material. 

The book itself is difficult to pin down. Weighing in at almost a thousand pages, it is both a thrilling gangster epic set in Bombay’s notorious underworld and a searing social commentary on contemporary India. The story follows two parallel narratives, one through Bombay’s criminal underground in the 80s and 90s and the other through a modern-day hunt for the explanation behind a dead gangster’s bizarre final words. The central protagonist of the novel is Sartaj Singh, a Sikh policeman led by a tip-off to the hideout of notorious gangster Ganesh Gaitonde who has returned to Bombay after many years. With his dying words, Gaintonde asks Sartaj if he believes in God. Employing interweaving plot strands and a multiplicity of voices, Sacred Games tackles themes as far apart as the sectarian violence of Partition to the modern threat of nuclear terrorism.

Chandra does not make this an easy read. He digresses, spends an inordinate amount of time building up characters and situations that don’t always offer a discernible payoff, plays with narrative devices (such as four chapters that have little to do with the main story and which he calls ‘Insets’) and dips into the local vernacular with gay abandon. 

In the New York Times, reviewer Paul Gray wrote: “By paying homage to both Ian Fleming and James Joyce, Chandra risks alienating the constituencies of each — of writing a thriller that’s too serious and a serious novel that’s too much in thrall to an absurd story.” This sentiment captures the central issue with Sacred Games. It is a novel that aims to be majestic, and so often is; but at other times can be infuriating. The vastness of the scope allows Chandra to develop his characters and themes at length. Sometimes that length appears unnecessarily bloated. 

In spite of its faults, there is little doubt that Sacred Games remains a landmark Indian novel. Personally, I found the experience of reading the book exhilarating, not least because of my own familiarity with Bombay, where much of the action takes place. This is an immense, demanding, but, in my opinion, an ultimately worthwhile read.

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

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

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

Great Indian Novels #7: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

I first read E.M. Forster’s masterwork whilst living in India. The book instantly grabbed hold of me, not just because of its sublime writing and stylistic brilliance, but because of the themes it set out to explore. A Passage to India was published in 1924 and set against the backdrop of the gathering Indian independence movement. The story centres on four characters: Dr. Aziz; his British friend Mr. Cyril Fielding, Mrs. Moore; and a young schoolmistress, Miss Adela Quested, newly arrived in India, ostensibly to marry a boorish young Englishman. 

During a trip to the (fictitious) Marabar Caves, Adela mistakenly believes that she is caught alone with Dr. Aziz in one of the caves. She becomes dizzy, panics, and flees in terror. It is assumed that Dr. Aziz has attempted to assault her, a charge that ends with Aziz being put on trial by the British. This trial and its aftermath serve to bring sharply into focus the simmering racial tension between Indians and their British overseers. 

At the heart of the novel is Aziz, an Indian Muslim doctor. At the beginning of the novel Aziz debates with friends about whether it is truly possible for an Indian to be the friend of an Englishman. By the end of the novel, having suffered as a result of the ingrained prejudice of the British towards the ‘natives’, he is left in a thoroughly disillusioned state. His earlier attempts to help Adela find the ‘real’ India – his own naïve means of advancing a bridge between the colonialists and their ‘subjects’ – has backfired spectacularly, shattering his belief in those qualities he might have been willing to ascribe to the British: a sense of fair play and justice. Such is his bitterness that when he is visited at the close of the novel by his friend Fielding, he is forced to utter: “I am an Indian at last.” This despite the fact that Fielding is the only Englishman to have attempted to help him. Forster’s suggestion appears to be that the two men can never truly be friends until the British depart the subcontinent. 

A Passage to India is a searing portrayal of the racist attitudes endemic to the British in India and the many ways in which the native Indian population was oppressed by a foreign administration. With the exception of Fielding, none of the British characters in the novel believe in Aziz’s innocence. Aziz’s guilt appears in no doubt to them, because the word of an Englishwoman is always to be believed over the word of an Indian. Indeed, the chief of police openly declares that the Indian character is inherently criminal.

The novel is based on Forster’s experiences in India, and the moral dilemma he saw at the heart of the Raj. He admits to suffering great emotional turmoil in its writing. Indeed, he abandoned the project on several occasions only to be drawn back to it time and again. On publication, the book was greeted with rave reviews and spectacular popularity. Some, however, have criticized his portrayal of India and Indians as unflattering and shallow.

The effort of writing the book appeared to exhaust him. He died 46 years later, having never written again. Not that he needed to. A Passage to India was selected as one of the 100 great works of 20th century literature by the Modern Library, and Time Magazine included it in its list of “All Time 100 Novels”. (The book was filmed in 1984, another David Lean epic that was nominated for eleven Oscars.) For me these accolades are well deserved. This is a genuine literary masterpiece about a particularly factious period on the subcontinent.

