Writers Chat 26 (1): Cauvery Madhavan on “The Tainted” (Hope Road: London, 2020)

Cauvery, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Many congratulations on your third novel, The Tainted (Hope Road: London, 2020 – Publication date 30th April 2020). Your previous novels Paddy Indian (2001) and The Uncoupling (2003) were received with acclaim with Sue Leonard declaring The Uncoupling “a gem of a novel.”

I read The Tainted over the span of a few cold days in late December in front of a fire, and was very moved. On the surface, the novel deals with the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in India but it tackles much more than that mutiny – spanning generations we see the affects of colonialism in the form of class, caste and race on ordinary people’s lives.

This is your first public interview about The Tainted – and what an in-depth WRITERS CHAT!  We are presenting it in two parts. PART ONE, below, concentrates on your extensive – and fascinating – historical research, the timeline of The Tainted, character development and place and identity (something close to my heart!).

We also have a giveaway of two signed copies of The Tainted – – READERS: to be in with a chance of winning a copy, simply comment on this WRITERS CHAT and I’ll add your name to the draw. 

The Tainted Book Cover

Let’s start with the context and your research. You deftly entwine Indian society and politics with that of Ireland and Europe. We’re told that the twenty-seven men who died of cholera in hospital when the Regiment was first posted in 1913 were lucky because within a few years they would have died in the French trenches. Tell me about the historical research which must have been exciting. Did you travel to Nandagiri and consult archival material such as newspaper reports, hospital records, letters, birth and death records and so on?

I did Shauna. I made a decision fairly early on in the project, to completely immerse myself in the period: so I confined all of my reading to books, magazines, periodicals in the years from about 1910 up to 1947. I watched scores of movies, Hollywood and Bollywood set in the Indian sub continent and Ireland too, that spanned those years. Two films come to mind straightaway: Bhowani Junction starring Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger, and the evocative and poignant Bow Barracks Forever. If you liked The Tainted, I think these two movies will resonate too. I reconnected with books from my teenage and early twenties reading Somerset Maugham, John Masters and Ruskin Bond amongst many, many others. For an Irish perspective some of the writers I read were Sebastian Barry, JG Farrell, William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien. Happily, I also discovered Barbara Cleverly and her detective stories set in India during the Raj.

Sometimes while writing things would come to a complete full stop till I checked out a detail. When I began research for the chapter on the tiger hunt at Masinagudi, I ended up taking an unexpectedly long 6-month break from writing to read all of Jim Corbett’s books, in order to get my head around the intricacies of hunting big game using elephants and beaters. For a visual guide I poured over many series of  wonderful sketches and drawings in the Illustrated London News. They were big into hunting, fishing and shooting in the Tropics. A good few months later I felt I was an armchair expert and, may I add, one with a special interest in pigsticking!

Many an evening ended leafing through The Army and Navy Catalogue from 1915 which I kept by my bedside. It definitely gave me a feel for the things that were important to people as they lived their lives thousands of miles away from home. Literally anything could be ordered from folding canvas baths to a marble angel for a headstone. The mail order catalogue was a truly fascinating window into the daily lives of every class of the European and the very wealthy Indians too.

The Army and Navy catalogue

To get an understanding of  the  contemporaneous attitude towards and the treatment of  diseases like syphilis and malaria, as well as mental health issues and conditions in mental asylums, I turned to  the work of medical historians and military archives. Additionally, I did field trips to eyeball some of the older mental hospitals in India – very many have still retained and use their old buildings.

I was forever hungry for visual references – I think many writers tend to be, for you need to have settings very clearly in your minds eye: people and places of that era that you can instantly conjure up as you write. I dug up many excellent documentaries about soldiering in the Raj and found art galleries and museums very useful, specially photographic exhibitions. Of course, the military are great at archiving every detail of their war and peacetime activities so there was a lot of material that was available between the three countries. Luckily for historians and novelists a good many young army officers were bored stiff for most of their time in India, constricted as they were for months at a time by the relentless heat or the incessant rains – they wrote extensively, books, diaries and long letters chronicling their lives and travels in the sub continent. And of course there were scores of very articulate and descriptive accounts of daily life by the women of the Raj: wives, daughters and sisters, from Vicerines living in grand splendour to hardy missionaries heroically making do in remote ‘up country’ camps. Their writings were often published in popular women’s magazines of the day and were a very good source for me. I managed to get sets of bound volumes from antiquarian dealers and even though I’ve moved on to writing my next novel, I still love reading them.

A selection of pages from the catalogue
Selection of pages from the 1915 Army and Navy Catalogue

Post Independence, the Anglo Indians diaspora who had scattered all over the world contributed to their own nostalgic newsletters and journals, full of accounts of bygone life, recipes and photographs. Collectively they were an eye opener to life attitudes and the cultural norms of that time.

So you can see Shauna, there was plenty of information to be mined. My problem was I got lost in that mine and didn’t emerge for a good few years! A lot of my research was accidentally tangential: you know I’d start looking at one thing and end up exploring something else, often in the course of the same morning. And even though it meant that so much of the research remained unused and never featured in any form or fashion in the book, it gave me such a clear picture of the period and I hope that has translated into what the reader gets from my book.

