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19 January 2010

Too Good to Ignore

My latest book, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, is set in Hyderabad in 1804. I hadn’t intended, originally, to set it in Hyderabad. The original plan was for my book to take place in Calcutta and points north. In the autumn of 1804, luck—or something else—had turned against the British in India. After the victory won at Assaye the previous year, they were experiencing unprecedented military losses in the north, at the hands of a Maratha leader named Holcar. It seemed to make sense to set the book where the action was, near the military maneuvering of Lord Lake.

Then I stumbled upon Hyderabad, via William Dalrymple’s White Moghuls, and the planned plot of my book changed, dramatically and permanently.

A large province towards the center of the subcontinent, Hyderabad was a princely state presided over by a hereditary ruler called the Nizam. It was a young dynasty; it was only in 1724 that the Nizum ul-Mulk had carved it out as a semi-independent fiefdom out of the Moghul Empire, nominally retaining allegiance to that empire while operating as an independent entity.

Part of what attracted me to Hyderabad was the role played by Franco-British rivalry in the region. As those of you have glanced at my books know, they all take place against the backdrop of the conflict between England and France in the early years of the nineteenth century. Hyderabad fit beautifully into this schema. Until 1798, Hyderabad housed two sets of rival troops: a French force and an English force, both of whom were nominally there to protect the interests of the Nizam. The French force in Hyderabad nominally served the Nizam, but they fought under the Revolutionary tricolore. Their leader, Colonel Raymond, wrote to the French governors of Pondicherry and Mauritius pledging his loyalty to France and the Revolutionary regime. The canny English Resident, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, managed to engineer a coup in 1798, disarming the French force, but the fear of the French threat lingered.

I was also fascinated by the prominent role played by women in the court of Hyderabad. Among his guards, the Nizam maintained an all female regiment, the Zuffur Plutun, or the Victorious Battalion. Soldiers from the brigade served as the Nizam’s bodyguard, but the Zuffur Plutun’s role wasn’t confined to light duty at the palace; they actively rode into battle, playing a key role in several major battles. Contemporary commentators remarked upon their ferocity in battle. Both of the Nizam’s Masters of Ceremonies (a position of huge power at court), Mama Champa and Mama Barun, were women. They had gotten their start as wet nurses to the royal family. With women guarding his gates and conducting his durbar, the Nizam also had a famous female as a member of his omrah, or council: the courtesan Mah Laqa Bai, renowned for her wit, wisdom, and poetry.

And, while we’re at it, who can possibly resist a mad ruler? Points of change always make the best fodder for a novelist. In 1803, the old Nizam died. He was a remarkably clever man who had consolidated his dynasty, turning Hyderabad, in the words of William Dalrymple, “from the Sick Man of Late Mughal India into the vital strategic asset of the eighteenth century Cold War, without whose friendship and support no power could gain dominance in India”. He was also a good friend to the English, with a close, working relationship with the English Resident. Upon his death, the throne devolved to Crown Prince Sikander Jah. The new Nizan was not a man in the mould of his predecessor. In fact, he was rumored to be mad. The new Nizam, apparently, got his kicks out of strangling members of his household with silk handkerchiefs.

Fair enough; some of the best regimes have had mad rulers (cf George III)—all that was needed was a good Prime Minister. In the spring of 1804, right before my fictional heroine shows up in Hyderabad, Aristu Jah, the old Prime Minister, passed on to join his old master in that great durbar in the sky. The new Nizam appointed a minister of whom even Lord Wellesley, the Governor General, approved: a man named Mir Alam, who had once worked closely with the English. There was one slight problem. Mir Alam had been exiled by the old regime. During that time he had been suffering from acute cases of hurt feelings and leprosy. He returned, rotten in body and soul, determined to wreak his revenge on anyone he deemed responsible for his exile. Which meant just about everyone. It was rumored that he was so venomous, even snakes were afraid to bite him. A mad ruler and an even madder Prime Minister— what novelist could ask for anything more? Instability makes for uncomfortable living but excellent fiction.

