Historian’s reviews of Belonging

Umi Sinha tells an ‘edge of seat’ story. Her research is impeccable and the way that she overlays historical events with fiction is impressive.  This is the story of life in India at a time when deeply entrenched British cultural prejudices – mostly brought out from the UK after the 1857 Indian Mutiny – dominated every facet of life as a colonial and ended up constantly ruining the lives of those who actually stood to gain the most from the acquisition of empire.”
Lt Col (Retd) FMG de Planta de Wildenberg of 
Cassino Battlefield Tours

“I was … fascinated by your fictional reconstruction of the kind of source that I use a great deal in my work on the First World War: correspondence and diaries are such wonderful revelations about the inter-subjectivity of history and when one can find ways (as a historian) to read enough of them, one can (cautiously) begin to see patterns and make generalisations.”
John Horne, MRIA, Emeritus Fellow, former Professor of Modern European History, Trinity College Dublin, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, University of Oxford (2016-17) and editor of: A Companion to World War I (Wiley Blackwell Companions to World History)

Historical Background

Set in India and Sussex between 1855 and 1919, Belonging covers the story of three generations of a British colonial family in India. It begins just before the outbreak of The Indian Mutiny (as it’s known in Britain) or The War of Independence (as it’s known in India) when the whole of North India rose in rebellion against British rule, and ends just after the First World War, when around 1.5 million Indians volunteered to fight on the British side. Through the personal stories of the protagonists, the novel explores themes of racism and feminism and examines the effect of colonial oppression on both the oppressors and the oppressed.

The Indian Revolt of 1857

The Indian Mutiny, as it was known to the British, although the uprising was not confined to the army, is known as The Indian War of Indepenence in India.. One of the famous leaders of the revolt was the Rani of Jhansi, who to this day remains a great heroine in India. Belonging covers the events that took place at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), the horror of which gave rise among the British to the saying, ‘Remember Cawnpore!’ as  a watchword against native treachery. Here is a Youtube documentary  about the events at Cawnpore.

The Indian Army in the First World War

The novel also covers parts of the Suffragette movement and the First World War, in particular the part played by Indian soldiers on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia. A scene in the novel is set in the Indian Hospital in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, where the soldiers were nursed in the disused royal palace. Brighton Museums have an Indian Hospital Gallery that gives the history of the facility that was established in the Royal Pavilion in the First World War.

There is also a blue plaque on the India Gate in memory of Mir Dast,  who was awarded the Victoria Cross while at the hospital. This is an extract from his entry on Wikipedia:
“On 26 April 1915 at Ypres, Belgium, Jemadar Mir Dast led his platoon with great bravery during the attack, and afterwards collected various parties of the regiment (when no British officers were left) and kept them under his command until the retirement was ordered. He also displayed great courage that day when he risked his life to carry eight wounded British and Indian officers to safety while exposed to very heavy fire.” Astonishingly, Mir Dast’s brother, Mir Mast, had defected to the Germans, who eventually awarded him the Iron Cross. The brothers fought on different sides for the rest of the war. You can read the whole story here on the Brighton Museum website. You can also take a stunning virtual tour of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and imagine what these soldiers must have felt when they woke up to find themselves in the midst of its dreamlike oriental decor. It was said that some thought they had died and gone to Paradise.

Here is a link to a film shot in 2010 at the Chattri above Brighton, which was built on the site where the bodies of Sikhs and Hindus who died at the Indian hospital were cremated. In the years since it started, back in 2002, the ceremony has grown from a handful of local Sikhs and other residents paying informal respects to a full blown ceremony with the Indian High Commissioner, representatives of the British Legion and British Army, the Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, the Mayors of Brighton & Hove and neighbouring towns and the Sheriff of Lewes, and hundreds of attendees, including coachloads of Sikhs from Southall. More information on The Chattri Memorial Group.

The Mesopotamian Campaign, dubbed by British soldiers on the Western Front ‘The Mesopotamian Picnic’, was in reality a terrible campaign.
“Like Gallipoli, conditions in Mesopotamia defy description. Extremes of temperature (120 degrees F was common); arid desert and regular flooding; flies, mosquitoes and other vermin: all led to appalling levels of sickness and death through disease. Under these incredible conditions, units fell short of officers and men, and all too often the reinforcements were half-trained and ill-equipped. Medical arrangements were quite shocking, with wounded men spending up to two weeks on boats before reaching any kind of hospital. These factors, plus of course the unexpectedly determined Turkish resistance, contributed to high casualty rates.”

The above extract was taken from this site.

  • 11012 killed
  • 3985 died of wounds
  • 12678 died of sickness
  • 13492 missing and prisoners (9000 at Kut)
  • 51836 wounded

Data taken from “Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire” (London: HMSO, 1920).

Suffragettes & Women in War

Sophia Duleep Singh

There has been some controversy about the recent filmSuffragetteabout the focus being solely on white middle-class women.  The New Statesman examines the issue. I didn’t find out until after I’d written Belonging about Sophia Duleep Singh, the daughter of the deposed Prince Duleep Singh of Punjab, who was a prominent suffragette. Many women were also involved in the First World War as nurses, and VADs (voluntary nurses), working in the munitions factories, and taking over male jobs like driving buses in Britain, and ambulances on the Western Front. The Virago Book of Women and the Great War by Joyce Marlow tells their story.