I’ve recently taken part in an exciting new book project with Shepherd.com who are on a mission to discover the best books! “We ask authors to share their favorite books around topics and themes they are passionate about and why they recommend each book. We want to create an experience like wandering around your favorite bookstore but reimagined for the online world.“
I chose my passion – historical novels about the British in India. From E.M. Forster to Shona Patel, I recommend five very different books that fired up my interest in India.
Part Two of my interview with Montenegrin writer,Vujica Ognjenović
7. In the first book of your The India Tea Series, entitled “The Tea Planter’s Daughter,” you talk about the bitter fate of the daughter of the owner of a tea plantation on the Indian hills of Assam are full of promise. I guess you had a strong reason to write such a touching story?
I have a fascination for tea and its history – and I drink a lot of it! What I discovered while researching was the strong links between Britain and the Indian tea plantations and the huge popularity of tea drinking at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a massive industry that stretched from these remote fertile valleys in Assam and the hills of Darjeeling to the auction houses in Calcutta and London, and then sold around the streets of Britain and drunk in vast quantities by rich and poor.
I wanted to write a novel which showed all aspects of this trade and so created a strong heroine, Clarissa Belhaven, who is torn from a comfortable life in India because of the death and bankruptcy of her tea planter father and has to come to Britain. Here she is shocked by the poverty of her father’s homeland and determines to lift herself and her sister out of the dire conditions that they find themselves in.
8. How much can such bitter life experiences, such as the experience of Clarissa Belhaven, strengthen, man? It is said among the people: “Not every evil is from evil.” What do you think about that?
That is the strength of my character Clarissa: she refuses to allow the poverty and degradation she finds in early 20th century north of England to bring her down or leave her embittered. She and her sister, Olive, are virtual slaves when they come to working-class Newcastle but she battles on behalf of them both to lift them out of poverty. She refuses to sink to the level of her cruel and alcoholic aunt, and when her own circumstances improve, Clarrie does her best to help others. She breaks the chain of abuse and is a comfort and support to other women living in terrible conditions. She is a deeply caring person but it is true that what she suffers and experiences makes her a stronger person too.
9. The second book in this series, “The Tea Planter’s Bride,” is about India-born Sophie, who is left an orphan at the age of six. After that, her relatives take her to Scotland, but as an adult girl, Sophie returns to India. However, day by day, Sophie becomes more and more dissatisfied, unhappy. Why?
Sophie is a loving character but she has suffered great loss and trauma as a small girl – the death of her parents and the disappearance of her baby brother – and so returning to India amplifies these loses again. But it makes her also determined to find out what really happened on the tragic day when her parents died. Without giving too much away about the plot, Sophie is looking for love and a deep relationship that has been lacking in her life. She thinks she has found love with a Scottish forester in India but he is hiding secrets of his own and the more she gets to know him, the more unhappy she becomes. The one man she is drawn towards is an Indian forester, Rafi; across the racial divide. She puts duty before love and struggles to find peace of mind.
10. While creating the character of Sophie, did you keep in mind that “nothing can make an unhappy person happy”? Or: what can make a man happy, if that man feels unhappy at the bottom of his soul from his early youth?
You touch on an important point, that Sophie’s struggle to find happiness is rooted in the trauma of her earliest childhood. She only begins to discover quite how terrible were the events that lead to her being sent to Scotland at the age of six, when she returns to India and with the help of her close cousin, Tilly, begins to delve into her past. In a way, India reawakens her and long-buried memories begin to resurface once she is back there. But Sophie is not a melancholic character. She is sociable and tries to make the most of her new life in India, even though her marriage is increasingly unhappy. She has an inner strength to carry on and finds contentment in friendships and the outdoor life of a forester’s wife.
11. Your series “The India Tea Series” contains a lot of books. The plots of these books are located for the most part in India, at a time when India was an English colony. Why?
This period of British-Indian history fascinates me because of my various family connections with India at this time. Having survived the First World War as a soldier, my grandfather trained as a forester and went out to India to work. He had a whirlwind romance with my grandmother before he left Scotland and she followed him out to India a year later to marry him. They were married in Lahore, a wonderful old city in the Punjab (now in Pakistan) and she embarked on the itinerant life of a forester’s wife. She went into the mountains with him on camping expeditions and lived in remote places in the forest.
Long after they died, I discovered my grandfather’s diaries, my grandmother’s letters home to her parents in Scotland and very old cine films they had made in the 1920s and 1930s. They gave a vivid picture of their life in British India and I have used some of it as background material for the novels – in particular, ‘The Tea Planter’s Bride’ – a lot of which is set in the Punjab.
My grandparents experienced all the momentous changes that took place in India from the 1920s, through the Second World War and then Indian Independence. The novels also portray these times. I’m delighted to say that the third novel, ‘The Girl from the Tea Garden,’ which is set in the 1930s and 40s, is to be published in Serbian by Laguna in the near future.