In short, Hyderabad was the perfect place to send a heroine on honeymoon.

Have you ever come across something that's made you change all your plans? Or a historical fact/setting that was too good to ignore?

7 Comments:

Blogger librarypat said...

Flexibility has always been the key to our trips. I plan them out, but that is an outline. Our best trip was to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, Canada. We found a great place to stay on PEI and spent 3 to 5 days. Unfortunately that was in September, 2001. Our trip to Nova Scotia shifted because of 9/11. We ended up spending a lot of time on Cape Bretton Island, which was wonderful. We never made it to Halifax and the main island. I'm glad we spent the extra time on Cape Bretton, it was lovely and the mix of french and scottish culture interesting. We would would have rushed through too fast and missed a lot had our plans not changed.
We have been known to get bored with the drive on the interstate and just taken an exit, and headed out to explore. Bonus tours:o)

8:42 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, what a fabulous post, Lauren! It makes me even more eager to read the latest adventures of the flower spy set! I knew I wanted to write about the Congress of Vienna at least as far back as college, though it's taken me two decades to do so. I was telling a friend at dinner tonight how the real life indiscretions of two real life woman (Tsarina Elisabeth of Russia and Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan) fit beautifully into the plot, where I had though I'd have to make up fictional scandals.

12:04 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Oooooooooo, what great history to build a book around! I'm not sure I've shifted an already plotted out idea because of something I've found, but I've certainly formed ideas for books around some quirky or totally fascinating historical fact or story I've stumbled across. For me it’s often a specific person or set of people. Someone’s real life story that just inspires me to push my characters a little farther than I had originally planned. For example, my current heroine started out as a simple retired courtesan, but after reading about the New Female Coterie in The Lady in Red (as I talked about in my last post), I’ve tweaked things so that she fits into that utterly fascinating group.

Dalrymple’s White Moghuls is a seriously wonderful book. I've read it twice now, and I think I'm about due to dive into it again . . .

7:25 AM  
Blogger Stephanie J said...

I cannot wait to dive into Blood Lilly!

This was such an interesting post. I confess that I'm not at all familiar with the area but every time I read something like this it makes me want to go snatch up all the India-set books I can. My novel is set in the Victorian era, in London, and while I knew I wanted to write in that era it was by pure chance I stumbled across the real life woman who was the inspiration for my heroine. So many things about her matched what I was already planning for my heroine and there were a lot of things that I was able to pull in and establish because of the real life woman. Here's crossing my fingers that it works!

5:52 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Can't wait to read this one, Lauren. I do love a deliciously evil villain and TWO deliciously evil villains makes it even better. Add to that a fascinating era in British empirical history and you have the perfect novel for a long, rainy weekend!

I stumbled across a biography of Mary Seacole (The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age) and while the novel I drew from it takes place in the Regency and does not involve her directly, a major character in the book (and hopefully a tie-in to a trilogy) is drawn from this amazing woman's life.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Tinky said...

Golly, Lauren, I've actually BEEN to Hyderabad (I was a child at the time), and I didn't know any of this stuff! Can't wait to read your book.

As for plans--I learned long ago that they don't work, although it's good to make them so you have something to change! My life and work are never quite what I think they will be, but they're always interesting, as was this post.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Lauren, this is a fabulous post! I didn't know any of that ... and now I wish I'd known about the mad Nizam when I was researching ROYAL PAINS. But I'm at my page count as it is. Well, maybe one day there will be a sequel (MORE ROYAL PAINS). It makes me even more excited to read "...BLOOD LILY.".

I've had several moments in the course of researching my historical fiction, particularly the novels about Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson, where something happened that dovetailed very neatly into my plot and of course it had to go in the story. Can't think of specifics now, because I'm neck deep in Marie Antoinette (now there's a strange image) and my brain is too exhausted to focus on much else.

2:11 PM  

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