Making sense of the past by delving into family history

Making sense of the past by delving into family history

By KARAN CHOUDHARY | | 23 January, 2016
Journalist and author Ferdinand Mount’s new book The Tears of the Rajas examines the early years of the British Raj through the eyes of his ancestors. He speaks to Karan Choudhary.

It has been 158 years since the revolt of 1857, but it remains vivid in our collective memory, even though more recent events have been long consigned to the cobwebs of history. The tales of the leaders of the revolt have permeated Indian culture, and have been the subject of numerous works of art — from the evocative poem of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan eulogising the Rani of Jhansi to Aamir Khan’s more recent film reviving the legend of Mangal Pandey.

But despite the frequent depiction of the revolt in Indian popular culture, and a surfeit of writing on it, there are few British accounts of this period in history. The Tears of the Rajas by Ferdinand Mount seeks to rectify this. Mount traces the history of his ancestors as they wallop across land and time in India during the formative years of the British Raj.

Seeking to weave a wider history of the Rajaround the story of the Lows, Mount manages to depict both the lives of the British in India as well as the nature of the Raj as a whole.In a conversation with Guardian 20, Ferdinand delves into the revolt, the way it is remembered, the process of writing The Tears of the Rajas, as well as his own career as a journalist and author.

Q. Your initial works were all fiction, but recently you have only done history writing. Was this a conscious decision?
A. Well, it started as a family thing, examining the history of my own family, but then I got immersed in the history of the period, and wanted to write more on it. It was a conscious decision in so much as there was a clear desire on my part to write on history. But this does mean that I have moved away from fiction writing, but rather that I have sought to combine both these interests. This has led to me writing historical novels as well as history books.

Q. Of novels and history, what did you enjoy writing more?
A. The most fun that I have had writing has been on The tears of the Rajas as I was exploring the subject while I was writing the book. There were so many instances where the more comfortable version of this period that I had been taught as history were challenged, and what emerged was a significantly different version of events from what I had known till then. There was so much of what I could still find out, and there were times when even I was not sure what newer papers would disclose. Besides, this book was closer to me than others because it involved me analysing my family’s past as well.

Q. What do you suppose lay behind the British expansion in India, coming as it did at great expense in terms of both men and money?
A. The initial expansion of the British, in Bengal and elsewhere had resulted in the return of a group of very wealthy officials, the ones who had amassed great wealth in their time in India. This fuelled the later, less profitable expansions in the country. The jealousy which these initial officials aroused in England also resulted in a tighter control of the revenue receipts of the later officials.

Q. Was the British officialdom, which administered India, composed evenly of different sections of the British society?
A. Well, no, the early emigrants from the UK, to Australia, to South Africa, to New Zealand, were preponderantly working class. The aristocracy and the landed gentry tended not to emigrate. This resulted in a governing class in these colonies with ideas very different from those in vogue in the home country. Even in India, there were a greater number of officers from Scotland than from England. It was such that in certain parts of Scotland, especially eastern Scotland, men from entire groups of villages had gone to India. Barring the higher positions, the middle and lower rungs of British administration in India was composed of men of the working class.

“It started as a family thing, examining the history of my own family, but then I got immersed in the history of the period, and wanted to write more on it. It was a conscious decision in so much as there was a clear desire on my part to write on history.”

Q. How was the life of the British officers in India?
A. It was difficult. They were away from their family, friends, in an inhospitable climate, with, sometimes, an unfriendly local populace. In the early 19th century, one of six British officers in India could not live to draw their pension. Most of them died of disease, or some in battle. This was not an alluring proposition even to those wanted to emigrate, as they could rather go to Canada or Australia, or South Africa.

Q. How is the Revolt of 1857 depicted in school education in the UK?
A, The account given is overly simplified. We weren’t taught about the series of annexation before the mutiny, the usurpation of the Marathas domains, the takeover of Nagpur, the part annexation of Awadh. So we were aware of the build up to the revolt, and all we learnt was, all of a sudden, there is this great revolt of soldiers over the greasing of their cartridges. This account seemed incomplete even then, as the revolt was depicted as a sudden outburst over a trivial issue. The brutality of the revolt is often obscured in the way history is taught in the UK, and the sheer bloodletting on both sides finds little mention in contemporary accounts.

Q. Do you feel that reputation which Dalhousie has earned, as a rapacious and unscrupulous Governor-General is justified?
A. Well, I feel that the judgement on Dalhousie is not unjustified. He met criticism even while he was in India for the high handedness of his dealings with the local powers. There were attempts after the revolt to try and rehabilitate his reputation, but this was undone by the utter cynicism of his opinions, which were known once his personal papers were released to the public.

The aggressive expansion policy he adopted, and the completely venal methods he pursed to achieve it were the source of a lot of consternation among the local people. These were also the source of the misgivings which gave rise to the revolt of 1857. I would even go as far as to say that were it not for Dalhousie, there would be no revolt. Even though he was no longer in India when the uprising took place, the groundswell of ill-feeling which he had aroused could not be undone in the brief period for which Canning was in charge before the revolt.

Q. How was your experience researching for this book?
Most of my research was conducted through the official documents available in India House in London, and I did not need to examine Indian archives. For the family parts of the story, I relied on a tranche of papers which my cousin found in an old shoebox, these papers comprised internal family correspondence over the entire 19th century. Though I did visit the places where all these events took place: Hyderabad, Lucknow, Delhi, Vellore. Visiting the residency building in Lucknow was a particularly surreal experience, as it was in these halls and grounds where my great-grandparents grew up, and later, when they had grown up, where they fought against the Indian revolutionaries.

Q. How does writing books compare to journalism, seeing as you have had an extensive career in both these fields?
A. Well, journalism is far more hurried, you have to write at a pace which the news dictates rather than the pace you would want to write at. Often, I rework entire chapters when I don’t feel satisfied with the way it has been worded, but this is a luxury which you cannot afford in journalism. But journalism keeps you on your toes, and ensures that you have to maintain pace with the world. As a writer there is this great temptation to go into your own world.

Q. How has public life in the UK changed from the time you were a political correspondent in the ’60s and ’70s?
A. It seems to have come full circle. When I was working as a political correspondent, we had a very left-wing labour party, and now that has happened again, with Jeremy Corbyn reversing the centralising trend of the labour party. The politicians were far more approachable then, and we could get an exclusive interview with the top political leaders, even Prime Ministers, relatively easily.

Q. Do you plan to write more on the subject of the Mutiny or the British Raj in general?
A. I have written about 700 pages in this volume, and have pretty much exhausted all that I wanted on this subject. So I think this is all that I would write on this period in history and i’ll leave it to others to come out with newer interpretations of this period.

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