What a joy this biography is.

An absolute delight to read and oh-so interesting to learn about a fascinating historical figure, about whom I was – admission time – hitherto woefully ignorant.

The life of Farzana, known as Begum Samru, is a classic rags-to-riches story, told with verve and much admiration, by the late Ms Keay.

Born, an illegitimate girl, in the mid-18th century into poverty, sold off by her impoverished mother to become a “nautch” girl (a dancer -cum-prostitute) theoretically Farzana had absolutely nothing going for her in life. She could have easily slipped into sad oblivion.

But this young lady was obviously ambitious and had a vision of her own future which did not involve a life in the red-light district. She lived with a foreign mercenary two decades her senior, and as she moved around north India with the hapless Walter Reinhardt Sombre, she learned how to manage his mercenary troops, how to command their respect, how to manage land and finances.

Even by 21st century standards, Farzana is an impressive figure.

But she was a total anomaly in the 18th century – practically illiterate, riding into battle with her men, respected by both Indians and the foreigners with whom she came into contact. She was fiercely loyal and stood by the Moghul Emperor through his years of turmoil and defeat at the hands of warring factions.

From illiterate poverty to the very heart of Moghul power was a quantum leap for anyone, but for a woman it was even more so. She held her own with men, including the colonial British, yet remained caring and considerate of the hundreds of people who depended on her for their existence, feeding and housing a huge number of people – including the widow of Walter, who lived in her care for decades.

She had estates bestowed on her, she converted to Catholicism & built a lavish church in the north Indian state of Haryana. She rode into battle wearing a turban, she fell in love with a dashing Irish mercenary, smoked hookahs with the men and, amazingly, was admired by the otherwise prim-and-proper British women of colonial India.

Ms Keay tells Farzana’s story, from abject poverty to being the only Catholic ruler in India, with obvious affection and a fair deal of feminist support. Comparing the destinies of another Indian warrior queen, the 13th century Raziya Sultana, Ms Keay writes:

“Historians to a man (gender studies have yet to catch up with Raziya) portray her as a victim of circumstance or a product of wishful romance. Exploits that would surely win approval in the case of a dashing young sultan evidently tax academic credulity when their agent is a gritty young sultana…Farzana has suffered in similar fashion. In fact when scrutinised by those armchair authorities who would interpret the exploits of India’s freelancers to future generations, her reputation has nosedived…”

A page-turning read, in which history is brought alive with colour and ( I warn you) sometimes stomach-churning brutality, I found myself cheering for this remarkable woman.

Highly recommended.

Do read this exciting story (you can order the book using the link below). You absolutely won’t regret it.

A NECESSARY EVIL by Abir Mukherjee

Reading Abir Mukherjee’s “A Necessary Evil” was a fine balancing act between dying to know what happened next, and dreading the approaching end of the book.

This absolute cracker of a novel is a fine and worthy successor to Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel “A Rising Man“, and it is with great pleasure that the reader re-acquaints him/herself with Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta, his wonderful assistant Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee, and the lovely Annie Grant, who has captured Sam’s heart, but doesn’t seem to return the compliment.

Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel took place almost entirely in Calcutta, and though the action in “A Necessary Evil” begins in the city, the heart of imperial India, in June 1920, it quickly moves to the princely state of Sambalpore in the state of Orissa. The crown prince of the state is murdered in Calcutta, in the presence of Sam and Surrender-not, and so the duo heads to his state to try and find out who murdered the flamboyant but popular young prince.  And why.

Calcutta is but a fleeting presence in this novel, though a powerful one.

Sam, a troubled man after his experiences during the First World War, sometimes heads out at night for the opium dens of Calcutta:

“At night, though, Tangra transformed itself into a hive of shebeens, street kitchens, gambling house and opium dens.  In short, it housed all the things that made living in a sweltering, crumbling metropolis of several million people worthwhile.”

Since the murder victim is from one of the semi-independent princely states that were outside British colonial jurisdiction, there is a noted reluctance on the part of the British powers-that-be to follow up on the murder, for reasons of political expediency.

