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.
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.