About the writing of Shadow of the Moon

By M M Kaye (1979)

Thinking back, I cannot remember a time when I did not know a great deal about the Indian Mutiny.  It was part of my childhood, because Curzon House, where we lived during the cold weather, was no distance at all from the most famous of the four main gateways into the old walled city of Delhi - The Kashmir Gate - while in the back garden stood one of the brick and stone plinths that had been erected to mark the sites of siege batteries used in the final assault on Delhi in the autumn of 1857.  The Mali (gardener) used this one as a convenient place to stack his flower pots, watering cans and boxes of seedlings, but I and my sister, Betty, knew that it didn’t belong to him but to us - because our name was cut into the stone. This particular battery had, in fact, been commanded by Major (later, General) Edward Kaye, brother of Sir John Kaye and a first cousin of our grandfather’s, William Kaye - all three of whom had been educated at the east India Company’s College, Addiscombe - where Alex Randall, the fictional hero of SHADOW OF THE MOON had also been educated.  (I still have my Grandfather’s passing out certificate from Addiscombe.)

On the opposite side of Curzon House, in the garden of what was, in our day, the Old Delhi Club, (it is now a college) stood a second siege battery and beyond the wall that bounded our gardens, just behind the Kaye Battery, lay the Mutiny cemetery in which many of the dead who died during the recapture of the city were buried - among them General John Nicholson, the ‘Hero of Delhi’.  On the far side of the cemetery were the Nicholson Gardens in which, in those days, stood a statue of Nicholson; sword in hand and facing the Kashmir Gate on the spot where he had been mortally wounded while leading an assault.  And directly opposite the entrance to Curzon House was the Kudsia Bagh of which I have written in Far Pavilions.

The road on which Curzon House stood was the one that leads directly from the Kashmir Gate to the Ridge of Delhi and the Flagstaff Tower in which the women and children from the cantonments behind the Ridge took refuge on the day that the mutiny broke out in Delhi: in the jungle nearby are the graves of the five officers, whose bodies were sent to the Tower on the same day, flung one on top of the other into bullock-carts. (see Far Pavilions)

All these places were our familiar playing grounds when our Ayah would take us for our morning and evening walks; and since we spoke Hindustani - the lingua franca of half India - with greater ease and fluency than our mother-tongue - the tales told of the ‘Black Year’ by our numerous friends and acquaintances in and around the city were naturally all from the Indian viewpoint, and - as often as not - told to us either by people who could actually remember the Mutiny, or who had learned about it at first hand from parents or relatives who had fought in it.  For in those days, the Mutiny was nor further away than the First World War is to many people nowadays - and there are any number of people who remember that one still around!

These Mutiny Tales became my favourite stories.  Largely because I could see and walk all over the places where the things I was told had actually happened (and to Ghulam Nader’s father and Hira Lal’s uncle) - which made them far more intriguing than anything written by Hans Andersen or the Brothers’ Grimm.  I revelled in them, and I can still remember the thrill of discovering, when on a visit to Lucknow, that the old soldier in charge of the Cemetery in the Residency Grounds, where Sir Henry Lawrence and all those who had died during the Siege of the  Residency had been buried, had himself been a member of the garrison.  He had been a drummer-boy at the time.

Many years later, returning to India after what seemed like an eternity of boarding school in England, I was staying with a friend in Rajputana State, and one evening, exploring a number of empty disused outhouses behind the Residency (now Lucknow), I came across a collection of old books that looked like a large block of mud, because white ants had built tunnels all over them.  I scraped off the dried mud and carefully separated the books and discovered that they were a sort of Hansard of the Mutiny trials.  Everything was there - written evidence in Hindi or Urdu translated on the opposite pages - verbal evidence reported in full, and so on.  In short, the lot.  (If I had the sense of a white ant, I’d have pinched them.)

I read it all, each book, from cover to cover and I thought: ‘Gosh, what a marvellous story it would make!’  Though even then it didn’t occur to me to write the story myself.  What really triggered that off was another visit to Lucknow, where the then Governor showed me an unpublished letter from the Government House archives.  It had been written by a girl who had been caught up in the Mutiny and survived to write this letter to her parents in England.  (Her brother, captured with her by mutineers, had been shot).  The letter suggested the basis of a plot and I made use of it when I came to write Shadow many years later.

Shadow of the Moon like The Far Pavilions contains far more truth than fiction.  As in Pavilions, I did not need to invent, for it was all handed to me on a plate.  All that was needed was to invent a hero and heroine and a handful of other characters, to do the things that real people had done.  And to stretch India a bit in order to fit in an imaginary state on the border of Oudh - Lunjore’.

Since everything I had read, heard and learned about the Mutiny suggested that the seeds for it had been sown long before the actual outbreak, I decided to make it the story of two women, Sabrina, who lives in India in the period just before the First Afghan War and her daughter, who sees the long delayed Mutiny explode.

Shadow has been called a ‘Mutiny’ novel: and of course it is.  But the actual outbreak comes very late in the book, because it always seemed to me that it was something that crept forward very slowly, getting closer and closer until it suddenly exploded with a bang, and then, after a brief and violent interval, burned itself out and allowed the ashes to cool and blow away.  But India can never be quite the same again for anyone, for the prophecy of the Hundred Years - that the Rule of the Company would end 100 years after The Battle of Plessey - came true.  The Crown took over from the Company (The East India Company) and less than 80 years later India gained her independence and part of her territory became Pakistan.  The Mutiny had marked the beginning of the end of the Raj.