Sam is a caring man, but cynical about the trappings of Empire:

“That was the things about viceroys, they might assume the mantle of demigods, but in truth, since the time of Lord Curzon, the only thing that’s really mattered to any of them is to keep the plates spinning until they can move on.  No one wants to be remembered as the man in charge when the music stooped- the man who lost India. But that wasn’t my concern.  Everyone has their own priorities.  The Viceroy’s was the avoidance of anything that might rock the ship of state; mine was getting to the truth, and I wasn’t about to give up on this case now, just because the Viceroy might deem the results unpalatable.”

Through a clever slight of political hand Sam and Surrender-not go to Sambalpore for the prince’s funeral, Sam in a private capacity and Surrender-not as the official representative of the Imperial Police.

The wonderful Surrender-not is an intelligent, perceptive young man who went to Harrow with the prince, speaks flawless and eloquent English, but is hopelessly tongue-tied in the presence of women.

“Of course Surrender-not wasn’t his real name…His parents had named him Surendranath: it meant king of the gods: and while I could make a fair stab at the correct Bengali pronunciation, I never could get it quite right.  He’d told me it wasn’t my fault.  He’d said the English language just didn’t possess the right consonants – it lacked a soft “d,” apparently.  According to him, the English language lacked a great many things.”

Mr. Mukherjee’s descriptions of the glittering, bejewelled pomp and circumstance of princely India are glorious, with cremations and coronations and palace intrigue and zenana politics all on dazzling display.  Despite all the trappings of princely India, from the eunuchs to elephants, from jewels to private trains, Mr. Mukherjee never falls into cliché-dom.  There is enough intrigue and danger and dislike swirling around the palaces and forts to keep Sam & Surrender-not busy, and the reader enthralled.

It would really not be nice of me to reveal much more about the plot of this thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery, so suffice it to say that the 2 policemen have to unravel a clever, complicated skein of intrigue.

There are twists and turns, there is elegance, there are moments of pure horror, there is thwarted love – all the components of a great, historical read.

Thoroughly recommended.

For the record, I bought the book myself, and was not asked to write this review.

Published in 2017 by Harvill Secker, you can order the book now, by clicking on the link below:


Ursula Bower, author and anthropologist (died November 1988). She lived with the Naga tribesmen and fought against the Japanese in World War II

I read this sadly out of print book a year ago, when I visited Nagaland and became fascinated with the tale of Ursula Graham Bower.  Ms Graham Bower’s “Naga Path” (that is a link to my review, obviously) covers her years in Nagaland, and “The Hidden Land” takes up the story.  Ursula is now married – only just –  and with her husband, Lt. Col Tim Betts, they set off on their new posting, to the virtually unknown, uncharted Lower Subansiri region of Arunachal Pradesh.

Now, let me stop here for a moment and give you some background information.

Ursula and Tim’s daughter, Catriona Child is a friend of mine in Delhi, and we have just returned from an amazing trip together to Arunachal, following in the steps of her parents.  A friend and passionate historian accompanied us, identifying places where Catriona’s parents lived, camped, visited – nothing short of amazing, recreating a journey of over 60 years ago.

So, having read “The Hidden Land” once and found it poignantly sad compared with “Naga Path,” I re-read the book before our trip, and no sooner had I closed the last page, on a frosty morning in the Apa Tani valley, than I turned right back to the first page and re-re-read it.

And that I have never done.  Ever.  Read a book literally back to back.

But so fascinating was it to put faces to names, and to put the exciting adventure that the Betts couple live into perspective, that it made sense to keep on reading this book which is still so fresh that it is hard to imagine that the events in it took place in a very different India.  To read about the men whose families we would meet was both moving and highly emotional.

Ms Graham Bower is still desperately in love with the tribal North East during her years in Arunachal, but their time in the Lower Subansiri district was a trying one, with feuding and sparring tribes to contend with, as well as the couple’s growing anxiety about their future in India after Independence. (I did just say that they lived in a very different India, remember).

