Before I came across the true story on which India Dark is based I knew very little about India and had never been there. Although I’m a fifth generation Australian, I grew up as a total USA/Europhile. With the exception of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ and ‘Kim’, I read nothing much about India until Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in the 1980s.
I could never have written India Dark without spending time in India. I was lucky enough to score an Asialink Literature residency at the University of Madras in South India in 2007.
In total, I spent just over four months on the Subcontinent, three of them based in Chennai (which was called Madras in the colonial era). Without that experience, I wouldn’t have been able to wrap my brain around what my characters went through. I wouldn’t have found the vocabulary to describe the heat, the colour, the scents and sights, the turmoil and richness of India.
From 2005, I started to travel around southeast Asia too, taking notes and trying to envision my characters in those settings. I chose the destinations that are featured in the novel by retracing the route that the original theatre troupe followed. I travelled by train as much as possible. In a couple of instances, it was unclear exactly where the original troupe had visited so I made a few educated guesses as to what their itinerary might have been, based on where other Australian and British magicians and musicians had performed in the early 20th century.
India in 1910 was a very different place to modern India. Madras had less than half a million people back then and now there are more than 8,000,000 living there and I suspect it’s a lot more vibrant now than it was in colonial times. But beneath the layers, the old India is still there too. A lot of the fantastic architecture has survived in tact, including the High Court of Madras. I spent days wandering around the courts, just taking in the atmosphere and trying to imagine what it would be like to be 13 years old and waiting to hear the outcome of a trial on which your future depended.
A lot of people describe India as confronting but I like to think of it more as all-encompassing. Despite the changes of a century, I think it must have felt a little like that for the children who travelled there in 1910. For a few months, India was their home and it seeped into their skins. Every place we visit leaves its mark on us, even if we take nothing away from it but memories.