In her book Lascar, UK-based author Shahida Rahman traces the history of multi-racial seamen who were part of the British trading ships centuries ago. She tells Yogesh Vajpeyi how the history of lascars and the migrants to Britain has been largely forgotten and how it is important to tell an interesting story based on accurate history to educate the newer generations.
What prompted you to write this novel on lascars?
My mother once told me that my paternal ancestor was a lascar. This inspired me to write the novel. There were probably other relatives who were also lascars. Their stories were passed down orally through the generations. Lascars have largely been forgotten in history. I wrote this novel to highlight the plight of lascars.
Who are the lascars?
The word lascar means ‘sailor from East India.’ Lascars came from the Indian subcontinent or other countries east of the Cape of Good Hope. Lascars were a multi-racial crew from Africa, West Asia and the Indian subcontinent who worked alongside with British seamen. The word lascar by the 1860s was about men from the region of present-day Bangladesh to South China. For over 400 years, lascars were recruited for work aboard British ships, ferrying back cargoes containing tea, coffee, sugar and spices in times of peace and war.
Tell us about the research you had to carry out for this book...
The book required a lot of research. I had to get into the mind of a lascar. I went through recorded accounts of the experiences of lascars. Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain by RozinaVisram really helped me to understand the history of lascars. Images also told their own stories. The subject of lascars is currently under-represented in school history books today in the UK.
Is the novel based on any known historical character?
No, not really. Lascar is the epic story of one man’s journey to fulfil his destiny. Ayan is forced to leave poverty-stricken Bengal and becomes a lascar. The harsh reality of working on a trading ship leaves him fearing for his life. Ayan and his fellow lascars escape to Victorian London. It could have happened to any Asian lascar. My father and his brother lost their parents at a young age. My father always wanted to help his brother. In the book, Ayan and his brother were orphaned at a young age. Ayan wanted to do the same.
What is the relevance of history-based fiction today?
Many people do find history boring. With historical fiction, you can take a piece of history and make it interesting, in any way you like as long as it’s historically accurate. For example, it is believed that the South Asians arrived in Britain after World War II. But there was already a small South Asian population in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. In any case, the most important of all is getting across an interesting story and educating in an interesting way.
Which authors have influenced you most?
Rabina Khan, author of Ayesha’s Rainbow. and Shelina Janmohammed, author of Love in a Headscarf.
Name three books that inspired you?
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. This book mentions the lascars. The World Beyond by Sangeeta Bhargava is set in 19th-century colonial India. It’s a beautiful story. I was fortunate enough to meet the author. the third one... Kill Grief by Caroline Rance. I love reading historical novels and have always had a keen interest in Victorian history.
What are you writing next?
I’m currently working on another historical novel which is set in Edwardian England and is about an Indian ayah or nanny. Indian ayahs travelled from the sub-continent with English families in order to continue to care for the children. These Indian women were amongst the earliest of all migrants from India to Britain.