Their mission statement would have terrified many a current politician:Untitled 3

And so off they set, to trek into this virtually uncharted land –  the hidden land of the title – in their pragmatic, down-to-earth way.  Supplies were in desperately short supply, in those years immediately after the Second World War.  Porters were hard to find.  They had no idea if the tribes would be hostile.  And the going was physically tough, but from the very start, from the opening paragraph, you are captivated and ready to accompany Ursula and Tim on their big adventure :


The famed Apa Tani valley, a place that captured the heart and the imagination of this intrepid couple still is beautiful, despite “progress” in the form of buildings and traffic and satellite dishes, but to the Betts’ it was literally breathtaking :

Untitled 2Their final departure from this beautiful land, when India becomes Independent, is heart-breaking.

They loved the country with a passion, and the hidden land of the title becomes hidden to them for ever, as they walk out of the Valley for the last time, unable to look back, such is their grief.

This book is a wonderful read.

If you know India and especially the north east it is compelling.

Track it down online – I have added an Amazon link below – and let yourself be swept back to a time when voyages of discovery were literally possible.


It took me a while to settle into this book, but once I did – what a treat.

“Tamarind City” is the story of a man’s discovery of the southern Indian city of Chennai (though lots of people still know it by its older name of Madras).

Bishwanath Ghosh is a journalist, a Bengali, raised in the north of the country, and at the age of 30  – “single and commitment-phobic” as he describes himself – he decides to move down south to Chennai.  He initially plans to be there for just a few years, to discover the south of the country about which he admits he knew very little.  Ten years on, he is still in Chennai, happy, content, married and by now “an honorary Madrasi”.

“Tamarind City” is the story of this decade of discovery, and is an unabashed love song to his new home.

For Mr. Ghosh is clearly very much in love with a city that moves and speaks and eats and plays to a different rhythm than the harsher, colder, more impersonal north.

He opens his story with his long train ride across India, travelling down south from a freezing foggy Delhi, gripped by miserable wintery weather, to the heat of Chennai :



I said at the outset that I found it a little difficult to get into the book.  It was really just the opening chapter or two, as Mr. Ghosh settles into his otherwise lovely narrative.  Some of his reflections on the train are at stylistic odds with his otherwise well-written and easy-to-read prose :


As are his reflections on the mobile phone, of all things :

After this, the narrative flows.

Mr. Ghosh’s approach to his story is to take the reader along with him, as he walks and rambles through his new home.  As he gradually gets to grips with the city, so do we.  His time line is ours.  His narrative is not linear, but follows his own voyage of discovery.

We do, however, start with a necessay chapter on the history of this city, which is fascinating and bolsters the claim on the book cover – “Where modern India began.”  Armed with this background and perspective on a city that has never quite glowed with the popular brilliance of Delhi, Mumbai or the johnny-come-lately Banaglore, we learn about Carnatic music and the food of Tamil Nadu.  We learn about temples and factories and slums and the beach, about the close intertwining of politics and films, but all at a delightfully relaxed pace.

By the end of the book, you can almost feel yourself slowing down to a Chennai rhythm, one where tradition and progress sit side by side.  Although that sounds like the ultimate cliché about a city, Mr.Ghosh discovers that is the truth.  Modernisation may have changed much of his beloved Chennai even during his time there, but this is still a city where classical singers have the status of rockstars.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and learned a lot about a city that I have visited, but a long time ago.  Whenever I go there again, as well as packing this delightful book, I shall also join one of the Sunday morning heritage walks, as the author does.

I love the way he puts the Chennai/Madras equation in perspective :


When the guide on that early walk around the historic heart of Chennai speaks ruefully about the lack of heritage conservation, you feel the author’s approbation :



Madras, Chennai –  call it what you will, this city is the star of the book, and a very loveable star it is too.



Published by Tranquebar in 2102, the paperback costs Rs 295 and if you wish to buy it, simply click on the link below :



A good read.  Recommended.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!