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

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

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

Virtue Signalling: what is it exactly and is it even real?

Recently, the new Director General of the BBC took the unprecedented step of explicitly telling BBC employees that they must avoid “virtue-signalling”. Specifically, staff working in the news division have been told not to express views on matters of current political debate, or publicly supporting campaigns “no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial.”

The term “virtue signalling” has now entered the public lexicon. It is used, invariably, as a slur. (Anyone remember Piers Morgan calling TV presenter Jameela Jamil a ‘virtue signalling twerp’ during an online spat about the royal family?) Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse them of hypocrisy, of appearing to promote their concern for a particular cause when, in truth, all they are really doing is displaying their plumage, shouting to the world ‘look at how virtuous I am because I support this cause!’ 

Wikipedia defines virtue signalling as a “pejorative neologism for the conspicuous and disingenuous expression of moral values with the intent to enhance one’s own image”. In 2015, a Spectator magazine popularised the term, criticising those who say or write things to make clear they are “admirably non-racist, leftwing or open-minded” without actually doing anything to change the world. The author of that piece, James Bartholomew, suggested that virtue signalling is driven by ‘vanity and self-aggrandisement’, not actual concern for others.

Some of this may indeed be true. We can all think of instances where people’s expressed concern for certain issues doesn’t align with their actions or the image they have hitherto presented to the world. In a piece I recently wrote on cultural appropriation, I highlighted the instance of Bollywood film stars in India who had tweeted messages of support for the BlackLivesMatter movement – only to be then called out for their long-running promotion of skin-lightening creams.

In a 2019 article by Neil Levy first published in Aeon Magazine, he states that the philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke label virtue signallers as ‘moral grandstanders’ and suggest that such activity perverts the function of public moral discourse which, when done right, ‘spurs moral improvement in the world’. Virtue signallers, however, ‘cheapen’ such discourse by shifting the focus from the problem onto themselves, resulting in general cynicism for the actual cause.

But this isn’t the whole story. Recently, some have begun to question the legitimacy of the term itself. 

The problem with using virtue signalling as a means of denigrating someone’s actions is that it is impossible to know, with certainty, any individual’s true level of commitment, concern, or intent. After all, who can truly see inside someone else to accurately judge their integrity?

Some suggest that, increasingly, the term is being employed to undermine all moral acts. For instance, many of those expressing support for the climate activist Greta Thunberg have been accused of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, of racing to be the first to align themselves with her so that some of her virtue rubs off, coating them in a sort of climate-activism glamour. No doubt some are. But whether some may actually believe in the cause or be genuine in their commitment to environmental issues seems to have been deemed irrelevant. 

As I see it, the root problem with the term is that it is a blunt instrument, unable to pick out those actions that, in another age, we would have simply called ‘virtuous’. Many things that we do, or opinions that we express, are because we believe in them – for instance, supporting democratic values, positive societal change, equality – they are positions of intrinsic virtue (to us), a part of our moral make-up. Expressing such views publicly is merely an extension of our inner thoughts and feelings. Why then should we be denigrated by the label of virtue signaller? We’re fast getting to the point where anyone who takes a position in favour of a good cause is liable to be torn down moments later on social media. 

The branch of research that deals with virtue ethics tells us that human beings are obsessed by the idea of assessing the true character of their fellows. In this context, actions are less important than the individual. We judge people based on our perception of their moral values, their ethical behaviour, rather than any individual actions they may take. A good person is someone who lives virtuously. (Though, of course, the definition of virtue itself can be debated endlessly.) 

The simple truth is that we all engage in genuine acts of moral virtue all the time without ever speaking about them. Yet, at other times we also signal our alignment with moral virtue – through a tweet, Facebook post, chatting to friends at the pub – telling others that we are engaging with a particular cause, siding with a particular argument. It would be false to claim that at least some small part of us isn’t pleased by how we now expect others to perceive us – i.e. in a way we hope reflects positively on us. Indeed, the very act of me writing this article could be seen as a form of virtue signalling – here I am signalling to you how virtuous I am because I am willing to critique the term virtue signalling!

My take on the matter: let he who is without sin cast the first tweet. 

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

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

Diwali: a quick guide to India’s festival of lights

Today, more than a billion people all over the world are marking Diwali. Like most major religious festivals – think Christmas or Eid – in today’s world, Diwali is more than a reflection of its faith-based underpinnings; it’s a celebration of family, friendship, and community.

Having lived in India for a decade during my twenties, I experienced first-hand the annual jamboree that accompanies the ‘festival of lights’. The festival’s name derives from the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) that are lit in their billions inside and outside Indian homes to symbolize the spiritual light that protects us from the darkness. When combined, the Sanskrit word becomes dipavali – Diwali. 