12. In the book “Emerald Affair” you talk in a very interesting way about two friends who left Scotland after the First World War and went to tropical India. In India, their friendship is repeatedly put to a serious test. Is the motif of this book based on real events?
The two friends are completely fictional, but again I have used background material from my grandfather’s diaries in India for the novel. It is partly set in a city called Rawalpindi where my grandfather worked which is not far from the lawless tribal areas of the North West Frontier. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot but in the novel the friends are caught up in a kidnapping in this area. The incident is partially based on real events that happened on the Frontier in the 1920s.
I have just finished writing a sequel to this novel called, ‘The Sapphire Child’ which follows the same group of friends into the next generation and through the Second World War.
13. In your books you often talk about friendship, friendship… Is it true that a friendship between two people only lasts until a more serious conflict of their interests? What do you think friendship is? How much can a man believe in friendship?
Friendship is hugely important in my novels – and in life! I think real friendship does not break-up when there are differences of opinion or when there is a conflict of interests; that is when true friendship is tested. In ‘The Tea Planter’s Daughter,’ Clarissa finds friendship in unexpected places when she is forced to leave India. Still grieving the loss of her father and at the mercy of a cruel aunt, she finds comradeship among the working-class women she serves in her uncle’s bar. These friendships turn out to be of great importance and she is able to repay their kindness and companionship by later helping them. In this way, I think friendship is linked to loyalty and the desire to support friends when they need it.
There’s an expression, ‘you can’t pick your relations but you can pick your friends.’ In my experience, my relations are some of my best friends! Friendship is about enjoying people’s company, helping them without expecting anything in return, and forgiving or being able to say sorry. In ‘The Emerald Affair’, there are very strong friendships between the women (Esmie and Lydia) and the men (Tom and Harold). The novel explores how these friendships are tested to the utmost when they start new lives in India. How big is Esmie’s capacity to forgive when Lydia betrays that friendship and where do the loyalties of all four friends lie?
I was recently interviewed by the writer, Vujica Ognjenović, for a magazine in Montenegro and thought I would share his insightful questions.
1. Your parents are Scots. You were born, raised and finished your studies in Scotland, so I will ask you, at the beginning of this conversation: are Scots really too stingy, or are they just reasonable savers? I hope you are not angry that I am asking you this because in many countries of the world, there are anecdotes about Scots as misers?
Ha! I won’t take offence at the question but I have no idea how Scots got such an unfair label. My family come from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the Gaelic-Celtic culture of that region is famed for its hospitality and generosity. The Highland code demanded that strangers and travellers – even from rival clans – must be given shelter and food. Stories of clan feasting were legendary! I can only assume the prejudice against Scots grew from the fact that in bygone days Scotland was a relatively poor country and so had to be careful with its resources. But close-knit communities would look after each other and help each other out in the bad times. There is an old Scottish saying, ‘mean as a key’. This meant that no one should lock their doors and that all were welcome into each other’s homes.
2. At the age of 18, you traveled to the “end of the world”, to the wonderful land of Nepal. Why? What did you expect from that trip?
My overland trip was inspired by my maternal grandparents who had lived and worked in India from the 1920s until retirement back to Scotland in the 1950s. My mother had lived there as a girl and I was brought up on stories about tigers and trekking in the Himalayas. I wanted to travel East before I went to university and see some of the amazing countries on the way. But I also wanted to experience some of the places in India (and now Pakistan) where my family had lived. When they were there, it was very difficult to get into Nepal but with my grandfather being a forester, they did some very remote treks into the Himalayas as far as Tibet. My mother as a baby was taken on these treks and carried in her pram on poles!
I have always had a fascination for other cultures, and I hoped to learn more about the countries and people along the overland route. I was also inspired by a book that I’d studied at school: Passage to India by E.M. Forster. It made me think about the diversity of cultures within India itself. When I returned from my trip, I went to Edinburgh University to study Social Anthropology.
3. Kathmandu, the capital of that distant land, located at the confluence of the Baghmati River and the Bishanmati River, is a famous cultural and Buddhist pilgrimage center. How did you experience that city where many traditional rituals are preserved?
You have to remember that this was the 1970s and, in those days, Kathamandu was the end of the hippy trail! It was a fascinating place, full of beautiful temples and stupas – with monkeys running across their rooftops – and medieval buildings with intricately carved windows and doors, and narrow streets which we explored by bicycle. But it was also a haven for overland travellers from the West, living cheaply in backpacker hostels, enjoying the food and the laid-back lifestyle. To cater for the European travellers, there were small cafes selling pancakes, apple pies and huge delicious cakes!
