Sam Julian
Sam Julian asked Indu Sundaresan:

What is your research process like, and how do you check your work for historical accuracy? Can you describe an instance when you decided, for dramatic or plot purposes, it was better to overlook historical precedent?

Indu Sundaresan I read extensively about the topic when an idea first strikes me. My latest novel, THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT, is about the 186 carat Kohinoor diamond, taken from India in 1850 and currently in the Queen Mother’s crown in England. In the very first instance, I had to bookend the timeline for the story, because the diamond had a deep reach into India’s history, beginning from (so it’s said) a first mention in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, written more than two thousand years ago.

So, I wrapped the timeframe of the novel from 1817 until about 1893, and focused on who the diamond’s last Indian owners were, and how they lost the diamond to the British, and what that loss meant to them.

At the end of most of my novels is an Afterword, where I explain what’s fact and what’s fiction. Here’s an example of how I manipulated fact into my fiction in THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT.

In 1850, the Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie, takes the Kohinoor (which belonged to the Punjab kings) to Bombay and sends it, very, very secretly to England on board a Royal Navy Steam sloop called the HMS Medea. Only the two men carrying it, a Colonel Mackeson and Edward Ramsay, know of the diamond being on board—even the captain of the Medea has no idea of the precious cargo he’s carrying. This is fact.

When I came to this part of the novel, about midway through the book, I knew that I wanted this last voyage of the Kohinoor diamond to be more…dramatic, perhaps is the word. So, I changed this one fact. In LIGHT, the Kohinoor travels aboard a commercial steamer, still in the care of Mackeson and Ramsay, but all of a sudden, as you’ll see in the book, a slew of unsavory characters come to life, all wanting to steal, or merely just catch a glimpse of this precious stone that once belonged to the Gods in India.

This chapter in LIGHT is titled ‘An Alexandria Moon.’ And though I’ve messed with facts a bit, almost every other detail you will read has some factual accuracy to it. If I didn’t do this, put careful attention on the details, then my fiction will read like…well, fiction, and not fact. (Even though it isn’t fact!)

I give Colonel Mackeson a background—he’s our hero, after all in this part of the narrative—that was well researched, and somewhat common to British men in India at that time. All of my potential criminals—Lady Anne Elizabeth Beaumont, Tom and Mary Booth, William Huthwaite, Arabella Hyde—similarly have carefully, and believably researched motives for wanting the Kohinoor. The commercial steamer, I name the SS Indus, but every description of the boat—from its tonnage, the number of crew, the amount of food brought onboard, flour, malt, hops, champagne, madeira, everything—is from published accounts of ships making this very same voyage from Bombay to Suez. You meet a Parsi shop owner, importers of American goods, Dossabhoy Merwanjee, at the beginning—I found an advertisement for his shop in one of the books I read. Mr. Merwanjee sold ‘sarsaparilla,’ a pick-me-up tonic—and he does so in the novel also!

So, the only fact I really changed was putting the Kohinoor aboard the SS Indus and not the HMS Medea, but everything else, could and would have been plausible if this had actually happened.

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