In 1756 Calcutta is a city on the brink of Empire. Already, the grandiose buildings of White Town, settled about Fort William, are in stark contrast to the bustle of Black Town across the Maratha Ditch. The events of this momentous year will settle forever the colonial history of India. As yet, however, both Indian Black Town and British White Town are under the rule of Siraj Uddaulah, the hot-headed young nawab in Murshidabad.
In White Town Chief Magistrate Holwell and his arch-rival Governor Drake must unite to outwit the dangerous schemes of the Murshidabad Court. In Black Town the half-cast girl Sati, believed possessed by the Goddess Kali, finds herself a God-Woman and the centre of a religious cult. Her grandmother, Jaya, and her promiscuous mother, Rita, married to the Frenchman Demonteguy, battle for possession of her. Shuttled between the two towns of Calcutta, yet belonging to neither, Sati is in search of her identity. On her journey many fall under her spell including Emily, the Governor¹s wife.
In far off Murshidabad the new nawab is interested only in ridding India of the British and their growing threat to his country. He descends upon Calcutta with a huge army. Locked into Fort William with a large number of the Black Town population the British residents plan their escape. Their benighted attempt to flee infuriates the nawab and ends in the notorious incident of the Black Hole of Calcutta.
The novel explores not only the events that led up to that incident but the lives of a town divided by race and culture and the prejudices that would soon, after the Battle of Plassey, grow unchecked in the era of Empire.
‘Chand tells the story in a direct and compelling manner. The prose sweeps forward, and she evokes the period beautifully…effortlessly…’
Telegraph 9th June 2001
‘….Chand writes impressively…’
The Times. 13th June 2001.
‘…gripping…Chand writes with vivid intensity. This rich and powerful novel is a wonderful historical epic and a poignant account of human suffering.’
The Good Book Guide 1st February 2003
From Chapter One
The news arrived late in Calcutta and was brought to the Chief Magistrate by the Governor himself. Relations between the two men were strained. For the purpose of work they managed a cool but civil environment, circling each other like two prize beetles that might one day be forced to fight. Governor Drake extended his evening walk within Fort William, descending by the East Gate to pass the Reserve Battery until he arrived at the Chief Magistrate’s door. Given a choice, he would not have skirted the cemetery at night, nor have been persuaded inside Holwell’s house which, by the placement of the Governor’s apartments within the fort, he was forced to observe day and night. He was surprised to find himself doing both these things. It convinced him of the seriousness of the occasion…
The Chief Magistrate leaned back in his chair, listening to the soft slap of the river at the bottom of his garden. He had chosen to build his house on the bank of the Hoogly not only for the coolness it afforded, but also for the bittersweet memory. The thick odour of the water threw him back, if only for a moment, to the place where he had been born; he had grown up beside a river. On summer nights the scent had pervaded his dreams, with the distant rush of water spilling through the weir. There was no denying the pain when he had to put aside these memories and open his eyes to a ragged fringe of coconut palms. Exile obliged him to forget while forcing him to remember in order to survive. Holwell shifted in his chair. The lapping of water from the nearby Hoogly came to him again. The river was like no other he could remember.
Beyond the veranda the trees were alight with fireflies, the moon streaked the Hoogly bronze. Crickets and bullfrogs still battled in the night, but even this din sank into the silence of the great river. This monstrous silence both drew and repelled the Chief Magistrate, much as India itself drew and repelled him. The very soil of the place seemed possessed of a wily, murderous soul and his life was a battle against it. The river exuded the dank odour of decay, of things that festered, hidden away. The corpses of thousands were dumped in its waters, the defecation of millions coloured its tide. It ate its meal of death and rot and opened its mouth for more, as did India herself. In this land everything decayed. Flesh sickened, devoured by maggots, worms and parasites even as it lived. Death waited for its victims in the air, the grass, the sweetest fruit or the waters of the well. If not buried or burned within a few hours, a body would swell and sometimes burst with the speed of its own destruction.
This voracious need to destroy and assimilate was the nature of the country, thought the Chief Magistrate, and shivered in the balmy night. If India had taught him one thing, it was a view of his own identity he might otherwise not have learned.