Indu Sundaresan was born and brought up in India, on Air Force bases around the country. Her father, a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force, was also an avid storyteller—as was his father, Indu’s grandfather. She grew up on their stories on various themes—Hindu mythology and fictional tales of an elephant and a horse living in the wilderness.
She is the author of six books so far. The Twentieth Wife (2002); The Feast of Roses (2003); The Splendor of Silence (2006); In the Convent of Little Flowers (2008), Shadow Princess (2010) and The Mountain of Light (2013).
Her work has been translated into 20 languages to date.
NAW- Tell us about your book, The Mountain of Light. How did you get the idea for it? How did you research for it?
In April of 1850, Lord Dalhousie, then Governor-General of India, sends the Kohinoor diamond, very, very secretly to London and his queen, Victoria aboard a Royal Navy steam sloop called the HMS Medea. Only the two (non-naval) men carrying the diamond even know it’s on board, even the captain of the Medea is unaware of the precious cargo on his ship.
The reason for this secrecy, was that Lord Dalhousie had just dismantled the mammoth Punjab Empire, deposed its eleven-year-old ruler, Maharajah Dalip Singh, emptied the treasury and taken the diamond. This decision was an unpopular one, not just among Indians, but also the British in India and London’s political circles. Earlier, a previous Governor-General had signed a treaty with the young Dalip Singh, promising to keep his Punjab Empire intact, and promising to hand it back to him when he’s sixteen. Things don’t quite work out that way when Lord Dalhousie takes over as Governor-General of India.
This episode—the diamond travelling to London—happens somewhere in the middle of THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT. Before that, you see the diamond coming into the Punjab Empire to Dalip’s father, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and after that, you will see Dalip travel to London, four years after he’s been deposed, and to eventually come to realize the magnitude of what he’s lost, not just his diamond, but his lands, his armies, his treasury.
I’m usually thinking about a book about three years before I begin to write it, and the idea for THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT came from my research for my previous novel, SHADOW PRINCESS, the third novel in my Taj trilogy. In SHADOW, the Kohinoor diamond is brought to the court of Emperor Shah Jahan, who has it set in his Peacock Throne. The diamond only got its contemporary name, Kohinoor, about a hundred years after the events in SHADOW, in about 1730, when Nadir Shah of Persia sacked Delhi and carted away the Peacock Throne. When he saw this massive diamond on the throne, he exclaimed that it was a veritable Koh-i-noor, or, ‘a mountain of light.’ Hence, the title of my novel.
Given that the events in THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT take place from about 1813 to about 1854 (or so), most of my research came from British sources—the men and women who were commissioned to take care of the young Dalip Singh in his minority, according to that previous treaty. Most of them have left accounts of their time in the Punjab Empire, and their thoughts on Dalhousie’s summary annexation of the kingdom that they fully expected to return to its king when Dalip Singh reached sixteen years of age.
NAW- What sparked your interest in Historical Fiction? It’s a tricky thing because as an author you cannot afford to go wrong with history, isn’t it? Are there any authors who you’d like to name as inspiration?
I think my initial interest, at least as a child, came from all the wonderful stories my father narrated of Indian kings and queens, in all the forts and palaces we visited. He was a superb storyteller, and at bedtimes, he had a knack for not ending stories, but leaving off in the middle, leaving me to ponder on how, what, why before he could pick up the tale again.
As for going wrong with history—this is true, partly. I’m very clear in my Afterword (and most of my novels have one) about what’s fact and what’s fiction. I cannot, obviously cover everything in the novel, so I leave the rest of the questions for audience members to ask me when I tour and read from the books.
I’m also clear that I’m writing fiction, that my primary focus is to fictionalize the lives of these historical characters, and where I cannot find facts—say in connecting their movements from one historical event to another—I fill it in with fiction. An educated guess, based on what I already know of them.
