Writers Chat 26 (2): Cauvery Madhavan on “The Tainted” (Hope Road: London, 2020)

Cauvery, Welcome back to our Writers Chat. Thank you to our readers who read without commenting and to readers who also commented. Some interesting questions and thoughts!

Here in PART TWO of our Writers Chat we talk a little bit more about the stunning landscape of India that you capture so well and we also delve into the parallels The Tainted has with our current world – migration, money and power as motivators and movers. I have some fun questions for you and you have some wonderful reading recommendations!

We also have our giveaway – two signed copies of The Tainted – READERS simply COMMENT ON PART ONE or PART TWO of THIS WRITERS CHAT and you’ll be in the draw! 

You really bring alive the wonder and colour of India and I felt it even more now that travel is an impossibility for much of the world’s population due to the pandemic Covid-19 that is sweeping across the globe. We follow Michael, in the Connaught Rangers in 1920, walk with him across “the parched red earth” (22), pots of marigolds, grass blinds to keep out the heat, see how “The camp followers…cried their wares unceasingly: tea, tailoring services, mynah birds and tame mongooses, coffee, postcards of naked women, cigarettes, fruit, buns and cakes, nasty-looking herbs and potions…” (33).

The crowds, noise and speed at which live is lived is also well captured. At the train station, when Michael surprises Rose (alighting from her first-class carriage) with a tin of caramels, we see that The Nandagiri Mail is a “sight to behold…Long before the train came to final stop, all hell broke loose as coolies jumped into the still-moving carriages and passengers tried to ready themselves at the doors to alight, all at the same time…” (60).

Later in the novel, we follow Richard on the search for the places depicted in his grandfather’s paintings of India so that he can photograph them. We encounter the scent of jasmine on May, the Yuravas and the stunning scenery, along with plenty of colourful clothes from saris to veshtis and kurtas. How difficult was it not to let the story disappear into the sensual landscape?

It was so very hard Shauna! In fact my writing stalled for a very long time because of the landscape.  I was fearful that I’d never be able to absorb it right into my bones, enough to be able to evoke it in my writing. I was so taken with every place I went to research. I’m an Army Officer’s daughter so the very particular world of a garrison town was very familiar to me; it’s where I grew up. All the sights and sounds of India were part of my childhood and early adult years (I left India for Ireland when I was 24). Yet, going back to India with a project set in the 1920s, revealed a country I didn’t know at all and it was very exciting.

I couldn’t get enough of trekking in the Nilgiri mountains – I hired a guide who took me deep into the heavily forested tribal areas where I could get a sense of what the famed  and unique sholas were like before deforestation decimated them. I remember being startled by a strange animal call one morning, as we trudged through thick jungle to see a wattle extraction kiln, only to be casually told it was probably a nearby leopard! I visited Masinagudi forest and Theppakadu Elephant Camp in the lower Nilgiris timing my trip just before the monsoon arrived, so I could picture the forest and its environs exactly as it would have been on the day of that fateful tiger hunt. Much of the administrative buildings in the smaller provincial towns of India haven’t changed a lot since the days of the Raj so eyeballing them was very useful. Once  knew I was going to write this book and even before I put finger to keyboard, every journey to India became a field trip – thousand of photographs of everything I saw from the fantastical to the mundane remain on a cloud server somewhere!  I wanted to work everything I saw, smelt and felt into my book, but of course I couldn’t. I could though very easily write a companion volume on the landscape, public and personal, urban and rural – I’ve so much material!

Finally, I must mention the Kurinji flower. I would have loved to have waited to see the once in 12-year flowering of the Kurinji  with my own eyes, but of course had to make do with photographs and written accounts of the  incredible sight of many million acres of the Nilgiri range covered in the bluish purple bloom. But the next flowering has been in my calendar for a while – September 2030!

The Kurinji flower in bloom in the Nilgiri mountains
Neelakurinji flower in bloom in Munnar – Darkroom/Balan Madhavan/Alamy Stock Photo  (purchased and provided by Cauvery Madhavan)


Thank you so much for this stunning photograph! And I very much like the idea of a companion volume on the landscape – I’d love to read it!

Moving on to our last discussion point. Migration, money and power are motivators and movers in the narrative. We recognise a world in which female sexuality is shameful and those who transgress are sent away, out of sight – in the hope that they will be forgotten. In pre and post independence India and Ireland there are parallels of sorrow and hope. Like all good historical fiction, The Tainted is relevant to and speaks to our world today. Was this a conscious part of your writing?

Even as I read your question I realise that all those things – money,  migration, power and the shaming and blaming of women are still today’s stories, still absolutely relevant. It’s almost like time has stood still and nothing has changed. The similarities between India and Ireland are quite startling. Both countries have over many centuries obsessed with religion, allowed religious rites to overtake faith (this is an important distinction) and and worse still,  allowed men to have absolute control over those religious rites, the keys to the pearly gates. That female sexuality has been made a shameful thing is not surprising given the male dominated structure of religion in both countries. Fortunately for Ireland things seem to be changing for the better there is more tolerance,  more understanding of differences. India is going through turbulent times – religious fundamentalism of any sort always bodes the worst for women.

