Where does that leave you in terms of future books – would you prefer to pursue History or Travel?
Well, I really enjoyed writing White Mughals, and I'm writing a kind of sequel, a sequel only in this sense – all the characters in my book are dead by the end, so the book I'm writing now is set in the period that immediately follows on from White Mughals. I'm very interested, intrigued in how this whole world exists. You have in 1780 a situation where one in three British men in India is leaving everything to a long-term monogamous Indian wife. By 1840 virtually no property was being left legally at all, so you're moving from this degree of multiculturalism far greater than anything we possibly have had in the 21st century, to a type of complete Apartheid which is an absolutely radical social and political change. How did that happen? Why do you have this very fast separation of the races, and the growth of this naked racist Victorian imperialism? That's the overarching theme.
The narrative revolves particularly around the last Moghul emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who creates this wonderful renaissance at the very end of Moghul rule, and who lived to his old age to see that destroyed when the Indians rose up in mutiny against the British and were crushed horribly, in what remains one of the great unwritten genocides of the British Empire. People are aware now of the destruction of the Aborigine peoples of Australia and Tasmania, the Irish potato famine is well documented; this is an imperial horror story of a similar scale, when the British surround and destroy Delhi. It's never been written up completely for example how the British track down, hunt and kill every last Moghul prince they can find.
One of the successes I've had with White Mughals, I think, was that it pleased everyone – it pleased many British readers to find that they had ancestors who weren't racist bigots, but rather were somewhat liberal, multi-cultural figures who could write letters that would find their place in the Guardian today, and, at the same time Indians found, to their surprise, that the British liked and admired their culture and wanted to be part of it. So it flatters everyone.
The next book though I'm afraid is going to be unflattering to everyone. The Indians are politically confused, disunited, and make a complete hash of the uprising, and the British respond in a vengeful, nasty, racist genocidal fashion, so nobody comes out of it well at the end. So it may be a less popular book (Laughs!)
You mention Genocide. Is there a need for the British to recognise events such as these, as Genocide?
I think the British are pretty good these days – at recognising the sins of their Victorian forbearers. There is now a reactionary school, led by people like Neil Ferguson, coming back and saying actually the empire wasn't that bad, but in general I think the orthodoxy in Britain is that the empire was something that trampled on people's rights worldwide and surpressed people down the barrel of a gun for three hundred years. There's no embarrassment about saying that in Britain, as opposed to Turkey for example, which still doesn't recognise the Armenians existed, let alone that they massacred them.
But, at the same time, on a political level there's never been a recognition. Is political recognition of these events important?
Hmm. I think more important than that, because usually a recognition like that is something stage managed and for the benefit of politicians, is a recognition amongst the public, amongst academics, publishers. I don't think anyone could accuse the British of having covered up the ills and the wrongs of the Empire. Just to make the straight comparison to Turkey, there's no question of anyone being blocked publishing or being given bad reviews, or losing academic jobs, or indeed ending up in prison, for making a bleak assessment of British imperial policy. In Turkey, the editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica got locked up for the acknowledgement of the existence of the Armenian Cilician kingdom from the 12th and 13th Centuries.
The accession of Cyprus into the EU, after the failed referendum, brings to mind anew the suggestion of Turkey eventually joining the EU – what would you think of that?
It's a difficult question that, and it's one to which I change my opinions. One of the things is that if Turkey wants to be part of the European Union, it would have to clean up its human rights record. I used to think that it would just be foolish to admit Turkey, as it's not in any sense European. As I now see the growing misunderstandings between East and West, I'm less sure, and I think there could be many positive aspects of welcoming in Turkey to the EU. If Turkey wants to join. To spurn Turkey at this stage might be very dangerous gesture.