The metal rattrap was large and sat on the cornice like an ornament. When I questioned the Indian porter about its use, he did not mince his words. ‘Rats,’ he said. I was in a temple town in Tamil Nadu and all other hotels were full. After dinner the trap had gone, but the rats had not. My husband spied a large hairy creature scuttling across the bathroom floor. Thankfully he only told me after we had checked out – of the aptly named Ratney Residency in Madurai.
Sharing my room with a rat is just one of many things I have done in the name of research. For my novel, The Pagoda Tree, set in 18th-century India, I have also driven all night from Delhi to Pushkar in search of the perfect crumbling palace. I have trespassed and been chased by a fist-waving security guard; had my breast groped, once; had a parrot read my fortune, twice; and most enjoyably, worn a sari.
On my visit to Thanjavur, another temple town in south India, I also interviewed a prince. I expected pomp and ceremony but Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, the sixth descendant of King Serfoji II, is a modern prince – he is on LinkedIn. He arrived in beige slacks and a pressed white shirt.
As we sipped a cup of sweet Indian chai, he mentioned we were sitting in the wood-panelled harem where my character Palani, based on the real courtesan and poet, Muddupalani, who lived at the end of the 18th century, would have written her bold, sexy poetry.
A few days later I found myself on the back of a bullock cart heading to an outlying village to celebrate the spring festival of Pongal. It was chaos. I was sitting in the back of an open trailer with other tourists and we bumped our way to a temple to watch how the villagers traditionally cook rice and milk sweetened with jaggery in clay pots over a fire to celebrate Tamil New Year. Later that day, when sitting in a palm-leafed feasting tent, I suddenly got this real feeling of my English missionary character Walter Sutcliffe. I could imagine him, a bit fusty, sitting in itchy breeches. I started to sketch some notes. The following morning I got a call from one of the prince’s aides to say my picture was in The Hindu on page three. ‘Madam,’ the aide said, ‘you are most elegant on the back of a bullock cart.’ Only in India would you hear that combination of words!
This is the experience of doing ‘History With My Feet’. Through my four years research and several trips back and forth to the region, I combined library research with fieldwork. You need to be something of a sleuth to piece together history when the archival sources are scant. When writing about other cultures, you also need to be aware of any cultural sensitivities involved. I think a novelist has a responsibility to historical evidence. As well as reading the colonial literature, I also read widely from post-colonial and revisionist texts.
The novel, set in 1765, is largely told through the eyes of a temple dancing girl, or devadasi, named Maya. Although it is expected Maya will become a royal courtesan for the Prince of Thanjavur himself, India is on the cusp of change. British power is rising to new heights. The cross-cultural relations and conflicts provided great tension for the plot. When I was in Thanjavur, some people were sceptical. One local journalist dismissed all devadasis as prostitutes. Despite once having a revered status, through successive legislation, which forbade the generational inheritance of land or property from mother to daughter, the ancient connection the women had to the temples was severed. As they lost patronage from both the temples and courts, they also lost their way to make a living.
Among the local scholars I met, senior librarian, Dr Perumal, at the Saraswati Mahal Library, which is housed at the Royal Palace in Thanjavur, stood out as more open-minded. A slim figure, Dr Perumal often looked half-asleep. Once he started talking, though, his eyes lit up and he would bring me pieces of research like precious gifts: among them, an 18th-century map of Thanjavur, pointing out where the British troops were garrisoned and the proximity to the street where the devadasis lived. In order for the women to reach the temple to perform their daily rituals, they would have had to walk past the British garrison and Dr Perumal encouraged me to physically retrace their steps. He also suggested that it was not out of the question, therefore, that a relationship between a devadasi and a British man could have developed. From this, I coined the phrase ‘doing history with my feet’, as a way to piece together the lives of my characters. To me it was obvious: you cannot have British soldiers or British traders stationed somewhere for 150 years and for them not to have sex. That defies human nature.
I also made numerous visits to the Big Temple built by Emperor Raja Raja the Great in honour of the Hindu deity Shiva. Today this UNESCO World Heritage Site is still popular with locals and pilgrims. When you arrive, a temple elephant gives you a donk on the head as a blessing for a few rupees. Then, walking shoeless through the vast courtyards, the hurly burly of modern India fades away. The Big Temple is not like a museum or a Christian church; it still lives and breathes. Young men lay draped over each other on the lawns; women and children ate some of the sweet prasad – offerings – served up by portly Brahmin priests on banana leaves.
My tour guide, Mr Rajah, was a slight man with grey hair, his buckteeth stained from tobacco. He took me to a wall covered with rows of Tamil script and told me that these were the names and addresses of 400 devadasis who were brought there when the temple was inaugurated in the eleventh century. Seeing those names was evidence that they were real women. Mr Rajah told me it was well known their homes were on West Main road, which I then visited. He also mentioned that there was a special relationship between parrots and devadasis. ‘The parrots would talk to the girls. They took messages from the king.’
In time, birds – especially the lime-green parakeets that you still see around the granite temple towers – would fly into my prose.
As the artistic legacy of the women is still visible in Bharatanatyam dance, in the evenings I also went to classical dance performances. Their dance was seen as a symbol of sexual union with the deity and therefore they were seen as a beneficiary of God’s grace. By going to the temple and the palace, I started to create the world for my characters. It struck me that the temple would have been the first building anyone would spy in the flat palm tree-covered landscape. So, when my character Walter Sutcliffe first arrives in a sedan chair, this is what he sees: ‘Even from this distance, the temple’s giant tower reared up, a mythical structure, piercing the sky like a sword’.
After the dusty library in Thanjavur, I headed east to Chennai (formerly Madras) to research the English characters in the novel. The most fruitful was the Adyar Library, set in a rare patch of greenery. The man at the front desk was a stickler for rules and said I needed a letter of request to join. An elderly lady over-rode him and allowed me in, as long as I was barefoot and did not plug in my laptop, ‘too much electricity use’. The rules kept changing but it was worth it for the discovery of some rare 18th-century Tamil texts. I also made contact with local reporters. I visited Chennai’s eminent historian, Mr Muthiah; interviewed a Tollywood – the Tamil version of Bollywood – star and hung out with the ‘Queen of Higginbotham’s’. With her smeared black-kohl eyes and haphazard sari, this lady had worked for decades at Higginbotham’s bookshop, a Chennai institution. She knew everyone and loaded me up with books.
In Chennai, I strolled around Fort St George where the East India Company established their base and my character Thomas Pearce arrived as a young clerk. I located one of the few 18th-century ‘garden houses’ that has not been demolished for redevelopment. As I criss-crossed this chaotic sprawling city, each rickshaw ride became more terrifying than the last. On my last night in the city, an early monsoonal downpour hit as we were crossing a flyover. There were no windscreen wipers and the rickshaw driver could see nothing ahead. All around traffic screeched to a halt as the water levels rose. The man revved up the engine and hammered it home, squeezing between buses, bumping through potholes. As he pulled up outside my guesthouse, I cheered. In India you can be grateful for the small things – even rattraps have their uses.
BY CLAIRE SCOBIE
Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie was published in June 2017 by Unbound, unbound.com, ISBN 978783523719, ebook £10, hardback £20