Like your previous books, this one too draws on a forgotten chapter of history, besides bordering on racism, elitism and prejudice. Why are you drawn to such stories?
I am drawn to the stories because they are completely fascinating subjects. They involve major incidents of history or are to do with well-known historical characters, and yet they have been forgotten. The racism/elitism in the story is something that I usually discover during my research. It doesn’t happen in all my books, though. The Spy Princess is a very different story.
Shapurji Edalji’s character is interesting. Tell us more.
Yes, I was quite fascinated by Shapurji. I wanted to know why he wanted to convert to Christianity as a teenager in Bombay, what made him make the journey to London in the middle of the 19th century, and how he campaigned for his son, George, when the time came. He was the first South Asian vicar of a parish in England and remained at the position for over 40 years. His dedication to his service and his faith is amazing. Despite everything the family went through, he did not give up, and fought till the very end. His solitary grave in the church where he lived and worked for over four decades is quite moving to see.
Julian Barnes’s novel Arthur and George has the same premise, though in a fictional form. Did that affect your taking up the same topic?
I read the Julian Barnes novel in 2005 when it was published. I had known about the George Edalji case before that, and always wanted to write about it. When Barnes published his book, I actually abandoned my own project. But I had always wanted to write the real story of George Edalji. It was only in 2015 when I heard that letters written by Arthur Conan Doyle to the chief of police of Staffordshire were to be sold at auction that I decided to return to the story. I felt there was the chance of new material. The letters had never been published. I write non-fiction, so it was important for me to dig deep into the case, and find out what really happened. The letters revealed startling new facts.
It’s an expansive read—covering over five decades and two World Wars. How much research went into it? And what were the roadblocks you faced?
It took five years of research, so it was quite intense. I had to cover material in four different archives, read the newspapers of the day, as well as the police files and trial papers. But I enjoy research, so I don’t complain. Sometimes you can spend weeks reading something and then you will find a hidden gem. It is the small details that always appeal to me. Funnily, the major roadblocks I faced were more to do with British politics, which I cover as part of my day job as a journalist. In the time that I was trying to work on the book, Britain was consumed by the Brexit debate, three prime ministers had changed and we had two elections. All the time, I was trying to escape to 19th century Britain, and follow George Edalji. There were times I had to simply abandon the book and pick it up again after several weeks. Then came the pandemic and lockdown. Luckily, I had finished my research by then, as the archives closed down. The final edits were done during the lockdown, while covering the pandemic and writing about vaccines and virus. It was quite a roller-coaster.
Does your background as a journalist help with the research process?
I guess being a journalist, gives me a nose for a good story. But a lot of my work is very intense archival research based on original documents and manuscripts, so there is a historian in me as well.
Unlike earlier, there are more South Asian writers today digging through forgotten histories. Your views.
The more the merrier. There are so many stories to tell.
My books take a long time to write, so nothing is happening in a hurry. But it’s been a crazy year and once this is over, I would love a holiday, and spend time with family and friends.
From your writings, which character has stayed with you the longest?
Noor Inayat Khan. After Spy Princess was published, I campaigned for a memorial for her and a Blue Plaque. She got both.
A book you wish you had written.
War and Peace.
Your favourite reading nook.
My bed. I always read something before I fall asleep.
Do you hit reader’s block?
Sometimes. In which case, I just set it aside. If I know I need to finish it, I return to the book later.
Your favourite childhood read?
At age 7-10, I lived in a world of Enid Blyton’s books. I started reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen when I was around 12, and that took me into another world.