S. Jay Bose


The Truth Shall Set You Free - An Afterword to Arms Wide Asunder


The great Bengal famine of 1769-71 – which prompted Anjolie to return to India to help her people and, in its aftermath, took her to England to seek justice for the three million souls who had perished – is barely a footnote in history. Even as a student of history, I had never heard of it before researching my novel. But I had certainly heard of Clive, and his fellow empire builders – Hastings, Lawrence and Havelock – all key players in the British East India Company. In fact, at my school the “Houses” bore the names of these four men. I was in Hastings House and when I became house captain in my final year at school, I was gifted a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” by the headmaster. This late 19th century poem – penned by an ardent imperialist at the turn of the century – is about stoicism and courage in the face of adversity. I suppose it was written for young Englishmen as they quit the playing fields of their schools and set about the work of empire building. Yet, I liked the poem, so I carried a copy of it with me until it frayed and tattered, taking solace and strength from its uplifting words in some of my darkest and most trying moments.

You might think (from reading the above) that I attended a school in the heart of England, where Clive, Hastings, Lawrence and Havelock were all, at one time or another, schoolboys, before they became famous alumni for striding across the globe like Colossus to build an empire. You might even think of me as an admirer of the erstwhile British Empire that – for almost two centuries – colonized, exploited and subjugated more than half the world’s population.

You would be wrong on both counts. The school I attended is as far removed from England as is physically possible – at the other end of the world, up on the high reaches of the Himalayas close to India’s border with China. From my dorm room – on a good day – I could see the peaks of Kanchenjunga (forty crow miles distant) and, if I was especially lucky, Mount Everest as well.  Yet – in this high and remote corner of the globe – the world of Clive, Hastings, Lawrence and Havelock lived on, as if time had stopped, and the British had never left India.

I loved my school (and I thrived there) but, looking back, I realize I had been thoroughly brainwashed by an institution that functioned (oddly enough in an independent India) as the last vestige of empire. During the three month winter holidays, when I descended to the plains to see my parents, I remember feeling disoriented by the real India, as if I had stepped out of a time capsule. Worse still, I felt an air of superiority, as if I was somehow better than my fellow-countrymen and women. I cringe now when I think of it, but then I don’t think it bothered me very much.

In 2019 – when I started researching and writing Arms Wide Asunder – I had lived more than half my life outside India, the land of my birth.  As my novel and its characters took shape, I felt India tugging at my heartstrings, gently at first but more insistent as time went on and my book neared completion.

In the course of my research, I had decided to do field work – to see (and experience) for myself the key places, locales and houses that I describe in the book. Because I live in the south of France, it was easy for me to visit the sites located in France and the U.K. but getting to India was altogether a different proposition when the pandemic broke out, and borders began to shut.  I had to be patient (for almost two years) before I could get to India, but patience has a way of paying off.

I finally landed in India in November 2022, not sure what to expect. I still had two chapters to write, so – at first – I hid myself in a hill station in the south of India where I toiled ceaselessly for about six weeks until the book was done. And then I set off on my field work (notebook in hand and completed manuscript in my backpack) to check, verify, and correct (where necessary) my narrative. It was great fun – for almost four months, I traveled from place to place and relearnt the history and beauty of India, meeting along the way old friends, cousins and relatives. The blinders I had worn as a schoolboy slowly came off, and I saw the other side of the story – the story that is often forgotten – and which needed voice.

History – the saying goes – is written by the victors. And that is certainly true if you read  the glowing accounts of the British Empire, which I – like many other impressionable Indian schoolchildren of my age – were fed (even as late as) in the 1980s.  But no matter: learning is a lifelong process, and truth has a way of eventually coming out.  An unvarnished history of the British Empire is now being written by historians such as William Dalrymple, whose 2019 book “The Anarchy” is a fascinating account of the British East India Company as it went about its business of pillaging India.  I learnt a lot from it. I hope other students of history will read The Anarchy (and books like it) side-by-side with books that extol the virtues of the British Empire, so a balanced view can be formed.