Indu Sundaresan – writing Historical Fiction about India

Indu SundaresanThe Mountain of Light by Indu Sundaresan, totally captivated me. It’s a story about the Koh-i-noor diamond, famous for its fabulous beauty and size, and the diamond’s journey “through time and around the world”. Feeling bold, I contacted Indu who graciously agreed to appear on A Writer of History.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? And how you chose writing as a career?    I came to the US for graduate school and have an M. A. in economics and an M. S. in Operations Research from the University of Delaware. When I finished graduate school, I decided I wanted to write a novel.  So, I wrote two just so I would know how to begin, and finish a novel.  And then, I remembered the story of Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan, who was one of the most powerful women of the Mughal dynasty in India who built the Taj Mahal.  My third novel (and first published) was this book on Mehrunnisa, titled The Twentieth Wife.

The Twentieth Wife was the novel I shopped around for five years, looking for representation.  I haven’t looked back since, and my sixth book, and fifth novel, The Mountain of Light about the Kohinoor diamond and its last Indian owners was published in 2013.

Most of your novels are set in India. What themes are you exploring with your writing? What would you like others to understand about India?    It’s interesting to me to have transitioned into a historical novelist—I was going to be an economist.  And, when I was in school, I was a very indifferent student of history, mostly I think because it wasn’t taught well, the textbooks weren’t well written; there was no heart in history—it was just a series of years of reigns and dates of battles; there was no sense of the actual people behind India’s rich history who loved, and laughed and lost.

When I began writing, this emotion was what I imagined, given that this battle happened, or this throne was lost, what did it actually mean to the person(s) involved?  That was the starting point.  And then, I realized that the women in historical narratives had been marginalized—history was about the kings, very rarely about their wives, or sometimes women were only mentioned in the context of having borne the crown for some reason or another (usually because a male heir was lacking).

Since my journey began with The Twentieth Wife and Mehrunnisa was a powerful queen—consider the circumstances under which she acquired that power. She was the daughter of a Persian refugee in the Mughal courts; she was married to a Persian soldier who died under suspicious circumstances; she was ‘old’ (thirty-four) by Mughal standards when she came into Emperor Jahangir’s harem.  He had nineteen other wives before her, some of whom had already given him heirs; Mehrunnisa actually, gave him no children.

And yet, he loved her, so he allowed her some of the privileges of sovereignty—having coins minted in her name; the ability to issue imperial farmans (edicts).  The only reason she isn’t so well known is because he did not leave a Taj Mahal in her memory.

While I don’t exclusively write about the women in Indian history in my fiction, they do figure largely in it.

I also began writing at a time when there wasn’t much historical fiction about, or out of India.  That’s certainly changed now, but one of the reasons I was fascinated by the voiceless women from the past is that they had stories to tell that are perhaps more compelling than the narratives in dry history textbooks.

I work hard at being as factually accurate as possible in my books, and include an Author’s Note at the end of each novel delineating what’s fact and what’s fiction.  If history is so much more palatable, more relatable through the medium of fiction, then I hope readers take that knowledge away with them.

You chose a certain segment of the Koh-i-noor’s history for The Mountain of Light. Can you explain the significance of that portion of its journey?    When I began reading for The Mountain of Light, on the Kohinoor diamond, I found its appearances on the historical timeline to be very scattered.  It’s first mentioned, over two thousand years ago, in the epic, the Mahabharata, and then, about once a century it emerges in the possession of an Indian ruler from about the 13th Century onward.

It isn’t until the mid 1700s that a king of Persia, Nadir Shah, who sacked Delhi and took away imperial treasures, gave it its name.  He called it a veritable Koh-i-noor, a ‘mountain of light.’

This is the diamond that Shah Shuja of Afghanistan brought to the ruler of the Punjab Empire, Maharajah Ranjit Singh in the early 1800s.  And, this is where I chose to begin my story.

