18th century India, a writer's research process, author Claire Scobie, discovering 18th century India, historical fiction writing tips, novels set in India, researching in India, The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie, writing tips
Ah, India! Who can resist the lure of that magical country? I’ve had the privilege of visiting India on three separate occasions so when I discovered that Claire Scobie was prepared to guest post on the topic of researching for her novel The Pagoda Tree, I leapt at the chance.
All in the name of research by Claire Scobie
You never know what you’re going to do when you research a book but for The Pagoda Tree, I’ve shared my hotel room with a large rat; drove all night from Delhi to Pushkar in search of the perfect crumbling palace; trespassed and was chased by an Indian security guard; had a parrot read my fortune and most enjoyable of all, wore a sari.
I also met a prince in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu where much of the novel is set. I expected pomp and ceremony but Babaji Rajah Bhonsle is a modern prince – he’s on LinkedIn – and he arrived in beige slacks and a pressed white shirt.
As we sipped a cup of sweet Indian chai, he mentioned we were sitting in the wood-panelled harem where my character Palani, based on the real courtesan and poet, Muddulpalani, would have written her bold, sexy poetry. It was a wonderful art-meets-life moment.
A few days later I found myself on the back of a bullock cart heading to an outlying village to celebrate the spring festival of Pongal, Tamil New Year. The following morning I got a call from one of the prince’s aides to say my picture was in The Hindu on page three.
‘Madam,’ the aide said, ‘you are most elegant on the back of a bullock cart.’ Only in India would you hear that combination of words!
English novelist Sarah Waters once described how her characters seemed to ‘come out of the mist’ of the historical material once she’d done enough. But how much is enough?
Through my four years research and several trips back and forth to the region, I coined the phrase ‘doing history with my feet’ as a way to piece together the lives of my characters.
The novel is largely told through the eyes of a temple dancing girl, or devadasi, named Maya. It is expected that the young Maya will have an extraordinary career as a royal courtesan for the Prince of Thanjavur himself. But the year is 1765 and India is on the cusp of change as British power rises to new heights. I deliberately chose to set my novel in this period because there was a possibility of exchange between East and West. The cross-cultural relations and conflicts also provided great tension for the plot.
I started in all the obvious places: online and in libraries. But from the outset I knew that the India Office Records in the British Library in London would only provide part of my story.
In general, archives are written by the victors – usually men. In my novel I was trying to show the slant of history and give a little known perspective from Indian women of the period.
To get a sense of how my characters lived and breathed, I retraced the steps that my fictional character Maya would have walked. I saw the inscription on the walls of the eleventh-century ‘Big Temple’ in Thanjavur detailing the names and addresses of 400 devadasis brought there for its inauguration.
I also sat in on classical dance classes; interviewed a Tollywood – the Tamil version of Bollywood – star and hung out with the ‘Queen of Higginbotham’s’. With her smeared black-kohl eyes, this lady had worked for decades at Higginbotham’s bookshop, a Chennai institution. She loaded me up with books and sent me to Adyar Library across the other side of the city.
Even though the rules changed each time I visited the library – I was allowed in as long as I was barefoot and didn’t plug in my laptop – it was worth it for the discovery of some rare eighteenth-century Tamil texts.
In Chennai I also visited Fort St George where the East India Company first established their base and my character Thomas Pearce arrived as a young clerk. I also located one of the few eighteenth-century ‘garden houses’ that hadn’t been demolished for redevelopment.
As I criss-crossed the chaotic city, each rickshaw ride became more terrifying than the last. On my last night, an early monsoonal downpour hit as we were crossing a flyover. There were no windscreen wipers and the rickshaw driver could see nothing ahead. All around the water levels rose. The man revved up the engine and hammered it home, squeezing between buses, bumping through potholes. As he pulled up outside my guesthouse, I cheered. In India it pays to be grateful for the small things.
Wow, Claire, you’ve had such fascinating experiences. Thanks for sharing them. You are way more adventurous than I am!! I’m sure readers will be enchanted by The Pagoda Tree.
The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie – Love, loss, fate, and exile: a tale of two cultures colliding in 18th-century India
Maya plays among the towering granite temples in the ancient city of Tanjore. Like her mother before her, she is destined to become a devadasi, a dancer for the temple, and her family all expect that the prince himself will choose her as a courtesan. On the day of her initiation, a stranger arrives in town. Walter Sutcliffe, a black-frocked English clergyman, strives to offer moral guidance to the British troops stationed in Tanjore. But he is beset by his own demons.
As the British tear apart the princely kingdoms of India, Maya flees her ancestral home and heads to the steamy port city of Madras.
When the shrieks of parrots fill the skies at dusk, Maya bows to the earth and starts to dance. Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman, is entranced from the moment he first sees her. But their love is forbidden and the consequences are devastating.
Unfolding amid war and famine, The Pagoda Tree takes us deep into the heart of India as the country struggles under brutal occupation. As cultures collide, Walter Sutcliffe unknowingly plays the decisive card in Maya’s destiny.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.