The Naga Queen by Vicky Thomas

“The Naga Queen” by Vicky Thomas, a biography of Ursula Graham Bower, has recently been published by The History Press.

When I reviewed Ms Graham Bower’s own wonderful book, “Naga Path” a couple of months ago, I began by stating that I am a friend of her daughter Catriona Child, here in Delhi.

I wanted the disclaimer – well, it wasn’t a disclaimer as such, more a piece of information –   but whatever the semantics, I wanted the connection known before, so that undue favourable bias wasn’t suspected to have been shown.

This is not the case here.

The exciting, swashbuckling-with-permed-hair adventures of an extraordinary young woman living in a remote tribal area of India during the dying days of the Raj and through the drama of the Second World War  – what more could a biographer want ?

Vicky Thomas has written a biography of Ms Graham Bower that was authorised by the family, and indeed she was given full access to family papers and photographs.

But I fear that justice has not been done to what is a potentially fabulous story.

Ursula writing about her life and her adventures comes to life in a flash, so vivid is her prose, so strong her descriptive powers, so wicked her sense of the ridiculous, so positive her outlook.

For me, sadly, the only added value of this book was that Ms Thomas had access to Ms Bower’s private letters, which are crackling with life and energy : reading them was the real pleasure of this book.  Listening to Ursula tell her own story in her own words.

Having read, in close succession both “Naga Path” and “The Hidden Land”, I found sections of this biography familiar, yet oddly diminished.

Ms Graham Bower in her own words :

Ms Thomas :


And is Nagaland actually a small country ?  Wasn’t the last time I looked.


Published by The History press, the hardback costs £18.99.

If you wish to buy the book, just click on the link below  :


Having gone on several heritage walks in Delhi led by the historian Swapna Liddle, I was particularly interested in this book, which is a welcome and very worthwhile addition to any Delhi lover’s library.

As the title implies, Ms Liddle takes you, the reader, on 14 historic walks through the city, in which she describes in great detail the sights and sites, “guiding” you and allowing you to wander on your own using her book as your companion.  The walks she has chosen include lesser known areas such as Janahpanah, as well as absolutely classic Delhi must-see places such as the Red Fort and Qutb Minar, which are on every tourist’s itinerary.

The author’s reason for including these better-known Delhi sites is disarmingly frank :

This is the sad reality of much of the (non) signage at Delhi’s monuments, making this book even more useful.

Ms Liddle’s approach to choosing each of her chosen walks is practical.

Again, quoting her own words :

” It should be a fairly pleasant walk – I have left out the particularly litter-strewn or overgrown paths.”

Given the parlous state of much of the city, I couldn’t agree more with her pragmatic approach.

Each chapter starts with a simple but detailed map of the walk (more on the maps in a moment) followed by an eminently practical listing of such information as the opening times, the cost of entry tickets, the closest metro stations and, very sensibly, the difficulty level of the walk.  And, super sensibly for Delhi, Ms Liddle also provides details of what amenities are available – water, snacks and that all important loo.

So, armed with these practical details, the author then describes in great detail but in clear, easy prose, the main things to see as you wander through, say, Mehrauli Archeological Park, or Hauz Khas, or through the Lodi Gardens.  Each main monument, or vista, or church or tomb has a number which refers back to the map. The maps are clear and simple to follow, and provide names for places which many a better guidebook has failed to do. Thanks to Ms Liddle, I now know that those two tombs opposite Aurobindo Place Market, the outliers of the wonderful Hauz Khas complex, are actually called  the Dadi-Pito or Biwi-Bandi.

The author explains architectural terms simply, for the layman, and wears her obvious scholarship and knowledge lightly, and in a charmingly un-stuffy way. The book is easy and pleasant to read, with an easy-going style, not like reading a standard guide book at all. Rather, you feel as though you are wandering through Chandni Chowk, or the Red Fort, or Safdarjung’s Tomb with a knowledgeable friend, who is gently pointing out things you might otherwise have missed.

