Thanks to Sourcebooks, I had the opportunity to put some questions to Alison McQueen, author of Under the Jeweled Sky, which i reviewed last week. Her novel is set in post colonial India and deals a fair bit with Partition. As a scholar of South Asia, I was interested in the research that went into writing this novel. Also, as McQueen’s mother is Indian I was curious to know how much of her own family history went into the make up of Under the Jeweled Sky.
Under The Jeweled Sky is set during two key points in history: the 1947 run up and aftermath of India’s partition, and the 1957 lead up to the first visit to India by a serving British Prime Minister. The tangle of politics and diplomacy during both periods seemed a fitting backdrop to the disordered lives of the characters, with layers of deceit and half-truths and nothing being quite what it seems.
In the early stages of the first draft, I had it in my head that the research wouldn’t take too long, which is akin to a form of writerly denial. I should have known better. The research took months, leading me inevitably to the British National Archives where I unearthed declassified documents from the 1957 Macmillan government which would have caused a great deal of diplomatic embarrassment should they have been leaked at the time.
The archives catalogue a mire of political corruption and inaction, naming names and pointing fingers of accusation. I had started out without too much idea of what I was actually looking for, only to stumble across all manner of declassified secrets, some of which ran to hundreds of pages. Very little of it ended up in the final manuscript, but it is an absolutely necessary part of the process.
India’s partition took me back to a subject I have studied for years. My mother was 18 years old at the time, and she remembers vividly crossing the Bramahputra river on a boat, the decks groaning with refugees while she remained in a cabin down below with a chaperone. Her tales of that time are haunting. Here in the west we all know about the holocaust, yet the business of the British hauling out of the jewel in its colonial crown was a heart-stopping moment in history too in which millions of people died.
Part of the novel is set in a maharaja’s palace. Although the fictional palace and its location are anonymous, I did have an inside track into life inside an Indian palace, and I have visited several of them myself.
In her twenties, my mother was hired as the private nurse to the Maharaja of Indore’s mother-in-law. A car was sent for her every morning, but she said that she preferred to walk. So off she would go, strolling through the grounds while the car followed along a few yards behind, driving at snail’s pace in case she should change her mind. Her breakfast would be served to her on a solid silver service, with a footman standing by should she want for anything.
From what she has told me, I am not sure she handled it particularly well. She said that she didn’t want any fuss, which was quite the wrong way to go about things in a palace. There was also an incident when she was caught preparing her own boiled egg, which didn’t go down at all well. The cook was quite overcome with grief, and my mother never ventured to lift a finger again.
I don’t read fiction while I am in the writing process as I don’t want to be influenced inadvertently or blown off course. All my reading during that time tends to be research, so it is always a huge relief when the manuscript is done and I can go back to curling up with a great novel.
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