Lovely being here, Reet!

  • How did the idea come about, to write a historical romance? Was it a difficult trope to write?

Since I enjoy reading Historicals, I have read several books set in 1857. They are interesting stories but what puzzled me was that mostly these are British books, British accounts, their stories. Not many Indian writers have written about it. So that made me think about writing an 1857 story from the Indian perspective.

Dear Vandana,

Thank you for dropping by to visit. Let's talk about “1857 Dust of Ages”, your book – I really enjoyed reading it and have raved a bit in my review of it on Goodreads.

Also the portrayal of the Indian women in most of these novels – sacrificing, weak, ignorant – is quite the opposite of stories of 1857 that I had heard, featuring brave and fearless women like Lakshmi Bai and Hazrat Mahal. And then of course, I was fascinated by William Dalrymple’s White Mughals. So that is how this historical romance Dust of Ages came about.

It was difficult to start, but once I had written about 50 pages, there was no stopping.

  • Tell us something about the hero of “1857”? Why do you think readers will adore him? Will they?

There are two heroes : Shiv Sahai, an art historian and researcher who stumbles on this story from the past. He is intelligent, charming, a neat freak. He has his insecurities. I feel that vulnerabilities make the character most interesting. Shiv, despite his intelligence, is a little unsure about himself. That makes him adorable. He is also a serious one and it is great to see him loosen up with Ruth.

Richard, the hero in the 1857 segment of the story, is an English soldier who becomes fascinated by Princess Meera. He comes across as a jovial person but he is complex. His deepest insecurity is that he has a divided mind. He has spent all his life in India – he feels Indian but the colour of his skin, the family of his birth tells him that he is English. His love for Meera, his marriage gives him a sense of rootedness. It also makes him vulnerable because he is walking this tightrope at the time when things are soon going to fall apart.

For me a hero that I would fall in love with is a vulnerable one, intelligent, brave and all that but also knows that he isn’t perfect or in control all the time.

  • Do you look for images to inspire you when you are creating characters? If yes, do share some of those images here...

Not for the characters really but I do look for inspiration for the setting, for the aura of the story. Here are some woodcuts of a Japanese artist, Yoshida Hiroshi, that exactly captured the setting of 1857 Dust of Ages.

  • I like the way you handle conversations and plot. Do you have a secret formula?

I begin with a skeletal plot and let the characters take over. Like here are these two characters – I want them to fall in love and then I want them to separate due to the circumstances. That’s my plot. I think of characters traits only at the beginning and then as I move on with the story, I create a situation and imagine how Ruth, or Shiv, or Richard, or Meera would react to it and I let them react and express. So the plot moves and a lot of character development is done through the dialogues. Plus, they are also a source of information, especially in a historical where there is a lot of background information and you want to ‘show, not tell.’

  • What is your favorite genre to read? How has it influenced what you yourself write?

Historical, of course. Also literary classics, romance and mystery. You would see it all reflected in 1857 Dust of Ages. I have no formal training in storytelling, but read a lot of historical fiction to learn how to give background and information without becoming wordy, and how to compress historic details in dialogues and characterization. I sensed instinctively that a scandal from the past would make an interesting mystery. I knew a romance with a feisty Indian Princess and a British soldier would be interesting to recreate. Whenever I am stuck at some point in the story, I go to my favourite books and see how the writers overcome similar problems.

  • Has any real-life event, personal or public, ever begged to be written into one of your stories? Could you share it with us, please?

Not much in Dust of Ages but there is a scene in 'Don’t Fall in Love' where the characters are having a fight in public and the people around them are commenting and trying to work out their relationship. It was quite funny to be in such a scene as a spectator. It just played on the general curiosity and nosiness of Delhiites.

  • Of all the attributes of a well written story, which is the one that pleases you the most?

Complex characters who are neither all good nor all bad. They are vulnerable and strong at the same time. Place such characters in any conflict-ridden situation and you would have a wonderful story.

  • What one or two things absolutely irritate you in a book, and would most certainly make you put the book down immediately?

Too simple and non-evocative language. I like my reading to be loaded with meanings and symbols.

Stereotypes – of gender, race, colour etc. They leave me as a reader very upset.

  • When do you write? What is your writing space like? What do you use, pencil/pen and paper, or a gadget?

On my laptop, mostly occupying a one whole section of the dining table. My husband used to get irritated, but now he has given up.

For me, the space is mostly in the mind. When I have thoughts working and words flowing, I can work in the most crowded of places.