That is just incredible, Cauvery and, of course, when you describe the different types of sources you also so accurately describe many of the themes in The Tainted.

The timeline is split between 1920/45 and 1982. By using a split timeline you are able to capture the changes in Indian society and how the injuries of colonialism span generations. In a way I was reminded of the legacy of trauma that bell hooks talks about in her book Can you talk about this in relation to the generational span of the novel, in particular the Aylmers?

When I began the book, Shauna, I had planned to write a novel based on 1920 Mutiny of the Connaught Rangers. I fictionalised the regiment so I could have artistic licence and my story was to be an account of how an Irish regiment, I called them the Kildare Rangers, serving in the British army in the Raj mutinied and how their actions, in those few weeks, panned out. I was barely into writing the first three chapters when I realised that apart from the circumstances of the mutiny, there was a whole different, and indeed far more complex story waiting to be told, one that needed to be told – the aftermath of the mutiny and its ramifications on multiple generations of families in two countries on two separate continents. So I did change focus considerably and having read the book you know that much of the story takes place after the mutiny.

All three groups of characters in my novel are tainted by association and trauma that has come down through generations and it’s this baggage, and their search for identity and a final sense of belonging that has formed the basis of my book. The Anglo Irish Aylmer family had a long tradition of valiant service in the British army. When Colonel Aylmer and his wife went out to India, it was at the height of the Raj and given the observance of protocol and precedence of those days, they assumed the role of de facto King and Queen of the garrison town of Nandagiri where the regiment was stationed. In any army, ancient or modern, valour and loyalty are sacred. For the soldiers to have mutinied under the Colonels watch, amounted to loss of honour of the worst sort. It was a reflection of his abilities as the commanding officer and a huge stain on his otherwise glorious military career.

The Aylmers had the best of times in India, because not only were they the Colonel and the Memsahib ruling the roost in Nandagiri, but away from Ireland, they could also shed their Anglo-Irish identity. When they returned to Ireland, in the wake of Irish freedom, the change in their circumstances was nothing short of dramatic. The Aylmers not only had to reckon with the loss of their prestigious position but they also had to confront all the prejudice and dangers that came with them being Anglo-Irish in a newly independent Ireland. You can imagine how hard it must have been to carry the burden of an ignominious end to a military career all the while coming to terms of their changed status in Ireland. It’s a little wonder they hardly spoke of India! Their children grew up in Ireland with just a few memories that quickly faded, all mention of India was totally avoided, their personal affects from their time in the East stored away and much later even the budding romance between Alice and the Prince of Pudunagari was given short shrift. So when Richard Aylmer, the Colonel’s grandson, arrives in Nandagiri 60 years later, he finds himself playing catch up with history and the role his grandparents played in shaping the lives of people they never knew.

I thought you handled Richard’s discoveries and, as you put it, playing catch up with history, very well – as readers we feel very close to him on his journey. There is another character – Rose, an Anglo-Indian maid to Mrs Aylmer – who is ever-present. She stuck with me long after I finished reading The Tainted. Rose suffered terribly but she also knew real love and kindness. There are several moments where the kindness of strangers – Dr Swamy, for example – allow wonderful connections to happen, and, I found turned The Tainted into a novel about love. Without revealing too much, were these scenes you had planned or did they appear as you wrote? I’m thinking of that magical thing that happens in writing when the story veers off the path we think we’re on and brings us to surprisingly beautiful moments.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my characters have always revealed themselves as I’ve written. I’ve discovered their motivations, fears, weaknesses and strengths as one would of friends as you get to know them. The reason I’m embarrassed is because before I started writing myself, I never gave any credence to writers who said stuff like that. But I’m a fervent believer in letting the characters take over and do their ‘magical thing’ as you call it. I have never plotted any of my books in advance and The Tainted was no different, preferring to let my characters lead me where they will. I guess I was lucky too Shauna. They very quickly became so real to me it was actually quite easy once I got to know them to write their story and make all those timely links through the generations.

Sometimes details and connections came out of research and definitely Dr. Swamy was one of them. I researched and visited the Kilpauk Mental Hospital in Chennai and spent some time walking the grounds in the the oldest part of the hospital. I was effortlessly transported back a hundred years as some of the buildings that housed the female inmates dated back to the early 1900s. The ancient trees that covered the vast acreage of the Hospital provided incredible atmospherics and conjured up images that I knew would find a place in the book. Dr. Swamy popped up into the pages of my book shortly after and I didn’t even realise at that time, when he called out to Rose and Micheal from his upstairs window that he was going to play such a pivotal role. The the funny thing is he sailed through life not knowing the true repercussions of his actions! I loved that, the fact that he was drawn to Rose by his medical instincts but never knew that he actually defined her life.

I think there is something so wonderful and true to life in that, Cauvery. The Tainted of the title refers to the Anglo Indians. Neither Indian nor English, their identity, how they identify and how they are seen is difficult for them. You capture this through Gerry, and May who declares that Anglo-Indians “are a whole community strangled by dreams of what we never did have in the first place […] we’re tainted. We were never white enough then and will never be brown enough now.” (256 and 259).