If it doesn’t sound silly, the book is also quite light to hold, making you much more likely to pop it in your bag when you set out to on a walk.

I know I certainly shall.

This book is going to go with me as I re-explore the by-lanes of Chandni Chowk, and take another walk down Rajpath from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhawan, learning more at the Lutyens Baker relationship as I stroll.

Published by Westland, “14 Historic Walks” costs Rs 495.

If you would like to buy the book now, simply click on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier :

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There is something deeply moving, reading an extraordinary book like Fergal Keane’s “Road of Bones” whilst staying in Kohima, the little town that is the centrepiece for the dramatic events of 1944.

I was in Nagaland (incidentally the most un-Indian feeling place I have ever been to in 30 years of Indian travels), for the Hornbill Festival, and so it made sense to take this book with me for the long train journeys.

“Road of Bones The Epic Siege of Kohima” documents the events of what is often referred to as the Forgotten War, the battle between the Japanese and the British & Indian troops in the Burmese theatre of war.  While the events leading up to the Normandy invasion were unfolding in Europe, thousands of troops in this hot, difficult, mountainous, tropical corner of Asia battled for supremacy, literally.  The ultimate field of battle came down to the tennis court of the DC’s Bungalow, where Japanese and Allied troops lobbed grenades at each other across a burned out few yards of tennis court.

The book is a gripping, often horrific, account of this campaign which pitted Japanese and Allied troops in a deathly, deadly campaign, with the tribals of Nagaland caught up in this war of attrition.

The book is often very hard to read.

War and battle and suffering and starvation and fear are not pretty, and Fergal Keane tells the story of this campaign in gritty, realistic terms.  More importantly, he tells the stories of men, not anonymous soldiers.  He introduces us to the ordinary men on both sides of the battle, ordinary young boys from Kent, apprehensive young Japanese men, who all found themselves fighting inch by inch for terrain in a far corner of India.

There are the big players, of course –  Slim and Churchill and Mountbatten and Mutagutchi – but it is the heroic actions and the courage under fire of the individuals rather than the collective, that makes this book so moving.  You weep when you learn of deaths.  You sigh with relief when an injured young man makes it onto a convoy out of Kohima.

Naturally, I visited the beautiful Commonwealth War Cemetery in Kohima, while I was still reading the book, and to stand in front of the memorials, and recognise names from the book was profoundly moving.

To add to the poignancy around this book, one of my companions in Kohima was Catriona, the daughter of Ursula Graham Bower, who both figure in the book, and so the whole experience took on an extra vividness.

Kohima was all decked out for the Hornbill Festival and in advance for Christmas, and yet the traces of those events remain.  The names of the hills and roads are still there.  The beautifully maintained cemetery.  A parade of World War II vehicles, compete with everyone dressed up in period clothing.

It was all very time-warp-ish.

It may seem a little unnecessary for a mere reviewer to compliment Fergal Keane on his research for “Road of Bones,” but I must.

The wealth of material is truly astounding, and Mr. Keane has woven it all together into a minutely detailed canvas, telling the story of the campaign and the siege in brilliant detail.  Often the account reads almost minute by minute, with the threads of many different lives caught up together.

He is even-handed in his portrayal of both sides in this desperate conflict.  No one is lionised, no one is demonised.

What we are presented with is a superbly well-written book about ordinary men fighting to the death, thousands of miles from home, in circumstances of great privation.

Highly recommended.

I am going with 10/10 for a tale well-researched, well-written and so fairly told.

Published by Harper Press, the paperback costs £9.99.

After reading this, should you wish you buy the book –  and it is a stunning read – then nothing could be easier.  Simply click on the link below :


This week, New Delhi officially turned 100 years old.

On 12 December 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, in front of maharajahs, rajahs, princes, and thousands of British and Indian citizens, King George V made an announcement that would have major repercussions for India.

The capital city was going to be moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

And thus New Delhi would come into existence as an imperial city.

