Monday, 28 January 2013

Cawnpore

This is a reprint of a post that first appeared on my publisher's blog last month. It's about the story of Cawnpore and how I came to write it.

One wet weekend, I found myself in an isolated house in Wales with a large library and no television. After I had tired of watching the rain run down the windowpanes, I started picking out books at random. For some reason, there were lots of titles about the events that shook India in 1857. Nowadays, people talk about the Indian War of Independence or the Revolt, but these books all talked about the Indian Mutiny.

What struck me about all these stories was how much the events of the mutiny were defined by the characters the people who fought there. There were heroes and villains on both sides, and the people of India often chose the side they would fight for based on personal or family loyalty to local leaders. It was a time of larger than life figures, whose personal strengths and weaknesses shaped the course of history in India for the next hundred years.

I wrote The White Rajah as a single novel, with no idea of producing a sequel. But when JMS Books suggested that they would like to publish another one, I realised that the events of the first novel had left my narrator, John Williamson, in Singapore with just time to take a ship to India ready to plunge into the events that led to the Mutiny.

Of all the incidents during the Mutiny, the massacre at Cawnpore was one of the most dramatic. Its horror became a byword for savagery across the world. More interestingly, from the point of view of a writer, it highlighted the confusions and mixed loyalties that had led to the Mutiny in the first place.

John Williamson is the ideal person to tell this story. As a homosexual, in the days when sodomy was "the sin that dare not speak its name," he was always an outsider to the rigid English society that characterised the stations of the East India Company. His experiences in Borneo meant he had a natural sympathy with the natives and had become adept at learning their languages. Thus, Williamson allows us to see the events at Cawnpore from both sides of the conflict.

Working out the details of the plot took some time. They had to fit what we know happened at Cawnpore and what we understand about the leading actors in that tragedy. At the same time, they had to allow Williamson to travel between the British and Indian lines and communicate with both sides. I have had criticisms that his disguising himself as a native is unrealistic, but the history of the Mutiny shows that he was not alone in doing this. Most of the detail in the story is accurate and, unlikely as it is, John Williamson's tale is not at all impossible.

Once I had the plot, I found the writing much easier than in The White Rajah. By now, Williamson was a well-established and fully rounded character in my head and this time his lover was another fictional character, so that I was not continually constrained by what history tells us about him. I found myself carried along with Williamson's enthusiasm for the country he was working in and then caught up in his horror as he realised how badly things were going to end.

Cawnpore is not a cheerful book, nor does it end with simple rights and wrongs. The story of colonialism, whether that of the British in the 19th century or the new Great Powers of the 21st is neither pretty nor straightforward. The joy of fiction is that it allows us to look at these issues from a different angle, free of the prejudices that we have about the world we are in today. So I can more or less guarantee that Cawnpore will, at some point or other, make you cry. But it's also a love story which, like every love story, has moments of humour and beauty. And it takes you back to an impossibly romantic world of rajahs and holy men and beggars; a world where a general could still lead his army into war on an elephant, where cavalrymen were dashing and heroic figures, and where a few hundred men, women and children held out against thousands of enemy troops in one of history's most desperate sieges.

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