Novels set in 1857 India

A few days ago, I came across one of the books that had troubled me so much when I first read it – over a decade ago. M.M.Kaye’s The Shadow of the Moon. I enjoyed reading the book; at the same time, it left me strangely upset. It tells the story of an English woman during the uprising of 1857. Forced out of her tame Anglo-Indian life, she lives in the harem among women who seem ignorant and complacent, deals with maliciousness and lust of the natives till the mutiny ends and hero, her protector in India returns. Since then I have read several books set around the events of 1857 – mostly seen through the eyes of British women and sometimes, men. And the same feeling –of simultaneous enjoyment and annoyance- surges each time I come across a book on the ‘sepoy mutiny.’

This year the two countries commemorate 160th anniversary of what the Indians call the Great Revolt of 1857 or the First War of Independence and what among the majority of British writers and scholars is know as the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ or simply the ‘Mutiny.’ Looking back at the numerous literary and popular novels that tell the story, I realized the prominent place 1857 still holds in the history and popular imagination India and Britain.


What happened in 1857? A mutiny? A rebellion? A war? What were the reasons? The historians have been puzzling over the event for a long time – with no conclusive explanation. Perhaps the answer lies not in the pages of history but fiction which traces the impact the involvement of ordinary men and women –the motivations and anxieties that spurred them.

One of the books that stays in the mind long time after the pages have been closed is J.G Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur. Written in 1973, it is one of the most nuanced explorations of the siege of the British garrison on Cawnpore and Lucknow during 1857. The physical horrors of the siege, the heat, the insects, the crumbling illusions of Victorian society – all are presented with a dash of grim humor.

A genre worth mentioning in connection with events of 1857 is the colonial romance explored by writers ranging from Annie Flora Steel to M.M. Kaye and more recently Julia Rathbone. Annie Flora Steel’s 1896 novel On the Face of Waters: A Tale of the Mutiny is one the earliest texts of the genre though it reached popularity only in the 1970s with books like M.M Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon and Valerie Fitzgerald’s Zemindar.

What is it about the bloodshed of 1857 that lends itself to romance? Most of these novels build around the experiences of British women. The trauma of the women is integrated within conventions of romance – a damsel in distress, facing grave dangers, the English woman triumphs with her moral and spiritual virtue intact. The novel explores the cross-cultural encounters of the enlightened British woman who yearns to learn about India but the stories usually end with boundaries between the cultures reinforced – given the fate of the uprising.

Hence most of the heroine’s of romance – from Steel’s to Kaye’s remains a quintessentially English memsahibs. A remarkable character who remained unchanged through the 100 years that intervene between Steel and Kaye is the hero’s Indian mistress who conveniently dies as soon as a British woman, his ‘equal,’ appears on the scene. At the end, the Empire is eventually saved by their love. John Masters’s Nightrunners of Bengal replaces the central woman protagonist with the victimized English Captain but the conventions remain more or less the same. The happily-ever-after figures the reunion of the English couple, against the backdrop of celebrations and cries for retribution.

During my research about the events of 1857 for my historical fiction, one of the strangest things I discovered was the decidedly one-sided nature of the fictional and historical accounts. While the British accounts – diaries, newspaper reports, novels are plenty there are only a handful of Indian novelists writing in English who have returned to events of 1857 and told stories that challenge or even supplement the British versions.

The first that comes to mind is Ruskin Bond’s A Flight of Pigeons – once again built around the figure of the British woman caught in the violent events. However, Bond’s story is about the tenuous relationships – the uncomfortable friendships between the English women and women of the household hiding them, the subtle attraction between the Ruth and Javed Khan, the Pathan who has offered them protection. The narrative brings alive the sense of persecution, uncertainty and the resolution – the reunion of the mother-daughter duo with the surviving British community – brings a sense of loss, loss of the cultural contact that had been established in Javed Khan’s household.

Another book I came across is Manohar Malgaonkar’s The Devil’s Wind which walks a tightrope between history and fiction as it tells the story of Nana Sahib, one of the Indian leaders during the uprising of 1857. Rather than storytelling, the aim of Malgaonkar’s book is to provide a sympathetic portrait of a man British dubbed as the villain of 1857. Similarly, more historical than fictional, William Dalrymple’s The Last traces the actual events in Delhi in 1857. These books tell the side of the story which is yet unexplored in Indian Writing in English. After nearly160 years, 1857 is yet to rise in Indian writing in English.