So what is Diwali’s history? Its meaning?

As noted in a 2020 article by Amy McKeever in National Geographic, the first thing to understand is that Diwali is not exclusively celebrated by Hindus – it is also observed among Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Because of this, according to McKeever, there is no single origin story for the festival. What is common, however, is the notion of the festival representing ‘the triumph of good over evil.

Perhaps the provenance story that we are most familiar with in the West stems from northern India, where Diwali commemorates Prince Rama’s triumphant return to the city of Ayodhya following years of exile. During this time, he was faced with the task of rescuing his wife Sita who had been kidnapped by evil Lord Ravana – a tale recorded in the Hindu epic Ramayana.  Diwali is celebrated 20 days after Lord Ram is purported to have killed Ravana.

In the southern half of India, Diwali commemorates a different victory – Lord Krishna defeating the demon king Narakasura. For Sikhs, McKeever states that Diwali recalls the release of the 17th-century guru Hargobind following his imprisonment by Mughal emperor Jahangir. 

Whether or not today’s celebrants dwell on these details is irrelevant. What matters is the essential message of Diwali, a message handed down through oral and written tradition by the world’s oldest recorded religion, a message of light triumphing over darkness, of good beating out evil.

Diwali is also aligned closely with hopes of future prosperity. The festival celebrates the goddess of wealth and good fortune, Laxmi. In Mumbai, where I was based, every business – and most homes – use it to mark the start of a new financial year. 

Like other major festivals, Diwali is not confined to a single day. This five-day festival starts with Dhanteras, celebrating good luck, wealth and prosperity. On Dhanteras people buy jewellery and household utensils – it’s a bonanza for sellers of pots and pans! – because metal is believed to ward off bad luck. The house is cleaned and decorated with lamps and coloured designs known as rangolis. The next two days – known as Chhoti or ‘small’ Diwali and then Diwali ‘proper’, involve prayers, the lighting of the clay lamps, and fireworks. There’s feasting, gift-giving and charitable endeavour. Day four marks Govardhan puja, a special prayer, and the festival ends with a day dedicated to the love between siblings, specifically brothers and sisters.

This year, with lockdowns around the world and the socially distancing effects of the pandemic, Diwali has taken on a slightly different shape. Nevertheless, its central tenets remains the same: fun, family, friendship.

To all my friends currently celebrating: have a great day!

Great Indian Novels #6: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

The Life of Pi is one of those rare books that defy attempts at classification. It can be read as a literary novel par excellence (it won the Booker Prize in 2002); an adventure survival story; or a metaphysical treatise on religion.

The story is told through the voice of the eponymous Piscine “Pi” Patel, an Indian Tamil boy growing up in the city of Pondicherry. 

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Pi, now an adult living in Canada, reminisces about his childhood in India, where his father owns a zoo. Pi quickly discovers an innate curiosity for matters of a spiritual and religious nature. His innocent questioning leads to answers that are not at all satisfying. Pi is raised as a Hindu but as a teenager decides to investigate both Islam and Christianity, eventually deciding to adopt all three religions, telling his shocked parents that he “just wants to love God”. 

In the book’s second part, set in 1976, the family emigrates to Canada, in reaction to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s imposition of ‘The Emergency’, a period when the Indian constitution was suspended, now recognised as a particularly shameful chapter in the subcontinent’s tumultuous political history.

The ship the family is on sinks in a storm. Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat, his only companions, and fellow survivors, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Royal Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker. A series of increasingly dazzling adventures ensue on the ocean, until the boat washes onto a beach in Mexico. All the while Pi must find a way of avoiding being devoured by the starving Richard Parker.

In the final part of the book, Pi is engaged in a conversation with officials conducting an inquiry into the shipwreck. What emerges is a parallel truth to that which actually took place on the lifeboat, a sort of twist in the tail that is both clever and frighteningly believable. 

In a 2002 interview with PBS, the author Yann Martel said: “I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small ‘s’ but sort of with a capital ‘S’ – something that would direct my life.” Martel spoke of searching for direction in his life; this book, with its reflection on human spirituality, served to give him thatdirection.

For me, this is a novel to savour. Martel’s use of language is flamboyant; he is unafraid of being playful with imagery and brings to life his marvellous range of characters, both human and animal, with wit and verve. The book has been called a magical realist fable, and Pi an “unreliable narrator”. It can also be read as a meditation on the balance between faith and science and how they might co-exist within the individual.

This is a novel that is deeply allegorical. For some readers the flights of fancy, particularly towards the latter part of the novel, might prove a literary bridge too far. I, however, delighted in Martel’s exuberance, his willingness to defy the rules, and, most importantly, in a thoroughly absorbing and beautifully written tale, a rip-roaring yarn and an intellectually immersive experience. 

And, of course, there is that tiger…

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

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

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here