Why?  I think this time period when Ranjit Singh and his son, Dalip Singh held the diamond as its last Indian owners was important.  Ranjit Singh’s Punjab Empire was the largest independent kingdom in India at a time when the British were fast acquiring a lot of Indian real estate.  Eventually, by 1858, India was officially colonized—but this, the annexation of the Punjab by the British after Ranjit’s death, and the taking away of the Kohinoor to England, was the beginning of the end.

And again, while the novel is titled after the diamond, and the diamond itself acquires a character throughout the book, The Mountain of Light is about the people whose lives were touched by this magnificent stone, and what, in a larger context, the loss of the stone meant to them—the loss of an empire, the loss of the riches of the treasury, the eventual loss of India’s sovereignty and her becoming a British colony.

Researching events of the 16th and 17th centuries must be challenging. Can you tell us how you do your research?     There are two superb libraries/library systems near where I live.  One is the King County Library System; the other is the University of Washington’s Suzzalo and Allen libraries.

I think I might well have chosen the perfect profession for me, that of a historical novelist who tries to incorporate as much fact as possible in her work.  I like to read, and most of my reading doesn’t actually go into my books directly, but it certainly does inform the writing.  The background is in my head; what you see on the page is a fictionalized account of it.

So, years before I begin a book, I’m reading for the book.  Between the two library systems, I can usually find what I need; they’re well stocked.  What I cannot find, I get through an inter-library loan.  I read widely, and desultorily, and I take copious notes on everything I read, because there’s no guarantee that I will remember it all.

For The Twentieth Wife (and a few other novels following) my notes are in big binders, categorized as ‘food,’ ‘clothing,’ ‘transportation,’ maybe ‘roles of women,’ ‘court etiquette.’  This all forms a practical binder—what I absolutely need to know.

For each novel, I also have a timeline binder.  I begin from the first recorded mention of my character(s) and continue through until their death, in between I jot down everything I’ve read about them—wars, battles, who they loved, whom they hated and why (or possibly why) and who mentions them and why.

For example, in the sequel to The Twentieth Wife, which is titled The Feast of Roses, Mehrunnisa is married to Emperor Jahangir and is becoming more and more prominent both at court and in the imperial harem.  It seemed like a lot of responsibility for one woman, and I realized that although I knew about the obvious aspects of her power, I knew nothing about her…hobbies, how she relaxed.

I fretted about this for a long while—after all, I was writing fiction; I could just make something up to round off her character. One night, I was reading Sir Thomas Roe’s memoir on his time spent at Emperor Jahangir’s court in the early 1600s.  Roe was the first official English ambassador to India.  He mentions that on one hot summer day, Mehrunnisa’s father comes to him with muskmelons, as a gift from her to him, to battle the heat.  Small as the gift was, it was a sign of royal favor—and Mehrunnisa, who never saw Roe (she couldn’t; she was within a harem) sent the melons through her father who said that she had grown them herself.

I woke the next morning with the thought that she gardened.  So, I put that into the novels; you see Mehrunnisa digging around in a melon patch.

Which authors have inspired your writing? Can you tell us why?    I was born and brought up in India, and most of our reading is 18th and 19th Century English authors.  Jane Austen’s a favorite, even now; I read her six novels almost every year.  So also, Thomas Hardy, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte sisters.  There’s a depth in these novels to me—a sort of completeness in everything, an entire world built that I’m not familiar with but yet which feels familiar because of the details.

What is your writing process?    I read a lot for my books, and while I read I take down notes.  The world of my books is usually within me when I begin to write, and when I do begin writing I shut off all distractions and write steadily until I have a draft done.

What is the subject of your next novel?    I’m not talking yet about my next book because I’m still immersed in it and it’s relatively new to me.

The Mountain of LightWhere do you go to talk to readers? Can readers reach you on social media?    I have a Web site where readers can contact me:

A Facebook page:

A Twitter account:   @ISundaresan

Many thanks for visiting A Writer of History, Indu. For those who have visited India, you will be swept back into that incredible experience and for those who have not, I encourage you to sample Indu’s wonderful stories of this exotic and complex country.


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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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