Fast forward 100 years, and New Delhi 2011 chose virtually to ignore the centenary.

Mutterings about the rights and wrongs of celebrating imperialism masked the plain fact that the venue for the 1911 Durbar, Coronation Park, is a shambles, renovation work incomplete, deadlines missed.  This is not the place to discuss how a city can be years behind on deadlines, with no outcry and no accountability – but just remember that some projects for the 2010 Commonwealth Games are still languishing unfinished.

So, Delhi, thank goodness for Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal.

They have written a lavishly illustrated book about the 1911 Durbar, which as a stand alone event –  with or without the moral issues of colonialism – deserves to be commemorated.  The Durbar happened.  It is a fact of history. It brought New Delhi into being.  It was an event of long-lasting historical importance.

And more than anything else, it was an utterly fabulous, glorious expression of all that was best in royal and imperial India  –  ceremony, pageantry, clothes, jewels, titles, fanfares – and this lovely book brings out the full flavour of it all.

The authors, both passionate, hands-on historians, do not debate the rights or wrongs of spending a mind-boggling fortune on the Durbar.  They do not  enter into the politics of Delhi vs Calcutta.  They simply recount the amazing, dazzling story of how a dusty area of north India was transformed into a tented city, and became home to one of the most fabulous gatherings ever in India – the first time all the ruling prices came together.

The scale of the Durbar is staggering, even 100 years later :

“A temporary tented city was to be set up, spread over 45 sq miles. It was to last over a week, see around 150 ruling chiefs, feudal lords and zamindars in attendance, along with officials, and witnessed by at least 100,000 ordinary people. The 1911 Durbar was to be the most expensive and the most ambitious Durbar ever organized and, as it happened, over 900,000 pounds sterling were spent on it…

…Spread over 25 sq km, the Durbar Camp was to have 475 separate camps, with a total of 40,000 tents. Each camp was to be a city in itself, with arched entrances, gardens and enclosures. Apart from the King’s Camp, there were provincial camps headed by British Governors or Lt. Governors, camps of the Maharajahs and Princes, and the Government of India Camp.

All the tents were carpeted, furnished, warmed with stoves, and lit with electric bulbs.
Every Indian chief was to have his separate camp, which was like a mini city with all amenities, including a bazaar.

Clear directions were given to officials that nothing be done that was contrary to Indian customs. Cows managed by Brahmans ensured the supply of fresh milk to each camp. separate hospitals, a separate magistrate, and a separate police system ensured the independence of each camp under the overarching control of the British administrators.”

This is the story of a unique event, and the authors tell it with unbridled enthusiasm and love for their subject matter.  There are plans and drawings, articles and ads from the newspapers of the day, bills, receipts, and wonderful, absolutely gorgeous photographs to accompany the story of how the Durbar was conceptualised, planned, and carried out.

The ruling Indian princes needed careful handling, so that there would be no clash of egos in their comings and goings and dealings with the King Emperor.  There were sensibilities galore to be accommodated.  There were logistics on a massive scale to be handled.

And so the days of spectacle and pageantry flowed on smoothly and almost perfectly choreographed.

But there was the occasional headache.

The durbar tent burned down a few days before the event.

Her Majesty the Queen didn’t want the King to ride an elephant in procession – “Elephant Snubbed” was the wonderful newspaper headline.

And then there were problems with the tent for a royal dinner one night :

“The banqueting tent offended against the elements of sanitary science in the matter of ventilation; and it must be added as a warning for future occasions that being very long, very narrow and low, it presented neither a dignified nor an inviting appearance.”

For me, though, the biggest treat in the book is the photography.  Wonderful black and white photos  –  and even a startling, very early colour photo – bring to life the sheer gorgeousness of this extraordinary event.

Delhi, and every lover of history, can thank Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal for this well-written, super well-documented book.

Published by Roli Books and just Rs 495 for an attractively bound hardback.

If you would like to buy the book, after reading this review, nothing could be easier.  Simply click on the link below :


“Kipling Sahib” by Charles Allen is a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look into the Indian part of Rudyard Kipling’s life, those relatively few years he spent in India, but which marked him for life.

