In the Shadow of the Pines: A story of the Raj is a tale of one man’s mission to change the destiny of the subcontinent. This work of historical fiction is set in mid-nineteenth century India and covers Lord Dalhousie’s tenure as Governor-General. Lord Dalhousie, who was only thirty six when he came to India in 1848, had this dream of building an urban-based society in India, where centres of trade and learning would flourish. He introduces British civil engineers and architects to India (prior to his coming the British had only military engineers in India), who help in creating a new world in the shadow of the pines in Simla, Kussowlie (present-day Kasauli) and Sanawar.
Q. What got you interested in writing about the British Raj?
A. I was fascinated by the Simla Hills and loved walking beneath the pines. In particular, the architecture of Simla, with some of the cottages capturing the peace of heaven on earth, and layout of Kasauli made me wonder to what extent architecture can influence society and build a roadmap for the future.
Q. Does your book glorify the British Raj?
A. Essentially, my story is about the time when the British presence in India acquired a character it hitherto lacked, with the focus shifting from conquest, to the building up of a society. Lord Dalhousie, who had laid the railway network in England and seen how it had transformed society from a predominantly rural to an urban one, was fiercely determined that this transformation could be emulated in the subcontinent with the introduction of railways, highways, telegraphs and postal services. In writing a work of historical fiction one is bound by historical facts, which have been depicted accurately, to the best of my ability. I have not altered any facts or indulged in sermonising, and have not glorified the Raj. To the contrary, as the novel heads to a prolonged climax, the personal tragedy that overtakes some of the characters makes this a saga of shared human existence.
Q. You have extensively featured the Anglo-Sikh wars in your book? Any particular reason for that?
A. That is to highlight the part providence played in bringing about the unification of india. The British had lost the battle of Firuzeshahr, fought on 21st Dec, 1845 and the Governor-General Sir Henry Hardinge had decided to present his ceremonial sword to the Sikh General the next day on surrender. But providence stepped-in and General Tej Singh, the compromised commander, betrayed the Sikh army and deserted the battlefield. I have detailed how the first Anglo-Sikh war was won by the Bengal Army. And this allowed a young man, guided by Benthamite ideals, to come as the next Governor-General and unify the subcontinent, in the process creating an urban-based society through the length and breadth of India. And, I must highlight, Benthamite ideals have utilitarianism and welfarism as its twin planks.
Q. How do you think the period after the revolt of 1857 changed the outlook of the British rulers about India?
A. Lord Canning, who took over from Lord Dalhousie, in Feb, 1856 was found wanting in tackling the mutiny in the Bengal Army. On the 21st of July, 1857 the Directors in London, appointed Sir Henry Lawrence as the next Governor-General, unaware that he had died on the 4th of July at the Lucknow Residency. Lord Canning played a pacifying part after 1857 and history remembers him as ‘Clemency Canning’. In ‘The Discovery of India’ Pandit Nehru has commented that in 1857 ‘acts of barbarism were committed by both sides’. The lessons of the Mutiny were never forgotten by the British. Later, in the 20th century, the policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ was adopted by the British.
Q. What particular incident mentioned in the book is your favourite?
A. The tussle between Lord Dalhousie and the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army Sir Charles Napier, over the discontinuance of ‘Special allowance’ to the twenty-four native regiments, which had been deployed in the war zone during the second Anglo-Sikh war. This allowance was in the nature of ‘foreign service allowance’ and, after the annexation of the Sikh kingdom, Lord Dalhoiusie had discontinued it as Panjab could no longer be called a foreign land. Sir Charles Napier was against this, arguing that this would give rise to bitterness in the native regiments. The counter-arguments that build up, make for fascinating reading, and ultimately Lord Dalhousie has his way.
Q. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
A. Writing consumes me totally and the concentration is so intense that I become a part of the scene, living it as if it is actually happening to me. And after a couple of hours one is mentally exhausted. Then I pause and pick up the thread again the next day. Another thing I have noticed is that I can choose the starting point of a scene but where it will ultimately lead is very difficult to say. Sometimes a character demands that it play out differently, rather than what was visualized.
Q. You lived in Shimla for a few years as you were posted there. How did living there help you write this book?
A. Living in Shimla attunes you to the hills and the interplay of light and shadow on the pathways under the cedars and the pines. Also, the calls and echoes in the mountains are so different; even silence and stillness blend in a manner that they open vistas within you that you were unaware about. And this leads to the bliss of communion with nature. There are numerous passages in the book where I have described the pines – each description is different and acts like balm for the soul. My stay in Shimla helped me write this book with devotion and love. And this never would have been written if I hadn’t lived there.
Q. Any advice to upcoming authors?
A. Every writer is different, so please don’t model yourself on someone else but instead discover your own writing style. And listen to what your heart says, not the mind. You will always recall what your heart says but thoughts are like passing winds, these flow beyond your grasp unless you jot down what comes to mind.
Q. What are you writing next?
A. I have planned another work of historical fiction. Am doing my research.