First-time author Jane Gill reveals the Indian inspirations behind her true-story novel, Dance with Fireflies, from the brouhaha of 1940s Bombay to her remarkable Anglo-Indian ancestors, whose lives were changed forever by the outbreak of war. Hers is quite a story, as you’re about to find out.
Hi Jane. First off, could you summarise Dance with Fireflies for us?
It’s a true story based on the life of my Anglo-Indian grandmother Phyllis, whose world is turned upside down by the Second World War. When her husband Arthur, a lance corporal in the British Army, is called home to England, Phyllis, full of hope and expectation, goes along too. Unfortunately the excitement of living in the motherland is quashed by her intolerant mother-in-law, Elizabeth, who’s quite the battle-axe. Things take a turn for the worse when Arthur is posted overseas, and Phyllis, longing for India, is forced to make some life-changing decisions.
It sounds like the novel is as much about places as relationships?
Absolutely. The settings are fundamental both to the book’s mood and in defining the era it’s set in. Varanasi, or Benares as it was back then, is where the real-life protagonist grew up – specifically in a colonial-style bungalow in the cantonment area. Phyllis paints a wonderful picture of it in her letters, on which the book is based – from the terracotta jasmine-scented flower pots on the veranda to eating jalebis on the banks of the Ganges. Then there’s the mayhem of 1940s Bombay, where turmeric-coloured smog cloaked the city at dusk, and from where Phyllis waved goodbye to India, not knowing if she would return.
Take me back! So, this is your first book. What inspired you to write it?
First and foremost, the fascinating lives of my recent ancestors and the wonderful places they resided. My mum Maureen, Phyllis’s daughter, was a huge influence, too. Her childhood, part of which is naturally featured in the book, was fascinating – by age 11 she had already lived in Calcutta, Karachi, Benares and Nainital, an impossibly pretty Himalayan hill station.
Could this be a story for another novel?
Funny you should say that; I’m in the middle of the sequel! I won’t give too much away, but the story begins in Benares, where relationship conflicts culminate with a scandalous family secret being revealed. This coincides with the Partition of India, which occurs while Phyllis is in Karachi – suddenly a part of Pakistan – and Maureen is miles away in Nainital.
What was Nainital like back then?
It was – and still is – a gentle, spiritual town, spread around a teardrop-shaped lake high up in the Himalayan foothills. The British turned it into a quaint hill station with a mall, English outfitters and little shops. From April its population swelled as people escaped the heat of the plains below, which sparked the opening of restaurants and the hosting of fancy dress, garden and tennis parties. It was a very sociable place.
Do you think hill stations have the same charm today?
To an extent, yes. Generally speaking, I think they’re more a curiosity nowadays, but the colonial charm of the buildings remains, as do the spectacular mountain views.
Supposing you were heading back to India. Where would you go?
I’d love to visit Assam’s national parks, tea plantations and Buddhist temples, and perhaps take a cruise along the Brahmaputra River. It seems like a part of the world that’s undiscovered.
I’m sure we could sort something out for you! Before we do, a final question: who’s your biggest influence in the literary world?
I greatly admire Andrea Levy. There are actually a few parallels between Small Island and Dance with Fireflies, and not just their respective plots. Like Levy, I wrote my first novel relatively late – I’d always flirted with writing, but after reading Small Island I decided then and there to pen a book based on my own ancestors. I never looked back!
Jane Gill recently appeared at the 2015 Kumaon Literary Festival in Nainital. Her second novel, she tells us, is well underway.