And for literature.

Charles Allen brings to this book all the detailed yet seemingly relaxed research of every single book he writes about his beloved India.  He is a writer who wears his scholarship easily.

A writer who loves India, writing about a writer who loved India, and a reviewer who lives in and also loves India, obviously makes India an essential part of this review. And the country is there, in all her noise and confusion and contradictions, especially when seen in the Victorian context.

The book traces the life of “Ruddy’s” parents, Lockwood and Alice Kipling, and their arrival in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1865. Rudyard was born in Bombay and loved the city of his birth instinctively, and the sights and smells and sounds of those early childhood years would colour his imagination for ever.

Over 30 years later, he would write of Bombay with obvious affection :

“Mother of cities to me,
For I was born at her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.”

It was in this happy, protected world “between the palms and the sea” that Ruddy and his younger sister Trix lived the cosseted life of all colonial children – slightly ignored by their parents, doted on by their Indian servants, and allowed to run wild.

Allen paints a portrait of British India, and its strict hierarchy, into which the Kiplings never quite fitted in –  neither parents nor their clever, talented, but rather unconventional son.  This sense of not quite fitting in colours so much of Rudyard Kipling’s writings –  both poetry and prose – and explains the fascination he always had with the Tommy, the underdog, the outcast, the other side of the imperial British coin.

Pitifully few letters of Rudyard’s have survived, somehow managing to escape the ruthless holocaust of his later years, which saw papers, letters, drafts, scraps –  all the tools on which a biographer depends – being burned by the author and his wife.
And he was such a prolific letter-writer, which makes their absence more keenly felt.  But Allen painstakingly and skilfully weaves the few letters that survived, with those sent to Rudyard, with newspaper reports, and with diaries, to give the reader a lively, colourful glimpse into India, and how it affected the young Kipling.

Being sent back Home – i.e. to cold, dreary England – at a very early age had a lasting effect on Ruddy and his sister Trix.  They hid the truth about their brutal school from their parents, and went for years never seeing their family, let alone the heat and noise and colour of India, which both children missed so badly.

When he eventually returned to India, as a fledgling journalist, Ruddy was by then a teenager, on the cusp of manhood. His family then lived in Lahore, in the hot plains of the Punjab, and the young man set about re-discovering the land of his birth.  He inherits the sense of social exclusion that dogged his parents, never quite feeling fully at ease in British India, while simultaneously subscribing to many of its views.  Many of Kipling’s writings, read in the cold, harsh light of 21st century PC thinking, are shockingly xenophobic, but Kipling did no more than echo the views of the society in which he lived.

Rudyard Kipling emerges from this book as a fully-rounded man, at times very likeable, at times not so likeable at all.  He is brilliant but flawed, arrogant and insecure, and above all, never fully at ease in society.  “Kim” and the “Jungle Books” are just the most famous results of this feeling of not quite fitting in, of abandonment, observing one’s own society from the outside.  It is with a sense of pleasure that we learn that Alice Kipling called her infant Ruddy “little friend of all the world.”

In conclusion, a small personal aside : what strikes the 21st century reader of “Kipling Sahib”, especially if an Indian resident, is how some aspects of the country have changed so little.  The country that the Victorian Kiplings inhabited was as noisy, engaging, often maddening, sometimes frightening, and, sad to say, as insanitary then as now.

Just one example.

Here is Charles Allen quoting a history of Bombay by J.M.Maclean, who was writing before the senior Kiplings arrived in India, but he could well have been writing about India in 2010 :

“All round the island on Bombay was one foul cesspool, sewers discharging on the sands, rocks only used for the purposes of nature…To travel by rail…was to see in the foreshore the latrine of the whole population of the Native Town.”

“Kipling Sahib” is published by Little, Brown and sells in hardback, in India for Rs 795.

If you wish to buy the book, now you have read this review, just click on the link below.

Couldn’t be easier.