India, 1857. Do not be misled by the gentle opening scene where Lady Blackstock entertains officers’ wives. They are about to be overwhelmed by one of the most vicious, hate-filled episodes in the history of the British Empire.
The East India Company dominates the sub-continent. In London an official hears Azimullah Khan’s submission on behalf of Nana Saheb. As an adopted son of the deceased Maharajah of Bithur, the Nana is refused his inheritance. The wily Azimullah turns to more than king-making. The Company’s new rifles’ cartridge cases allegedly greased with the animal fat forbidden to Muslims also means instant loss of caste for Hindus. This is the focus. Backed up by authentic records Julian Rathbone offers his own strong authorial voice plus a modicum of hindsight revealing the complexities behind the tragedy.
The word is sent, the date is set for mutiny amongst the highly trained Indian troops. Once started, the natives have everything to lose, and the British face loss of Empire in the ensuing explosion of merciless atrocity on all sides.
From many memorable characters, outstanding are the indomitable Ranee Lakshmi Bai with her female warriors; beautiful Eurasian Uma Blackstock, who finds her true place in India; dashing Lt William Hodson of Hodson’s horse, with his migraine and understandably foul temper; and unshakeable Sir Colin Campbell, who despises showy gallantry. In extremity the spoilt memsahibs command admiration. But above all, it is the Ayah Lavanya, young, inexperienced and valiant, who leads her little band of British infants through unremitting terror and threat of starvation.
Cawnpore, Lucknow: the names resonate after a hundred and fifty years. This thrilling book is very easy to read. Rathbone has thrown himself a challenge and taken it up with relish. (Ed. note – Julian Rathbone died on 28 February 2008.)