The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
Novel set in India (“Remember Cawnpore!”)
17th September 2015
Belonging by Umi Sinha, novel set in India.
India: “Everything is so extreme, the heat, the sun, the wild animals and the ever-present smell of death”
An insightful story set in the second half of the 19th century through and beyond the First World War. I knew in smatterings the course of Anglo-Indian relationships during the era of the Raj, but this book transports the reader through some very troubled times, without it being a didactic experience. Knowledge and information are disseminated as the story of three generations of one family begin to unfurl. It was in 1857 that the Crown took over, a sea-change began and gradually India almost began to morph into an outpost of suburban England. A vast country that was beginning to assert its own power, horns were beginning to lock. Set against this explosive background, the seething discontent, colour and human frailties, the book evokes a country and its people as they transition from one epoch to another.
At the beginning of the book there is a family tree, which is helpful just to keep in mind who is related to whom. The story develops through the voices of grandmother Cecily, son Henry and granddaughter Lila and it takes a little while to get into the rhythm, voices and different periods. The background of the broader history that is playing out reverberates into the lives of the individuals and their families in often unexpected ways. Death stalks their lives, and mental health issues take their toll.
Characters from a variety of ethnic origins and backgrounds are thrown together in this combustible storyline, interspersed with perceptive research that brings the various periods to vibrant life. How the interiors of the buildings might have felt, how it took three months to travel 900 miles and how violence at The Siege at Cawnpore rippled down through the generations with devastating consequences.
India is contrasted with very different life in Sussex where the strands from that faraway land come to settle. It is here that Lila makes her home with Aunt Mina and wades through the trauma of World War 1, but India – whether memories or the ever present Indian soldiers who fought for the British – is ever present.
Tina for the TripFiction Team.
Over to Umi who has kindly agreed to answer our questions:
TF: This book is a great story, interwoven into a very difficult period in Anglo-Indian relations. What drew you to this period?
US: I grew up on a remote naval engineering base in the Western Ghats in India, where there was no television and not much to do; consequently I spent almost all my time reading. My mother, also a writer, had a huge collection of Victorian books – all the classics, plus popular novels – mostly propagandist – about Empire, so this is a period that I feel at home in. As someone of dual heritage who sometimes feels torn between two completely different ways of looking at the world, I am interested in the fact that during the Raj Indian and British relations were sometimes characterised by loyalty, understanding and tolerance, and at other times by prejudice, hatred and vengeance. Although none of the events or characters are directly based on my family, some of them draw on family stories and legends.
TF: The story spans three generations which encompass the tragedy at Cawnpore, right up to the end of WW1. It is a great way of bringing the threads of this period of history together. How did you decide on the different characters who would narrate the story?
US: They really evolved out of the reading and research I did. A strong plot involves putting your characters under stress and testing them to the limits, so I chose periods where there were dramatic events happening that challenged the characters’ conventions and beliefs and also revealed the underlying problems of Empire, where one set of values is imposed on another by force. I have always been interested in military history, I have no idea why; perhaps because in a life and death situation people act out of natural impulse rather than convention, so you could say their behaviour is more revealing of who they really are.
I chose characters who would illustrate best the points I wanted to make about those particular periods of history: a naïve girl walking into one of the bloodiest scenarios in Imperial history; a young man trying to serve an Empire whose legitimacy he is starting to doubt, while struggling to uncover a dark secret around his birth; a child who witnesses, without understanding, the terrible consequences of this history and has to try to resolve it in herself.
TF: Clearly a huge amount of research has gone into this period of history. My learning and understanding of the period increased immensely by reading your book. Where and how did you start to research?
US: I started with the Mutiny, about which I knew very little, but I had been to Lucknow and seen the ruins of the old Residency, which still stands today, with its walls broken by cannon shot and pocked with bullet holes. Also the British cemetery with the graves of young British women and children who died of heat and disease, as so many did. It’s a poignant sight. Much of the research for that period was done at Colindale newspaper library, where they had all the original newspapers of the time on microfiche. I believe they’re all available online now.
After that the research was shaped by the ages of the characters. Henry’s birthdate was dictated by the history, so he was living through the period of the Great Game, which as a linguist he was well-suited for. I must admit to engineering Lila’s birth so she would be growing up as the First World War started, because it struck me as strange that less than sixty years after the revolt of 1857, with the huge breach of trust that it created, Indians were volunteering to fight for Britain again. But I was quite appalled to discover that many of the best known books about the Great War at that time didn’t even mention Indian involvement and I had to do a lot of research at the British Library and the Imperial War and Army Museums, looking at Censor’s letters and letters from British officers who’d commanded Indian Regiments in Mesopotamia.
TF: You have used the image of a tablecloth as a leitmotiv through the book. How did you alight on that idea?
US: It came to me in a dream. I had wanted to write a novel for some time but lacked a big enough idea, so I asked my unconscious mind for an idea before I went to sleep. It was very obliging because I woke up the next morning with that scene playing in my head, and I knew it was the opening of a novel. But it took me years to work out who the people were and create a story around them, and I had no idea till I had almost finished the book what was on that tablecloth!
TF: India features very strongly in the book. What are you personal favourite places and things to do and see? What are your tips for travellers?
US: The whole of India is fascinating. It’s a huge country and every part of it is different. I love Rajasthan with its nomadic culture and would love to go out west to Jaisalmer and Bikaner and spend some time in the desert. And Chittorgarh Fort is simply stunning. The south of India is beautiful too, with its much gentler culture and scenery. Goa and Kerala are lovely if you like the beach but I tend to prefer quieter less touristy places. The extraordinary Buddhist and Hindu caves at Ajanta and Ellora are a must, including the very sinister Daulatabad Fort nearby. The Jain temples at Mount Abu in Gujarat, with their exquisitely carved white marble interiors are tranquil and peaceful, especially at dawn when the rising sun tinges them pink.
Places I would like to visit are Ladakh and Leh and Sikkim, because I love Tibetan culture. Also Assam for the tea estates and mountain scenery, the burning ghats at Varanasi, and the Jagannath temple at Puri, which makes a brief appearance in the book, for the procession of giant chariots in July.
TF: Which books are on your TBR list at the moment?
The Humans by Matt Haig, which sounds intriguing.
The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra
Where my Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks
And for research I have a huge pile of books about Second World War Italy to plough through as well as books on the Indian Independence movement.
TF: What are you working on and will location feature strongly?
US: There’s a clue in the answer above! My next project is set in Second World War Italy and the part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan, so yes, location is very important and I will have to spend some time in Italy, which is no hardship at all. I would like to visit Pakistan too, but am not sure how feasible this is. I would love to revisit Peshawar, which I passed through while travelling overland to India from Greece in August 1978, passing through Iran and Afghanistan while they were both in throes of political upheaval. I feel tremendously privileged to have seen the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan, before the Taliban demolished them – another futile attempt to eliminate our history.
Thank you to Umi for her wonderful answers.