Cauvery Madhavan

Posted by Sue Leonard on Saturday 20th June 2020

Earlier this year, Cauvery Madhavan was reading from her new novel, The Tainted, at Madras University. At dinner afterwards, she was sitting next to a retired professor of English, who asked her what the book was about. Cauvery explained that it told the story of Anglo-Indians, and Irish soldiers in India, and the woman stated that, as an Anglo-Indian herself, she took great offence at the book’s title.

“I was just flabbergasted,” says Cauvery, over the phone from her home in Kildare. “I passed her the book, and said, ‘please, please, just read it!’ And I gave her the number of my in-laws, where I was staying.”

A week later the professor rang, inviting Cauvery to lunch. She was nervous – wondering what to expect, but to her relief, the professor absolutely loved the book.

“She said, ‘I have never read a book that does justice to us as this book does.’ And she went through the book, where she had made all these notations, saying, ‘you got that right,’ or ‘you’re spot on.’ I can’t tell you,” says Cauvery, “It was such a moment of pride; it was the highest praise I have ever got.”

An Indian who has lived in Ireland since 1987, Cauvery has always had an affinity with Anglo-Indians. She knew many of them at school, and always loved their culture and their food. But she well remembers how society sometimes viewed them.

“As a child, I remember hearing my father say that as a young officer in the army you were never allowed to take a half Indian girl into the officer’s mess. There was this stigma. They were considered loose women just because they liked to wear a dress, might have had a drink, and liked to dance.”

Back in 2001, though, when Cauvery first conceived the idea for her third novel, she had no intention of   writing about Anglo-Indians.

“The idea came when I was at an Indian Embassy function, on the fringe of a conversation,” she says. “Someone made this throwaway remark about the Indian flag being inspired by the Irish tricolour.”

This stems, she explains, from a time when Irish soldiers mutinied. And the mutineers bought silk from the bizarre and replaced the Union Jack with the Irish Flag.

“I was amazed! I had never heard of the mutiny. I didn’t even know there was an Irish regiment in India at the time. I came away and looked it up, and I knew at once that there was a story there.

“The mutineers had been very badly treated when they came back to Ireland. I started out with that story, but within a few chapters I realised that the real story lay with the children those men had fathered and left behind. The mutiny is not a huge part of the book – it’s essentially the aftermath.”

The Tainted opens in 1920 in a small town in south-east India, when the Royal Irish Kildare Rangers were stationed there. News of the Black and Tan’s atrocities back in Ireland sparks the mutiny.

Private Michael Flaherty has, meanwhile, become entangled with his Commander in Chief’s Anglo-Indian maid. What will become of her afterwards? The reckoning arrives some 60 years later with the arrival of Colonel Aylmer’s grandson, Richard – when a love triangle ensues.

It’s a gorgeous read, combining history with humanity, and it wears its prodigious research lightly. Just how did Cauvery achieve that?

“It was a complete obsession for a number of years,” she says. “Over a period of seven years I went to India for at least three months each year, and I immersed myself in that period. I went to London to the British Museum and to military museums, and I spent a fortune on antiquarian books. I read accounts of ordinary soldiers; of nurses, and Viceroy’s wives and sisters – a lot of them wrote books. And I watched documentaries.”

She started writing the book in 2005, finished a draft two years later, and then went back to edit it. Then life intervened. The publishers of her first two books, Paddy Indian and The Uncoupling, went down with the recession.

“And I thought, who will publish me now?”

Then, in 2009, aged 47, Cauvery suffered a stroke – losing her speech and becoming completely paralysed. By some miracle, she made a complete recovery in a matter of weeks, but it made her look at her life and make some changes. She lost weight – took up golf, and went to Everest Base Camp. Meanwhile, the book took a back seat.

She went back to it, finally, in 2015. And three years later, she showed it to the author Mary Stanley, asking for an assessment.

“By then I’d lost all my confidence, but she came back and said, ‘this is amazing. I can’t believe it’s not been published.’  She gave me a through critique and suggested I added some things.  I did, then I sent it off.”

When, at 24, Cauvery left India, she had no thoughts of becoming a writer. She was joining her husband in Sligo, where he was working as a junior doctor, and her friends assumed she’d suffer from culture shock in the free west. The reality was rather different.

“My husband asked me to bring condoms. He said they were only available on prescription. That was a shock. I arrived, and found it so conservative compared to India, but I loved it! I came from a city of nine million to a town of just 15,000, and the countryside was amazing. There were only five Asian families, but the friendliness was astounding. You’d go into a pub and a drink would come. You wouldn’t know who it was from – someone had sent it ‘for the doctor.’”

They spent time in England after this – living in Norwich, and the Lake District, and followed this with some time in Limerick, before her husband was appointed a consultant, and the couple settled in Kildare. They’ve been living there, with their three children for the past twenty years. And it’s been the happiest time ever.

The couple stayed in Ireland, partly because the pressure on children is so great in India.

“If you don’t study hard and become a doctor there, you are a failure,” she says. “And we wanted our children to do what they wanted.”

The eldest, now 29, studied to be a chef – but when she’d finished training decided to switch careers and study medicine. Their son, 27, took a degree in music and then decided to train as a vet. Only the third decided on medicine from the start.

“We let them choose what they wanted, and then they came back to this!” says Cauvery, aware of the irony.

She herself, didn’t work in Ireland until they arrived in County Kildare.

“Not having a job was heaven!” she says, remembering back to those Sligo days. “I came from a pressure job as a junior copywriter, and before that, as a trainee, and you were always working against a deadline. I didn’t feel like going back to work for a long time.

“By the time we arrived in Kildare, I’d been saying for some time, ‘if only I could write, and one day my husband said, ‘I’m fed up with listening to you saying, ‘if only.’ I’m going to take two weeks off work and you’re going to go off and write a book.’ I headed off to the Anam Cara retreat in West Cork and started writing.”

The resulting book, Paddy Indian was published to great acclaim in 2000 – to be followed by the Uncoupling two years later. And meanwhile Cauvery wrote some journalism, including a column for the Evening Herald which she penned for seven years.

The Tainted has received outstanding early reviews much to Cauvery’s delight. As for her youngest daughter – she is just relieved that the book has finally been published.

“She was just two years old when I started it. She said, ‘God, I’ve heard about this my whole life, will you please just publish it!’

The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan. Published by Hope Road. €11.45.


Published in The Irish Examiner on 20th June 

© Sue J Leonard. 2020.

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