Earlier in the narrative Tom warns Michael in 1920 that “When blood’s diluted, the colour will always come through…You’ll have to pick the ones to take and the ones to leave behind.” (66)

Yet despite these barriers based on race, religion and caste, your characters find that they do belong to this wonderful complex place. Can you expand on the theme of identity, belonging and land?

I’ve always been very interested in delving into the lives of people whose identities and loyalties are tainted by the social and historical limbo they are caught in: Irish Catholic soldiers in the British army, the Anglo Irish officers who commanded them and Anglo Indians (as they are known in India) – many of them the progeny of soldiers of the Raj, fathered in liaisons with Indian women and more often than not abandoned.

I was really struck by Ian Jack’s astute assessment in his book Mofussil Junction in which he writes that, as far as the Empire was concerned, the Anglo-Indians “represented no more than the shaming evidence of sexual transgression by the lower ranks”. And as you know Shauna, Indians themselves, being masters of class and caste consciousness, perceived the ancestry of Anglo-Indians combined with their drinking, beef eating, mixed sex socialising as horribly impure.

It was always assumed that when it came to the crunch, if there was trouble with the native Indians, the Anglo Indian loyalty would lie with Britain, the land of their fathers. But the loyalty that the Empire expected of them was not reciprocated and Anglo Indians never really got further than the very fringes of British colonial society. Post Independence India proved to be a real challenge for Anglo Indians. The ones who had managed to leave India for the UK, Canada and Australia struggled to fit into societies that looked down on them because they were mixed race. Many Anglo Indians who were fair skinned hid their origins and tried to assimilate under the radar. Life was hard for them as is evident in the many archived letters and diaries.

Meanwhile in India, Anglo Indians who remained, many hundred thousands of them, were left bereft. They were too poor in the main to emigrate and families had to pick and chose (sadly, often basing their decision on which child was fair enough to pass for white) who was going to get sent ‘Home’ – when Home was an unwelcoming, unknown country.

But, not surprisingly, they are one of the most resilient communities in India and from the 1960s onwards began to make huge strides in Indian public life. Their near complete domination of what were vital economic sectors like the Railways, Police, Post and Telegraph, Education and Forestry brought them to the forefront of administering the vast nation and all of this combined with their presence in the very senior ranks of the Police and Armed Forces gave them a renewed sense of belonging. I do believe that by the 1980s, the period in which my book is set, that Anglo Indian urge to go ‘Home’ was replaced with a determination to be accepted as full fledged Indians and they went about life doing just that. Most Anglo Indians had deep rooted family links to one sector or trade and they embraced it wholeheartedly. Gerry and May Twomey are typical Anglo Indians. As a Forester, Gerry regards his job primarily as a custodian, a caretaker of the flora and fauna of Nandagiri very seriously – he is far more vested in the land, the tribes and the animals that inhabit his remit than anyone else and I think that defines his identity, gives him his utter confidence in belonging to India and being Indian.

South Park Kolkata

South Park Kolkata

I think you captured that sense of belonging yet feeling outside everything very well in Gerry and May, and how this connects to the landscape and politics around them. 

So, we will leave our WRITERS CHAT for now and come back next week with PART TWO in which we examine landscape, migration, feminism and I put you to the test with some fun questions! And you so generously give our readers a list of wonderful readings and movies! 

READERS: Don’t forget, comment on this WRITERS CHAT (PART ONE or PART TWO) and I’ll add your name to the draw for a SIGNED COPY OF THE TAINTED. The draw will take place on Wednesday, 8th April. 

Advance order The Tainted at a good discount from Hope Road  and follow Cauvery Madhavan on her website and on Twitter @cauverymadhavan 






10 thoughts on “Writers Chat 26 (1): Cauvery Madhavan on “The Tainted” (Hope Road: London, 2020)

  1. Wonderful interview, well done Shauna, well done Cauvery. Very inspiring and detailed, every engaging, like transports the reader into the Anglo-Indian world. Really looking forward to reading the book.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wonderful interview, well done Shauna, well done Cauvery. Very inspiring and detailed, every engaging, like transports the reader into the Anglo-Indian world. Really looking forward to reading the book. Jane

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Sounds like a really interesting subject, I’m looking forward to reading the book. Thanks Shauna and Cauvery. I’m curious to know where Cauvery found her source documents? Online, in libraries or in some of the superb Indian bookshops or elsewhere? Sheila

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Sheila, I put your question to Cauvery when we chatted today and she tells me that actual documents in the strict sense of the word were few as she relied more on books, documentary films, magazine and collections of letters both private and in archives. She says “I guess when you are writing fiction you are looking more to absorb the flavour of the times and that comes from the strangest most unlikely places – recipe books, for example!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. A thoroughly fascinating glimpse into a world I know nothing about! Thank you Shauna and Cauvery. You both make reading about the subject so effortless. I now know this is no easy task! I look forward to reading more.

    Liked by 2 people

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