Our bus arrived there at Christmas time and so most of the group stayed together for the celebrations, even though it was the end of the trip. On Christmas Day, I remember vividly, going out at dusk in the crisp mountain air, when all the lights were coming on in the open-fronted wayside stalls, the moon and evening star were rising and mist was settling on the hills around. Then suddenly, in the crowded street, a small band went past playing drums, pipes and bells. They looked like shepherds in their homespun blankets and they disappeared into the half-dark and their lovely rhythmic music faded away. I felt as if I’d seen the Biblical shepherds from the Christmas story!
4. How inspiring was that city for you? Was your mysterious novel, “Vanishing of Ruth” the result of that journey?
I adored Kathmandu and the surrounding countryside. It may be a cliché to say how friendly people were, but it’s true. It was the people as well as the fascinating city and the breath-taking mountain views that made it so special. It saddens me that so much of it has apparently been destroyed by earthquakes in more recent times.
‘The Vanishing of Ruth’ was definitely inspired by my journey overland, though it was over thirty years later when I finally decided how I would turn it into fiction. I thought that the themes of travel, escape and self-discovery lent themselves to a mystery novel. So the novel has flashbacks to the same year (1976) that I travelled overland and much of the background is true to my own journey – though no one disappeared on my bus as they do in the novel! Kathmandu features in the novel too, and some of the pivotal scenes take place in Nepal.
I was also lucky enough to travel through your beautiful country of Montenegro during my bus trip. We camped by the Kotor Fjord and swam under the stars, visited Kotor, drove up the hairpin bends and through some spectacular wooded gorges. In those days, the towns we passed through were called Titograd and Ivangrad.
5. In the book “In the Far Pashmina Mountains” you told an epic tale of a woman’s bravery and endurance in nineteenth century British tropical India, and remote Afghanistan. What was the reason for writing this interesting and very unusual story?
Again, there is a family story at the heart of why I looked at this early stage of Britain’s connections with India! One of my MacLeod ancestors signed up as a soldier of the East India Company army in the 18th century, because of the lack of opportunities for young men in the Scottish Highlands. Life was tough and brutal but fortunes could be made. Donald, my ancestor, was wounded in battle and put on a ship home but he died before reaching Scotland again. ‘In the Far Pashmina Mountains’ (although set a few years later) depicts this crucial time in British and Indian history when the commercial interests of the British East India Company were turning into the political ambitions of Empire.
There was also a growing rivalry with Russia and so the independent country of Afghanistan became a political ‘football’ between the two imperial powers. There were those who thought that the Afghans should be treated as allies and friends and the more aggressive imperialists who wanted to invade the country and extend British power. What interested me was the women and civilians who were caught up in the struggle and how they coped in what became a notorious retreat from Kabul. That is why I wrote about a brave, independent woman as my central character.
6. Is there any particular reason why you have placed the plot of this book, for the most part, in the steep mountains of Far Pashmina?
My hero, John Sinclair, is a Scottish Highlander and adapts well to the rigours of life in the Himalayas and mountains of Afghanistan where a lot of the book is set. I wanted to draw parallels between his life in Scotland and that of the Afghans and their warrior culture – the common hardships, prowess in battle, generous hospitality and pride in their clans. This is set against the arrogance of imperialism which seeks to dominate rather than understand people. I was also interested in portraying civilian life in the early Indian hill resort of Simla in the foothills of the Himalayas. It began as a place for the British soldiers to recuperate from the heat and disease of the plains in summer and grew into the most desirable hill town where government departments would go for the summer months and the Europeans enjoyed riding, sports, picnics and entertainment. In the 1920s my grandfather was stationed there as a forester and it was from Simla that he and my grandmother would set out for treks into the mountains and go ‘into’ camp for months at a time, to organise planting and harvesting of the trees. I visited Simla (now called Shimla) a few years ago and discovered one of the boarding houses where my grandparents and my mother had stayed – a thrilling moment as it still looked much the same as it would have in the 1920s. After that, I researched Simla’s history and that led to it being a part of the novel, ‘In The Far Pashmina Mountains’.
This is part one of the interview – I’ll post the second half later this week.
I just wanted to share with you this very interesting article on the history of horses in India – from the early days of the cavalry to the import of horses from Australia … fascinating! And with some great photos and illustrations too.
Today, on International Women’s Day, I honour the memory of my Great Granny Janet Gorrie and her three daughters – my Great Aunts Bel, Mary and Beth – who worked unstintingly in Scotland for women to be given the vote.
Great Granny Janet Gorrie from Perth, Scotland
They were members of the WSPU in Edinburgh and took part in demonstrations, pageants and the census protest in 1911 (a night of civil disobedience and fun!)
Auntie Beth in fancy dress as Lochinvar, Census Night Protest, 1911
Auntie Mary dressed as Scottish heroine, Kate-Bar-Lass, for 1909 pageant and demo in Edinburgh
Bel was acknowledged by one of the WSPU leaders, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, as their champion newspaper seller in all Scotland!
Auntie Bel (centre) handing suffragette newspaper to a man!