Karna’s Wheel has its subtexts, quite a few in fact. I suppose this makes it more difficult but also more interesting to write — and (hopefully) to read. Here’s a few words on one of them …
What do you do if you’re not like everybody else? What sort of life was possible for those Brits in Imperial India who didn’t conform? For a variety of reasons, Christianity and the Enlightenment among them, the British in India behaved, for the most part, in a manner which was arrogant, racist, superior, entitled and all that. But what of those for whom this was anathema? What if they couldn’t look away and pretend? What compromises were they forced to make? To what extent could they go native and survive? And what was the effect of all this soul-torture on those who came after, their children and grandchildren.
As good a place as any to explore such questions was in Calcutta, in the mills which manufactured jute sacks. It doesn’t sound like much, does it; jute sacks? But it was big business for 100 years. Huge business. It made fortunes for the mill owners, while its workers lived in hovels, received derisory wages and were subject to the arbitrary abuse of power by both the Indians and the British who controlled their lives. In other words, the perfect setting for a novel.
And the perfect setting in which to observe how Stephen McLeod, a working man from Dundee, survived (or not) in the alien, oppressive situation in which he found himself. Why from Dundee? Because all the managers and assistants in the Calcutta mills came from Dundee. Calcutta and Dundee were joined at the hip; the only two cities on the planet which churned out all those sacks. Call it an imperial stitch-up if you like.
A stitch-up and a murky inheritance for Stephen Smith, a lecturer in Sanskrit from St Andrews University who looks at his iron-clad, half-Scottish, half-Indian mother and wonders what happened to her. And from her to him, his grandfather in the Calcutta mills. What was his story? So Stephen begins to piece it together helped by Seamus, his diminutive Irish flatmate, who thinks there’s a film-script in it which will be just up Hollywood’s street … while Julia, his elusive girlfriend, waits in the wings for what will emerge.