Author Anita Anand On Uncovering the Gems of History
Anita Anand and William Dalrymple will release their book on the Kohinoor diamond this week. The book has been much awaited by history buffs, and promises to be a delicious account of the controversial diamond.
Anand is also the author of “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary”, which is a fascinating biography of an Indian princess who was part of the Suffragette movement in England.
Anand has been a radio and TV journalist in Britain for over 20 years, and has presented major programmes on the BBC. She speaks to us about how she brings alive historical characters and events, how she manages her two young children and her writing career, and what it was like working with William Dalrymple.
1. You paint such a broad canvas in the book about Sophia Duleep Singh, spanning locations, cultures, talking about tensions between east and west, an Indian girl living as a princess in England who is part of suffragette movement there. How did you pack it all together?
This is so very kind of you to say — I never intended for this to be such a big book. In fact, I never really intended to write a book at all. I am married to a writer — the author Simon Singh — and I have seen first hand what a slog it can be, and I am not usually pre-disposed to working quite so hard!
It all started when I found a picture of Sophia selling a militant newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace. Really my journalistic curiosity got the best of me and I wanted to know more and I pulled on a thread and an avalanche came down on my head.
It was almost as if Sophia was daring me at every turn to dig deeper. She took me to the Court of Lahore and showed me the reign of Ranjit Singh. She took me through the Independence movement and introduced me to people like Lajpat Rai and GK Gokhale.
My parents are Indian and I have a very keen sense of my heritage even though I was born in the UK. Like Sophia, they too are Punjabi — my mother’s people even hailed from Lahore. So in a way her history felt like my history too.
Also, that idea of juggling identities — too English to be Indian, too Indian to be English really resonated with me.
The Suffragette part of her life was simply mesmerizing. I am a political journalist and have long identified myself as a feminist. The suffragette struggle is very close to my heart, and here at the very heart of it was a princess of Punjab. So without meaning to, I ended up looking at a whole sweep of history — over continents. There simply was nothing I could leave out. It was all too good.
2. And what was your research process like when trying to uncover such a multi-faceted story?
This was a passion project which took me 4 years of research and obsession. I am not a historian, so i went about this like the journalist that I am. First I looked at newspapers from the time… from all the colonies. Very quickly two piles built up.
In one, Sophia was a heroine, adored by the British, in the other she was a witch — despised by the mainstream. To understand how this happened, I trawled through archives, both here and in India, both public and private collections. But then the real goldmine presented itself. Through researching all the places where she had lived, I found that there were still people living who had known her. This put flesh on the bones for me. They told me how she walked, talked, laughed. They described how she smelt, it became visceral.
3. What is the most interesting part about Sophia Duleep Singh’s personality?
It was her ability to suffer all that she did but not become bitter. Arguably, the British robbed her of everything — her family, her heritage and her fortune, but unlike her sisters, who grew to hate them and insisted they could never be trusted, Sophia saw the folly of that kind of blind hatred. She saw that white working class women were shouting the same thing as the nationalists in India “Awaaz Do Awaaz Do – Give us a voice. Because of women like her, I have the vote.
4. What draws you to historical non-fiction?
Because it’s often stranger than fiction. I love digging for the truth. In journalism and in writing, it is the same. Non-fiction is all that I read these days and it shines a light on so much that I struggle to understand.
5. How would you describe your writing process?
Oh God! hardly a process at all — I have two very young children. Imagine a juggler on a unicycle riding over lava — that is what the ‘process’ feels like some days.. but a lot of early mornings and intense focus during nap times, as well as a very understanding husband who holds the fort while I go off chasing a lead. It’s not the easiest way to make a living but I love it and I wouldn’t swap any of it for the world.
6. What next for you? Another book?
Working on one as we speak, but i can’t tell you about it yet.
7. You have just finished a project on the Kohinoor diamond with William Dalrymple. How was working on this book different from working on your previous one?
What a joy it is to work with Willi! Writing can be a very very lonely business. Locked away, usually at ungodly hours either with dusty boxes or a blank screen for company. But with Willi, it was like going on an adventure with a pal.
We would constantly prod each other across continents (William was largely in India and I was in the UK) with breathless discoveries, it was exciting. And he is such a good writer. Frustrating too — because what it takes me weeks to grind out, he can do at lightening speed and with such elegance. Really, between you and me, I think he has some kind of superpower. Either that or he’s done some deal with the devil. Either way, it has been an utter joy.