For example, in THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT, the chapter titled ‘An Alexandria Moon,’ the Kohinoor diamond travels from Bombay to Portsmouth, on its way to Queen Victoria. In the Afterword, I make it clear that, historically, the diamond went aboard a Royal Navy ship, the HMS Medea. In LIGHT, however, I have it travel aboard a commercial liner, because then, I get to introduce a bunch of criminals, all wanting to steal the diamond, and the two men carrying it have to fight them off.
Even as I fictionalized this aspect (this main aspect, if you will) I made sure all the other details in that chapter were as historically accurate as possible. The two men in charge of the Kohinoor, Colonel Mackeson and Captain Ramsay, were the same two men who made that voyage in 1850. The commercial liner, a fictional ship I named the SS Indus, while fictional, has the same measurements, tonnage, crew, even the number of passengers on board as the commercial ships that plied the Bombay-Suez route at that time. Also accurate is the food—malt, Madeira, ketchup, sausages, meat, the entertainment on board. The menus are accurate. The ships also carried live animals, which the kitchen crew slaughtered on the deck in the early mornings, and which was served to the passengers when they sat down for breakfast.
NAW- Mountain of Light is set in multiple locales and is has multiple characters. How did you get the history right? Is it difficult writing a book with many characters?
I’ll answer that second question first, with a Yes! In THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT, the Kohinoor diamond became the main focus, the main character almost. As time passes in the novel, the diamond changes hands, many times in fact. And each person who owns the gem, who covets it, who thinks of it, or who snatches it, has a motivation, a back story, an engagement with the stone and with the other people on stage.
So, yes, I think THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT is my most complicated novel yet. I actually had a lot of fun moving the action from Lahore in the Punjab Empire, to Bombay, and the Suez, and Alexandria and London. For me, places are as important as the characters—they inform the movements of my characters, give them a purpose (whatever that might be, whether to merely gaze at the Kohinoor or attempt to steal it!).
NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. How easy or difficult was it getting published?
It’s been a while since my first novel, THE TWENTIETH WIFE, was published. But, it took me five years of shopping that novel around before I found an agent to represent me. I have a stack of rejection letters. Once, my agent agreed to represent my work, she sold the book over a weekend, something like that.
NAW- Tell us about your other works.
There are three novels in the Taj trilogy about two powerful women in 17th Century Mughal India. THE TWENTIETH WIFE and THE FEAST OF ROSES are based on Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan’s life. SHADOW PRINCESS is based on Princess Jahanara’s life (her father built the Taj Mahal).
THE SPLENDOR OF SILENCE is set in India during four days in May of 1942, and is the story of an American soldier who finds himself in the princely state of Rudrakot in search of his brother, and who falls in love with the daughter of the Indian Political Agent.
IN THE CONVENT OF LITTLE FLOWERS is a collection of contemporary Indian short stories.
And, THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT, now you know all about!
NAW- How do you write, in fits and spurts or only after careful and meticulous planning? Take us through your writing process.
Every book involves a lot of reading. As I mentioned before, I’m thinking about a book about 2 or 3 years before I begin writing. In the interim, I read, and widely (which then leads me to stumble upon ideas for other potential novels). I take a lot of notes. I have a system in which I document every book I read, set up a bibliography—this usually doesn’t make it into the back of my novels; it’s for my reference.
Then, as I read, I put down notes. After I’m done with most of my reading (I still read while I write) I will rearrange my notes—food, culture, customs, sometimes natural disasters, people, characters, events. Every book has its own unusual category. Then, I’ll rearrange based on known chronology—this happened, and then a year later this happened etc. That is when the book starts to take some sort of solid shape.
While all I’ve said above is more or less how I work, sometimes even during the early reading a scene, dialogue, something I know I want in the book will pop into my head and I’ll start writing, even though the book’s not fully formed yet.
I guess, there’s no real process—it’s what works for that book!
NAW- Can you tell us about your upcoming books?
Sorry, I’m working on a new book right now, but don’t usually talk about work in progress until it’s done.