Lead Review and chatting to author Louise Brown
- Book: Eden Gardens
- Location: Kolkata (Calcutta)
- Author: Louise Brown
Over the last couple of years I have read several novels set in India from the mid 1850s to the build-up of Independence in 1947, and through fiction I feel I have grasped more about the period than history lessons at school ever taught; the period was singularly glossed over and only referred to in glowing political terms. A beleaguered nation that saw infrastructure and law introduced by the occupying nation, but who also saw systematic and widespread abuse that went unchallenged, and flies in the face of the often romanticised period of the Raj era. The Last Queen of India by Michelle Moran tells the story of the Court of Jhansi; An Unrestored Woman by Shoba Rhao is a collection of short stories largely set around the period of Partition; Belonging by Umi Sinha goes right back to the Cawnpore Massacre; the work of Kamala Markandaya and many more have served to delve beneath the this period of history.
This book is no exception. It tells the story of a white mother “Mam” and daughter, Maisy, caught between two worlds in the middle of the 20th Century – and it is clear that not every white person born and brought up in India during this time enjoyed a privileged life. Nevertheless white people, even on the periphery, could to some extent avail themselves of the wealth and luxurious lifestyle, surrounded by servants drawn from the locality, even if it meant becoming a prostitute was the only option. And Mam had to resort to this after the death of Maisy’s father, so that the two of them could stay in Calcutta. There was no way Mam wanted to return to Leeds, to inevitable servitude, grey skies and the penetrating cold of an English Winter. Supported by Pushpa, their Ayah, the two cobble together a reasonable life, until Maisy gets caught up in a passionate affair with her young teacher.
Pushpa herself has had a hard life on so many levels and her background gives her a world weary wiseness, as she tends to her two charges, soon three with the arrival of baby Charlie. His father is Sunil Banerjee, erstwhile teacher but now rebel and freedom fighter, as it turns out, which influences a relationship path that is more than chequered.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Maisy and Pushpa in alternate chapters, which works really well as the evolving history and the players in it are observed from different angles.
Calcutta of the time seems really well evoked, from Firpo’s’ restaurant, to the various quarters, although it is clear that it is a place not only full of scandal, but that it also “hardens your spirit”. I felt immersed in both the story and the place and have no hesitation to recommend it – for me, it offered a sense of footsteps past and understanding of a complex period of Anglo-Indian history. One of my personal best books of 2016.
Tina for the TF Team.
Over to Louise who agreed to answer our questions:
TF: This is a wonderful book set around the period of WW2 in Calcutta. You capture the fundamental nature of the rule of the Raj, but this is more a heartfelt human story set against tumultuous times, where both Indian and Westerners found themselves struggling. It is very muchthe other side of British India. How did you set about researching such a complex period?
LB: It’s easy to find lots of information about the lives of the sahibs and memsahibs who ruled the British Raj. It’s a lot harder to find the stories of the poor white people who also lived in India. Their voices are very rarely heard and few left written accounts of their lives. There are a few exceptions, like the memoir of an impoverished British man who suffered from leprosy and lived in a poor part of Calcutta, but most of the time, we can only catch glimpses of poor whites in the writings of the better off, and in the debates of the governing class. Researching these people meant reading between the lines of conventional histories. In order to do this, I read everything I could find on Calcutta in the first half of the twentieth century, and spent a very long time in the British Library. I looked at the records of churches and charities concerned with the plight of poor whites, and at the legislation aimed at controlling things like white ‘loaferism’, vagrancy and prostitution. All over India, it seemed the colonial elites were trying to control the activities of social embarrassing poor white people while simultaneously pretending they didn’t exist.
TF: Calcutta really comes to hot and sticky life in the book, there is a real sense of time and place. There seems to be familiarity with the city, the buildings and places feel tactile – what drew you to this city in the first place, a city that can really divide… people either seem to love it or hate it!
LB: I’m definitely on the side of those who love Calcutta – or Kolkata as it’s now called. I first went there in the 1990s when I was researching the sex trade, the trafficking of women and the spread of HIV in the brothel quarters, especially in Sonagachi, reputedly Asia’s largest red light district. Since then I’ve visited many times, usually for work and occasionally for pleasure. Sometimes I stay in Sudder Street with the backpackers and, when I’m flush, which is not very often, I stay in the fabulous Grand Hotel on Chowringhee. Like most big cities, Kolkata has a traffic problem and so the best way to see it is to walk, ideally early in the morning before it gets too hot and before exhaust fumes fill the streets with a blue haze. I usually do this alone but I can also strongly recommend Calcutta Walks http://calcuttawalks.com/ who do guided tours of the city and will show you the traditional homes of the Bengali elite, the palaces and cemeteries of the British era, the markets and alleys of the old city, and Kolkata’s remarkable cultural and religious diversity. A great guide book to take with you is Keith Humphrey’s Walking Calcutta, which is like my bible.
TF: Mam and Maisy are as far from the country club verandas as you can get. Nevertheless they have their own Ayah, Pushpa, who is a wonderfully drawn character. How did she develop?
