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?