I never consciously set out to write a book that would tie up issues from the past to problems of the present. But I’ve realised this Shauna: the one constant for writers of fiction is human nature – it just  never changes. And so prejudices are still the same and the push back against class, caste and religious discrimination will go on valiantly. Apart from the fact that 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Mutiny, it is such a great time for The Tainted to be published – to come out when so many in Ireland, the New Irish are trying, many very successfully, to find a sense of belonging and forging identities that retain something from the land of their births and moulding it firmly around the the best of their Irish selves.

Yes, I do think The Tainted has tapped into much of what our world is going through right now in relation to belonging and identity.

We’ve come to the end our chat, Cauvery, and we have some quick pick questions before your wonderful list of recommended books and films! 

  • Madras or Dehli? Madras !!! Though it’s called Chennai now.
  • Oh goodness – yes, of course, I’m still in The Tainted! Coffee or tea? Coffee, South Indian style.
  • Kindle or Paperback? Paperback.
  • Cat or dog? I’ll have to pass or won’t be able to look at my cat or dog in the eye!
  • What is your inspirational quote? ‘Karma is a bitch’, Anon.
  • What are you reading right now? India after Gandhi, by Ramchandra Guha


Thank you so much, Cauvery, for the time, care and energy you put into our very engaging WRITERS CHAT. I wish you much deserved success with The Tainted!

Thanks also to Hope Road publications for providing me with a pre-release copy of The Tainted.


A selection of Cauvery’s recommended books for further reading:

  1. The Devil To Pay: The Mutiny of the Connaught Rangers, India July 1920 by Anthony Babington
  2. The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott
  3. Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling
  4. Death Under The Deodars by Ruskin Bond
  5. English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee
  6. The Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett
  7. Eden Gardens by Louise Brown
  8. Belonging by Umi Sinha
  9. Bugles and the Tiger by John Masters
  10. Burmese Days by George Orwell
  11. Ragtime in Simla by Barbara Cleverly

A selection of Cauvery’s recommended films:

  1. Bhowani Junction
  2. Staying On
  3. Bow Barracks Forever
  4. Before The Rains
  5. Lagaan
  6. Shakespeare Wallah
  7. 36 Chowringhee Lane
  8. The Rains Came

And now to our giveaway! Readers, simply comment on this blog and your name will go into a hat for one of TWO signed copies of The Tainted posted right to your door. We all have plenty of reading time these (unfortunate) days so best of luck, everyone! The draw will take place on Wednesday 8th April 2020. 

Stay connected with Cauvery via her website and don’t forget to pre-order The Tainted from Hope Road or The Gutter Bookshop prior to the official publication date of April 30 2020.

10 thoughts on “Writers Chat 26 (2): Cauvery Madhavan on “The Tainted” (Hope Road: London, 2020)

  1. Thank you Shauna and Cauvery.
    On reading the interview re sensual landscapes, Cauvery, l thought this is a book in its own right. l can’t help but wonder what it would be like to witness such an expanse of Kurinji blossoms.
    Look forward to receiving my copy of The Tainted! Breda.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant interview, well done again Shauna and Cauvery. Love the flowers and 2030 is not so far away! Keep the words flowing and thanks for the recommended reading. Jane

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Shauna & Cauvery, thanks so much for a fascinating interview… Great questions Shauna & I don’t really know where to start Cauvery – so much to say about your research first off. It really resonated with me and particularly how you could disappear off into acres of reading and delving and making connections – and then find that might be one line in the finished book (or not make it in at all!) but that time spent is so valuable because it informs every aspect of the writing. And I loved the detail of your approach – immersing yourself in the literature of the time as well as the personal accounts – the diaries & letters etc. It suggests this whole incredible society and way of life made accessible by the almost everyday things we take for granted (or maybe not so much these days because of the pandemic!). I always love reading about how writers actually write and your generous sharing of your sources and how you found them / used them is so interesting and inspiring. And then the book itself which I can’t wait to read! I’m very intrigued by the time-span you chose and the generational structure – I love that it brings us up to relatively recent times as well so the consequences of actions are fully played out. And. of course, the issues of identity and belonging are more resonant now than ever…. My great & great-great grandparents were Irish on both sides of my family -and one ended up in India and the other in England & my sister-in-law was born in India. We are all more connected than we think and the power of books like The Tainted is that they remind us of this. Am going to order it now and tell my extended family about it. Thanks so much to both of you for such an informative chat!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Shauna! And yes – such interesting connections between The Tainted and Brando’s Bride… I feel like we should set up an Anglo-Indian literary society! I have some books that were not on Cauvery’s list (which obviously wasn’t exhaustive!) which I’d love to share.

    Liked by 1 person

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