I grew up in a home filled with stories.
Every item of furniture and flatware, every picture and parlour game prompted tireless tales of great-grandmothers made mistresses of kings and great-grandfathers collecting albino moles for queens; great-uncles kidnapped on their honeymoons and great-aunts drowned in the Serpentine after a long day’s shopping.
Bedtimes were lulled with accounts of relations who killed a royal consort in his nightclothes, befriended the Elephant Man, took tea with the real ‘Dorian Gray’, travelled to Mount Athos with Fortnum & Mason saddle bags and a soda siphon, or who kept Cromwell’s head in a box to frighten the children. And then there were the histories of relations who had died in madhouses, on sea voyages, in ice storms and polo matches; who had caught the plague or had been eaten by cannibals.
This intimacy with the lives of such idiosyncratic characters motivated me, when still a child, to haul my grandfather’s cumbersome black typewriter into my favourite apple tree and tap out tales for my little brother amongst the wasps and sparrows. There were stories about dead children trapped in their bedrooms, screaming in the dark. Stories about angels fallen to earth with broken wings, unable to return home.
My little brother was unimpressed. He wanted steam trains, fast cars and Desperate Dan.
In the face of such fraternal indifference, little could I have imagined that I had already commenced my path to publication.
School proved a merciless torment. I took to running away at every opportunity, slipping from the classroom whilst my classmates were making yet another papier-mâché dinosaur or Thames tug-boat out of date boxes. I would run like the clappers out of the school gate, across the playing-fields, over the rickety railway bridge, and through the Big Boys’ dens in the bushes with their miniature campfires and glamour-mag stashes. I would speed up past the house in which I believed Beatrix Potter’s bunny-hating Mr. McGregor lived, reach the cosy familiarity of manicured rose-arch and mock-Tudor, then scurry through the garden gate to Pogle’s Wood and the secret safety of my tree-house.
I would soon be found, of course, and marched straight back to school and the Headmistress’s office. She was firm, but gentle, her eyelashes so thickly mascara-ed that they looked like zips.
In an effort to better understand my truancy, she offered a new copybook and asked that I fill it with a story. The result was what she had expected: a sci-fi fantasy of rocket ships, aliens that smelled of parsley, radioactive root vegetables and a heroic team of Greek-speaking firemen, who ultimately saved the day with their fully-extendable, intergalactic ladders, for which they were rewarded with a royal tea and a letter of congratulations from the Vatican.
My indulgent Headmistress entered my story for the National Under-12s Parker Pen Creative Writing Competition. It won third prize.
At Secondary School, mine was the first voice in my class to break, announcing to all the world that testosterone had initiated the chaos of adolescence. My classmates would snigger at my solitary baritone during the taking of the morning register, whilst in response to this sobering advance in my mortality I composed a list of ‘Things To Do Before I Die’ – a comprehensive catalogue that included learning taxidermy, speaking Swedish and seeing a cover that bore my name on the shelves of WH Smith’s.
However, it was not until some thirty years later that a friend in Calcutta insisted I should seriously consider writing a book.
I was recounting details of my search for a childhood hero in the Himalayas and of my life in a leprosy colony, as we relished daab-jhinge from a green coconut at Kewpie’s kitchen.
“Look at me laughing and crying at the same time,” she spluttered. “Please, write this down and get it published!”
I had penned short stories, self-indulgent poetry and genealogical histories for many years, yet had always considered a book beyond my capabilities. I thought I needed an English degree or a course in Creative Writing to learn technique and develop that all-important personal ‘voice’. My untiring passion to write would, I decided, remain a hobby directed at nothing more than familial amusement.
And then one day I lost a friend – a little, disease-damaged woman named Bindra – and felt compelled to chronicle our history.
Three months later, I had written In the Shadow of Crows.
My niece was the first to review my work and assert it worthy of a wider readership. Encouraged, I scoured the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, underlined names, scribbled down addresses, and began posting out apprehensive letters. In a matter of weeks, I had the offer of a contract – but on the condition that I removed Bindra from the tale.
“After all,” they asserted, “leprosy is such a downer.”
My fourth submission found me sharing a tagine in North London with an enthusiastic new agent and an invitation to join her list. Within months I was signed to Reportage Press, with part of their profits contracted to projects I co-run amongst the ostracised people with whom Bindra lived.
In the Shadow of Crows is, therefore, not merely the fulfilment of an adolescent dream, but the legacy of one extraordinary woman of that vast underclass in India who come and go without leaving any bureaucratic evidence of their lives, but whose stories and wisdom merit remembrance.
May its telling do justice to her memory.
(And you can buy a copy here!)