  • Your advice to starting authors - one thing they MUST do and one that they should NEVER.

Write a story that you want to read- that is what Meg Cabot says to her readers and I think it is wonderful advice. I know that there are market pressures and we think of what sells and what doesn’t, but if you are writing out of passion, write what you want – you will feel proud. If you are writing for money, write what sells, there is always a pseudonym to hide behind.

Thank you so much, Vandana. It was great fun getting to know you.

Thanks also to The Book Club for making this interview happen.
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Vandana Shanker


1857. The rebellion erupts in India. Despite its attempts to stay aloof, NAVGARH, a small town near Delhi, is drawn into the conflagration. And at its heart are Princess Meera and Captain Richard Smith, with their strange alliance made for the throne of Navgarh.

2016, Shiv Sahai, a young Indian art historian and Ruth Aiken, a British scholar discover an excerpt from the journal of an anonymous British soldier, searching for his wife in the chaos of 1857 Delhi. As they begin investigating the scandal, they become aware of the vague rumours that are told in the bylanes of Navgarh – about a princess who married a British soldier to save her kingdom.

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Read an excerpt from the book...

Camp, Delhi Cantonment, 16 August, 1857.
Things have changed forever. A day spent in the company of my old friend Knox made it clear. These distances can never be bridged.
The pole of his tent snapped in the storm yesterday; and for the sake of old friendship, I offered Knox my humble abode. But his rancour was jarring. His determination to teach the enemy a lesson, the unshaken belief in the rightness of our mission– such bitterness asks too much of friendship and duty.
Earlier we went over the battlefield. One of our regiments was destroying the village near the bridge to prevent the enemy from getting cover in it. Elephants were pulling down the walls. The villagers stood by as their houses turned into mud while the monsoon clouds gathered on the horizon. Unfortunately, they were the Jats, who, for the most part, are our friends. We decided that the destruction of their homes and fields was necessary. Twenty-three men – their countrymen – were lying together in the ditch at the back of the village; we weren’t sure if they were the rebels. A party of Rifles killed then en masse, just to be sure.
We left the village with our bags swollen like raisins in water. And who can blame our light-fingered gentry? Armies are said to travel on their stomach.
At some distance from our camp, I can see the sun setting over the fort of Delhi. It isn’t much different from the first sunset I witnessed here years ago. How things have changed! We came with a mission – to know this exotic land, to bring the light of knowledge and civilization to its darkness. Now the memory leaves me embarrassed. These massive red walls made me uneasy even then. Today they mock our camp again. Whatever be the outcome of this devil’s wind, it has revealed the banality of our mission.
Knox’s bitterness is an expression of the anger in the camp. When the cannons are quiet, the silence resounds with confusion, with terror, with rage, but most of all with the question ‘Why?’ As we sit around a small fire every night, the question rages in every mind. ‘Why the mutiny? Haven’t we brought the glory of civilization to this land of superstition?’ These thoughts simmer as we deal with hunger, heat and rain.
But soon these questions will be forgotten. The winners will annihilate the other side. Already I see the madness in the eyes as rumours reach us from other places – Cawnpur, Jhansi, Lucknow. Madness will soon be let loose.
I often feel that the answers that elude me today were within my grasp a short while ago. They are somewhere near, yet unreachable, like the time gone by.
I promise to look for them once I have found her again. For she, I feel, holds a part of it.
So every evening, I try to escape this madness by thinking about her, Princess Meera of Navgarh, a rebel soldier and my wife. It is the third year of our marriage. Three years of tenuous links and fragile understanding. It was only a matter of time before an explosion happened. And it happened that eventful week when Navgarh too burnt in the fire raging all across India. The news that the sepoys in Meerut had rebelled spurred both of us. Did I expect Meera to be a dutiful wife when all her beliefs, her convictions pulled her in the opposite direction? Was I surprised on knowing that she was in Delhi, amongst the rebels? Would she be surprised on knowing that I have followed her as an enemy… a British officer? And as I follow her, I stand here once again, after five years, outside the walls of the Red Fort in Delhi.

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About the author

Delhi-born Vandana Shanker is the author of the series 1857 Dust of Ages, a historical fiction set in the year of the great uprising in India. A PhD from IIT Delhi, Vandana is passionate about history, storytelling and art. Apart from writing, she teaches literature and creative writing in Malaysia. She has also taught in Universities in India and Vietnam. She currently lives in Kuala Lumpur with her family and wants to travel the world. 

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