S. Jay Bose


The Making of Arms Wide Asunder - The Backstory


Arms Wide Asunder is a work of fiction woven into the tapestry of true historical events that took place in India during the mid to late 18th century, a time of great upheaval.  It is a period that fascinates me for many reasons and stirs up my imagination in so many ways, that it ultimately led me to sit down and write this novel.

The Battle of Plassey – where my novel begins – was fought in June 1757. The key players in that battle were: Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab (ruler) of the wealthy province of Bengal; Mir Jafar, the Nawab’s uncle and his most important general; and Robert Clive, who led the British forces.

If you were present on the plains of Plassey that hot and muggy June day of 1757,  you would have observed a large native army (of between thirty to fifty thousand men) vanquished by a much smaller “British” force (comprised of a few hundred European mercenaries and a couple of thousand Indian sepoys fighting alongside).  Depending on which side you cheered on, you may have felt either a deep sense of shame or a great sense of vindication. Shame, perhaps based on your perceived inferiority to the white colonialists who had easily won the day, and vindication, based on your imagined superiority over the brown-skinned natives.

But both feelings, I submit, would have been inaccurate that day. The point is that Plassey was not a great victory in the traditional sense of how battles are fought and won for one side to feel superior over the other. Putting aside (or maybe because of) the rather strange behavior of the Bengal army not to keep its gunpowder dry during the heavy rainstorm the previous evening (thus making their cannons virtually useless during the battle), there was hardly any action of note. A few skirmishes here and there – like the one Mohan Roy (the fictitious Diwan of Bengal) fought – but very little else.

Yet, Plassey changed everything. It was a 9.5 magnitude earthquake in the figurative sense. It ushered in two hundred years of British colonial rule over India, first under the East India Company (the world’s first mega corporation) and ultimately under the direct authority of the British government. India became the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British empire. It turned the small island nation of Britain into the world’s leading superpower (until the U.S. came along), eclipsing all its European rivals in wealth, colonies and stature.

And what of India? Before Plassey, Bengal was the richest province in India (if not the entire world) and India was one of the world’s largest economies, with somewhere around one-third of the world’s GDP. When the British left India in 1947, India had less than two percent of the world’s GDP. In two hundred years of British colonial rule, India had been bled dry; its resources exploited to Britain’s advantage, its riches used to power Britain’s industrial revolution, and its wealth and treasures stolen and taken to England by men such as Clive, never to be returned.

There is a movie called “Sliding Doors” where a single unremarkable event can change one’s life.  Same with Plassey and India. I often wonder what would have been India’s fate had Mir Jafar not betrayed his country and gone over to Clive’s camp. This single act of betrayal changed the outcome of the battle and India’s fate in the two hundred years to follow.

Would India have been the first country in the world in the 19th century, instead of Britain if Mir Jafar had been a patriot? Would India’s vast resources have been used to power its own industrial revolution and economic development, instead of playing catch-up as its now doing? Would India now be sitting on the Security Council in the place of Britain?

I suppose it’s possible, but one can never know. But I do know that there were men like Mohan Roy who gave their lives for their country. And women like Anjolie (Mohan Roy's daughter) who sacrificed everything to get justice for her people.  To men and women like them – of whatever race, of whatever country, of whatever creed, of whatever religion – I say bravo.

One of the most satisfying aspects of writing this novel was losing myself in my characters: seeing the world as they must have seen it; experiencing their lives as they must have lived it; speaking the words as they must have spoken it. I was the scribe taking their dictation, that’s how I often felt as my fingers danced across the keyboard. They wanted their stories told; they wanted their lives known. They may be a fiction of my imagination, but they are very much alive to me. They live in every corner of my mind, and now on the pages of my book.

For historic figures like Clive, I let him speak for himself during the most important moments of his impeachment trial. There was no point in creating dialogue for him when he spoke so brilliantly for himself in Parliament. There is a record of his speech, and it is superb oratory. I tweaked it a little so it would flow better, but those are his words not mine.

Clive’s impeachment trial was held in a chamber just off the House of Commons, not in historic Westminster Hall as I have it. I chose Westminster Hall for a purpose: it has been the venue of some of England’s greatest trials, including the impeachment trial of Clive’s successor Warren Hastings, who became the Governor General of Bengal soon after Clive’s impeachment. It is only fitting that Clive – one of the most important men in England of his time – should have been tried in the grand, historic setting of Westminster Hall instead of a cramped, poky chamber of little consequence. 

Less than two years after his acquittal, Clive was dead. He was only forty-nine. He was found with his throat slit in his London townhouse. But how did he die? Was it suicide or was he killed? We may never know. But the circumstances of his death; the secretive nighttime burial in an unmarked grave; the lack of inquest or investigation into the manner of his death, all suggests a cover-up.

But by whom and for what reason? Was it to cover up the shame of suicide as some historians have suggested? It’s possible. Clive had suffered from bouts of depression in his youth and twice tried to kill himself. But that was long before he had achieved the great heights to which he had ascended in his career. In the year prior to his death, he had vanquished all his enemies and been exonerated by Parliament of all crimes; in fact, he was lauded and feted for the great service he had rendered to his country. Clive was lord of all he surveyed, and easily the richest man in England. Was this a man who would commit suicide when he could look forward to spending the rest of his days in great comfort and peace? Hardly.

Perhaps Clive was driven to suicide by guilt, for having abused his position as the Governor of Bengal to enrich himself, for putting into place policies that led to the terrible famine of Bengal that decimated a once vibrant economy and left in its wake three million dead. But this was a man who showed no remorse whatsoever during his impeachment trial, brushing aside any responsibility for what had happened in Bengal. If you read his impeachment defense, you will find he made this amply clear.  Was this therefore the man who would commit suicide because he was plagued by guilt? Hardly.

The most likely scenario is that Clive was killed. But by whom and for what reason? I have unraveled that mystery for you in Arms Wide Asunder.