Interview: Shrabani Basu, author, The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer
London-based author, journalist and historian Shrabani Basu explores the lives of the forgotten figures of history — from Noor Inayat Khan, a British spy in the Second World War (Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Roli Books, 2006) and Abdul Karim, a man who mattered most in the life of Queen Victoria (Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, 2010) to the Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War (For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18, 2015). Even as Basu’s definitive biography of Noor Inayat, the first female wireless operator sent into occupied France in 1943, is all set to be made into a TV series, with Freida Pinto essaying her role, she is out with a new book, The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the Case of the Foreigner in the English Village (Bloomsbury India), which was released this month. Set in 1903 in a bleak mining village in the Midlands, The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer is the story of Arthur Conan Doyle donning the hat of his fictional hero Sherlock Holmes to personally investigate the case of a young Indian lawyer, George Edalji, who was falsely accused and imprisoned for mutilating horses.
Excerpts from an interview:
The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer, like your previous three other books, draws on a forgotten chapter of history, set against the backdrop of racism and Empire. What is it about the forgotten figures of history that fascinates you?I guess I’m a very curious journalist. I’ve always been drawn to finding unusual stories. I really enjoy uncovering figures from history that have played an important role in their time, but have been forgotten over the years. I feel there is an important story to tell.As I have lived half my life in India and half in the UK, it is the stories of India and Britain that interest me most. After all, there is over 200 years of history there.
What had struck you the most about the “remarkable life of the unremarkable George Edalji”, the young Parsee lawyer, who was falsely accused and imprisoned for mutilating horses and got a pardon only after Arthur Conan Doyle came to his defence and ran a campaign in his favour?I’ve always been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. So, when I knew that the only case personally investigated by the famous writer was that of an Indian, I was fascinated. To me, it was a story crying out to be told. Conan Doyle had himself written about the case, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to find out the background of the Edalji family, what life was like for them as the only Indian family in an English village, how the parishioners reacted to their Indian vicar. The bizarre and gruesome nature of the crime made it all the more fascinating. Who can resist a dark crime in a small English village, especially when Sherlock Holmes himself comes to solve it? It took five years to research the story and I found shocking new material in the police files.
What stage of research were you at when Julian Barnes’s novel based on the same case, Arthur and George (2005), came out. What was your reading of the novel?I was always aware of George Edalji and wanted to write about him one day. I was working on Victoria & Abdul when Julian Barnes published his novel, Arthur & George. It was a work of fiction, but he did cover the basic facts of the case. So, I just put my idea on hold. It was in 2015 that I heard that a batch of letters between Arthur Conan Doyle and the head of Staffordshire police were coming up for auction. To me, it was a sign. I was sure there would be new material and I could finally write George Edalji’s true story. I traced the documents after the auction and then spent the next five years piecing together the story from different archives. It took me on the trail of Conan Doyle as he uncovered the story, and it was full of surprises. This is the first time that this story is being revealed.
The book is a tremendously gripping read and unravels like a whodunit. How did you go about giving the book its structure — alternating between the disparate worlds of George and Arthur Conan Doyle, interweaving the various stages of “the human tragedy” over five decades and through two World Wars and the end of Empire, with the twists in the tale, the role of the press, et al, thrown in?Once the research is over, you have to go through all the material and create a narrative. This is sometimes the most difficult phase for me, as far too often, I end up with too much archival material. Capturing the drama is the fun bit: the crime, the trial, the investigation. I use a lot of newspaper reports of the time to get a feel of the events. I always like to follow through and see what happens to the characters after the main event. What happens in the world around them? What momentous world events take place, and how does it affect them?
A delightful aspect of the book is the way you tell the story by dwelling on the details, which make the story rich, vivid and poignant. How do you arrive at these details? How do you work at your narrative arc, especially considering the tremendous material you work with? I love the little details in a story. Sometimes the anecdotes make all the difference. In Victoria & Abdul, I wrote about how Queen Victoria really wanted to taste a mango but could never get one, as it did not survive the long sea journey. I was told the story by none other than Pamela Mountbatten whose grandmother was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. I loved this little nugget. Especially as now in London, we get to eat the Alphonso mangoes from Mumbai, as the first crop is exported. I felt quite sorry for Queen Victoria and the fact that she could not taste a mango.I loved the fact that Abdul Karim would go to worship at the Woking Mosque, and people from across the country would come to get a glimpse of him. I discovered this fact in a local newspaper of the day that was covering his visit. I think it is the little details that bring a story alive. Sometimes it takes me two weeks going through newspaper archives, and then I will find a small item that brings out a delightful detail. It is the same in all my books.
Though there was no closure in the George Edalji case, did it help in the trials of people of colour in England? The George Edalji case led to the Criminal Appeals Act by which convicted prisoners could appeal against a sentence. Previous to that, they had no legal recourse and could only petition the Home Office.
Even though the case got highlighted with the involvement of Doyle, it failed to get any compensation for Edalji, who died in a state of semi-poverty. Why do you think this case was reduced to be a mere footnote in history? What did the absence of the jury profile mean for the later investigation into the case?Unlike the Dreyfus Affair in France, the Edalji case — though famous at the time — was soon forgotten. The Home Office refused to reopen the case and Edalji never got any compensation. Ultimately, the powers that be had no time for him.
