When I was offered the chance to read The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan, I sensed that it wasn’t my usual fare, but I was drawn in by the historical and military background of the story. I’ll say right now that I loved it. The narrative spans sixty years, is set in India between 1920 and 1982 and deals with two very different families – that of an Anglo-Irish soldier, and a young Anglo-Indian woman and her descendants.
This is a fine novel, and as is to be expected with any such story set in historical India – think A Passage To India or The Jewel In The Crown – at its heart are the various tensions that exist between native Indians, Anglo-Indians (people of mixed race) and the British rulers. Cauvery Madhavan doesn’t stop there, however. She introduces another theme of social conflict which shimmers and reverberates rather like the sympathetic strings on a sitar, and this is the relationship between another group of subjects and masters – the Roman Catholic population of The Irish Republic and the English landed gentry who, for so long, governed them.
The story begins in 1920, in the garrison town of Indaghiri. Private Michael Flaherty of the Kildare Rangers falls in love with Rose Twomey, a young woman who works as a maidservant in the house of Colonel Aylmer, the head of the regiment. Historical background is crucial here, but I’ll be as concise as possible. The Kildare Rangers are fictional, but their factual counterparts were the Connaught Rangers. The southern Irish regiments had fought bravely for the British cause in The Great War, but with republican unrest simmering in Ireland, many of the units had been posted overseas.
Rose Twomey is fair of skin, with delightful freckles, but she is mixed race. Her father married an Indian woman, and so Rose carries the crucial taint of being Anglo-Indian and, to use the brutal logic of the time, she is neither one thing nor the other. Michael and Rose sup well, but not wisely, and the result is that Rose, pregnant with Michael’s child, is disowned by both her father and the Aylmer family.
One of the remarkable things about the logistics of the British Army in The Great War was that it was able to deliver letters from home with pinpoint accuracy to even the most God-forsaken trench on the Western Front, and so it that the men of the Kildare Rangers have a ready supply of news from home. And it is not good news. In an attempt to stifle Irish nationalism, the British have created an auxiliary police force attached to the Roral Irish Constabulary. Known as the Black and Tans, they are mostly unemployed former soldiers, and their brutal intimidation of the civilian population is causing unrest among the men of the Rangers. When this unrest turns to outright mutiny, it is soon quashed, but Michael and several other men are arrested and face the firing squad.
The second part of The Tainted jumps forward to 1982. India is rapidly emerging as a modern nation, but it retains the vast web of bureacracy bequeathed to it by the long departed British. Mohan Kumar is the Collector for the Nandagiri district. He is, in the vast scheme of things, a relatively minor functionary, but one with great local power and prestige. He is asked to accommodate a photographer from Ireland, Richard Aylmer, who is none other than the grandson of the late Colonel of the Kildare Rangers. The Colonel was a talented artist, and Richard’s mission is to match contemporary photographs with the scenes his grandfather painted. Mohan points Richard in the direction of Gerry Twomey, a forestry manager whose knowledge of the local landscape is unmatched.
Of course, Gerry Twomey – and his sister May – are descendants of Rose Twomey, and I will say no more other than to promise that what follows is enchanting, heartbreaking and beautifully written. Cauvery Madhavan (above right) takes many risks, plot-wise in this book, but everything not only falls into place, but does so with style and bravura. The Tainted is published by HopeRoad and is out on 30th April.
Men of the Connaught Rangers did stage a brief mutiny against their commanders, and some of the ringleaders were executed. Those buried in India were, as suggested in The Tainted, eventually disinterred and their remains repatriated to Ireland. You can find out more here.
For more about the Raj in 20th century India, take a look at the excellent Christian Le Fanu novels by Brian Stoddart.