Is it wrong to spend $70 or $80 on books for fascination brought on by having written one little short story? Could I not go to the library, perhaps? Perhaps. But last night Amazon cast its spell on me and kept doing its “readers who ordered this also liked this” magic trick and before I knew it I had ordered four books of collected first-hand accounts of the lives of soldiers, civil servants, families, and children of the British Raj. Four books -- a bit lavish of me!
Here’s how it all began: in the midst of ploughing forward with my novel, I took a few hours to reread a Sunday Scribblings story I wrote last summer, set in Raj-era India, Spicy Little Curses Such As These, about kissing and curses and Hindu Hell. I LOVE it.
But I have long been wanting to spackle the huge holes in my knowledge of British India. The details about regiments of Scots Fusiliers and what sorts of weapons the dacoits weilded; and what is a syce and a khitmutgar and an ayah; and what cocktails were mixed at parties? And is it true that most children were sent home to England to boarding school? And lots of other little things. Did they play cricket yet, or mainly polo? I’m just really suddenly fascinated with that era. Beside me now sit a battered second-hand copy of Famous Tales of India by Kipling; one of Barbara Cleverly’s fun Sandilands Raj mysteries; and a mysterious-ish old yellowy tome called Hindu Religious Customs and Manners. Been a while since I read Passage to India -- maybe I should rummage for that, too.
Quite apart from the India stuff, I read a little about the Battle of the Somme. MY GOD. July 1, 1916, Northern France: the British army suffered 57,270 casualties in one day, of which 19,240 were deaths. IN ONE DAY. Almost a hundred years later, this remains a one-day record. I say again, MY GOD. How can generals bring themselves to send waves and waves of young men to certain death like that? How can there exist a personality type capable of marshalling that scale of death? Do generals have to terminate the functioning of their imaginations, the thing that would make them start putting faces and childhoods and histories to those 19,240 names? It puts me in awe and fear of the flexibility of the human mind, the way it can be made to do the limbo under the basic human default setting of NOT sending thousands of one's own country's sons out to die in the mud. I’m not saying those generals were wrong to do it. Obviously if I just learned about the Battle of the Somme, I don’t know nearly enough about the First World War to judge. I wish I could judge. If I could have my dream super power of time stoppage I would somehow squeeze in a history degree, learn to do research, read more nonfiction, delve in dusty archives for old letters and diaries, and try to gather enough of the past into my head to have some insight into our baffling human ways.
Right now, though, I’ll just wait for my four new books and hopefully learn enough about the Raj that I’ll be compelled to write MORE about it some day. Just think of all the story possibilities! (Oh, but I am proud of myself that I drew the line at ordering these books. I’m only allowed to get them if I actually read the other four!)
[** The quote in the title of this post is by Louisa May Alcott. See it here.]