LB: Pushpa is a composite of many women I’ve met over the last twenty-five years. When I lived in Nepal in the 1990s, my children had an ayah called Maya. She was in late middle age, had been abandoned by her husband, and one of her three children was disabled. Her loving nature, and quiet strength and determination are reflected in Pushpa. Just as important, I’ve met many women like Pushpa in the brothels of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. They are the most stigmatized of women, portrayed by society as ‘broken’ or ‘spoiled.’ They are poor and marginalised, often forced into prostitution by extreme poverty or because they are sold into the trade by traffickers. Their life is grim and yet they remain strong and stoic, finding comfort in the knowledge they are helping their impoverished families. Most closely follow their religion and celebrate festivals with an infectious passion. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, these women, like Pushpa, can somehow find both strength and joy.
TF: What are you working on now and will location be a strong feature?
LB: I’m just finishing a novel set in the Himalayas in the 1930s and so, yes, location will be a really strong feature. I’ve loved Nepal since I lived there for a couple of years in the 1990s, and the novel moves from Kathmandu, to the tea estates of Darjeeling, then to Kalimpong, a bazaar town on an offshoot of the Old Silk Road, and also into the ‘forbidden kingdom’ of Tibet. I am so lucky to have been to such wonderful places, and now feel even luckier to be writing about them!
TF: When you travel for research how do you go about recording the sights, sounds and smells of a place – do you for example have diaries, take photos etc?
LB: I’ve filled piles and piles of diaries over the years with untidy notes, only a tiny fraction of which I ever use in my writing. They are bound A4 pads, usually with plastic covers because the paper ones get very grubby. I write in them every night when I’m travelling. I tend not to write in them during the day, except when I’ve got a quiet moment, because I find the constant noting down of information stops me feeling the atmosphere and character of a location. The ‘feeling’ of a place is really important to me – probably just as important as the actual details of the physical environment. So, when I get back to wherever I’m staying, I jot down everything I remember, trying to use all my senses. Of course, this is not fool proof; memory is an unreliable tool, and so I supplement my notes by taking a few photographs, which usually fail to capture the specific, and highly subjective, feel of a place. I blame the camera but, in truth, it’s because I’m a hopeless photographer.
TF: What was your personal route to publication and what tips do you have for aspiring authors?
LB: My goodness…this is a tricky question and it’s hard to answer in a few words. My route to publication was a long and difficult one. Anyone who has instant success in finding a publisher for their novel is either very lucky or significantly more talented than I am. I was an academic for over twenty years and wrote non-fiction, mostly reports and the kind of books you find in university libraries and not in the bookshops. I travelled a lot for my work and wanted to write about the places I visited and the stories of the people I met on the way. What’s more, I was determined to do it in a more creative way than an academic usually does. That meant writing novels. Unfortunately, my early attempts at fiction were not a success and it took many years, countless drafts, a bit of rage, and a lot of despair before I found a publisher. I was fortunate in that I had a wonderful literary agent, Caradoc King at AP Watt, who never gave up on me, though I’m sure the effort took years off his life.
So, in terms of tips for aspiring authors, the most crucial thing is to keep going. Write every day, even if it is only two hundred words. It all adds up. And write in a place where there are no distractions. I know that’s easier said than done but, if you can, find a quiet room and close the door for twenty minutes. This isn’t a problem for me now my children have grown up, but I remember the years when there was, quite literally, no time to write except in snatched moments. In these circumstances, don’t give up but try to find someone to look after the kids for an hour. You’ll need grit and resolution to write under this pressure but know that, in the end, these trials will make you a better writer.
The other thing is to read widely, and not just your favourite genre. I learn so much from other authors. Sometimes it can be dispiriting because I think I’ll never be able to write as well as this or that author, but I remind myself that this is a journey and it’s only by practice that we improve our craft.
I also recommend that you listen carefully to the advice of agents and publishers. Be open to suggestions. From my own experience, I know I can hold too tightly to favoured characters and themes. In the same vein, family and friends are not always the best critics of your work. They will almost certainly love everything you do!
I could write for a very long time on this topic, but I’ll finish with a final thought about what to do if you really can’t find a publisher for your work. Although I am convinced traditional publishing is still the best way to get your book to readers, principally because you will be working with people who really know the business and with an editor who can give constructive criticism, I wouldn’t dismiss self-publishing. By this I mean, publishing in an electronic format. The danger with this is that you put a book on to the market before it’s ready. However, if you have listened to advice, are convinced about the merits of your writing, and have exhausted all other avenues, this is the way to go.
TF: Where will your travels take you to next?
LB: I spend as much time as possible – which is never enough – in the Western Isles. Along with Nepal, the Isle of Harris, with its wide, white beaches, is my favourite place in the world. I go there to find some peace. My mother’s family, two generations back, came from Sutherland, right at the north-western tip of Scotland, and most of the rest of my ancestors were from the borderlands or Ireland. It may be illogical, but whenever I travel north into Scotland, I feel I’m returning home. I’m going to the Outer Hebrides soon; and the thought keeps me sane.
I’m also travelling to Grenada again in a few months. It’s a superb holiday island, with all the rich culture and beautiful scenery of the rest of the Caribbean, but without the overdeveloped tourist trade that spoils some of the other resorts. For a tourist like me, it seems near to paradise. It’s the setting for one of my next books and I can’t wait to go again and sit under the shade of a palm tree on Grand Anse beach and drink too much rum punch.
Thank you so much to Louise for answering our questions.