Did you discover anything that surprised you?I was shocked by what I found in the police files. They revealed that the head of Staffordshire police, George Anson, was so angry when Arthur Conan Doyle began his investigation, that he actually laid a false trail for him. He wasted police time and money planting false evidence. He tried everything he could to trip up Conan Doyle and discredit him in front of the Home Office. The clash between Conan Doyle and Anson is itself quite a story. Your book, Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, is all set to be adapted for a series. You are a consultant for the series, working alongside screenwriter Olivia Hetreed and director Anand Tucker. Tell us about the process of adapting the book for the series.The first stage is the screenplay. I’ve had many conversations for over a year with the producer Claire Ingham and Olivia Hetreed as they worked on the outline and the script. As a consultant, I’ve explained the background of Noor’s family, her work as a writer and a musician, plus her work as a secret agent. I’ve had a look at the first draft written by Olivia and it is all very exciting.
There have been talks around the book being optioned for a film for a while now and even Shyam Benegal had announced to adapt your book for a film on her life. Could you tell us about those options?The book has been optioned several times since it was published in 2006. Shyam Benegal did want to make the film at one stage, but it did not work out. It then went through an option with other producers. But I didn’t like the script and did not renew the rights. I was then approached for turning it into a television series. So this is where we are at the moment. It takes a long time, and the one thing you need is patience. The important thing is that it has to be done right. Noor’s story is very close to my heart. I have worked continuously to preserve her memory by campaigning for her Memorial and a Blue Plaque, all of which we have achieved. She is the first Indian woman to have a Memorial in a public space in Britain and the first to get a Blue Plaque.
Your fascinating book on her came out in 2006. What brought you to Noor’s story?My first introduction to Noor was a newspaper article on the contribution of Indians to the Second World War, which was published in one of the British papers for the 50th anniversary of VE day. That was in 1995! It had a small passport size photo of Noor and a caption describing her as a wireless operator who was posthumously awarded the George Cross. As a woman, I was drawn to this photograph, and immediately wanted to know more. I wanted to know how an Indian woman reached the heart of the war in Europe. Was she a Mata Hari figure? But the serious research started in 2003 when her secret service files were declassified by the British Home Office. I was the first person to open those files in the archives and I could see her story emerging before my eyes.
You write in the introduction to the book how Noor was no Mata Hari — she was an unlikely spy and a far cry from any spy novel prototype. Where do you think she derived her valour and fortitude?I think it came from her family background. Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, would tell her brother and her that they had the blood of Tipu Sultan in their veins. She was always motivated by stories of bravery and sacrifice and her childhood heroines included Joan of Arc and the Rani of Jhansi. Though she was delicate and dreamy, there was a steely side to Noor and a strength of character. She was also quite stubborn. Once she had made up her mind to do something, nothing could stop her. Her father’s teachings of loyalty, truthfulness and chivalry were all going to play a role in her future.
You also write how Noor had been romanticised in earlier accounts, with so much information about her falling in the realm of ‘pure fantasy’. How different was Jean Overton Fuller’s Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan? What did you wish to add in your own account of her life?I found there was a lot of inaccurate information about Noor in the public domain. There was an attempt to exoticise her life. She was described as going on tiger hunts in India, which was really a load of nonsense. Jean was a friend of Noor’s, so her account was valuable, but again there were many inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Jean did not have access to the secret service files, so there are big gaps in her book which was written in the early 1950s.As a journalist, I wanted the truth. I was the first person to read Noor’s personal files. I also read the files of all the agents who worked with her, and pieced together the crucial work that she did in Paris. Her files had her training records and messages from the field, as well as the interrogations of the German officers after the war which helped trace the fatal road to her death in a bleak concentration camp. I also had long discussions with Noor’s family, interviewed her brothers and her cousin, her friends and colleagues. All of this helped to build the narrative. I wanted to know what motivated Noor, what sort of agent she was, her faults and her frailties as well as her strength and courage.
“In an area like the secret service there will always be gaps which cannot be filled. Meetings are held in secret and hardly any records kept,” you write. What were some of the challenges in piecing together Noor’s story?There were so many times that I would come up against a dead end. I would wish the dead could speak. I wrote letters to so many people in France. I received replies to some and nothing from others. Most of the agents who had worked with Noor had been killed, so it wasn’t easy. But I did manage to contact some of the descendants of the agents who had worked with her, and through all the accounts managed to reconstruct the story. It was like trying to complete a giant jigsaw puzzle.
In today’s world when global discourse continues to circle around nationalism, race and identity, how does Noor’s story continue to be relevant?I think it is more important than ever to remember the sacrifice made by a young woman of Indian origin in the fight against Fascism.Neo-Fascism is raising its ugly head around the world. All of us saw crowds wearing Camp Auschwitz T-shirts storming the Capitol building in Washington. It was a moment of chilling horror. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia continue to be on the rise. Right-wing movements continue to gain currency. Over 75 years ago, Noor Inayat Khan sacrificed her life to fight these forces.Many in the western world want to close their doors to refugees. They need to remember that Noor came to Britain as a refugee from France and volunteered for the war effort. The war was won because of sacrifices made by people like her. She represents the two and half million Indian soldiers who fought for the Allies in the Second World War. The war was won on the shoulders of these people. We need their stories to be part of the narrative and to enter the curriculum.Noor went down screaming “Liberte!” Today, we also need to remember the values she stood for: non-violence, religious tolerance and universal peace.
Similarly, do you see the story of George Edalji speaking to our times? Absolutely. I was struck by how the events of over a hundred years ago could be happening in Britain today and elsewhere in the world. The fear of the foreigner, race prejudice, hate mail all exist even today.
Nawaid Anjum is an independent journalist, translator and poet. He lives in New Delhi.