Q&A with author Sudha Shah

Intrigued by the British Empire’s exile of the Burmese king in the late 19th century, Mumbai-based financier Sudha Shah decided to learn more about the fate of the royal family. Her curiosity led her throughout India and Myanmar, where she uncovered the intricate story of the king, his proud queen and their four daughters, all of whom were forced to leave royal grandeur for life in a remote village. Shah’s extensive research on this family’s difficult, yet transformative journey spurred the book A King in Exile, which was published in India in 2012 to much literary praise, and released internationally in 2015. Here, Sudha Shah offers insights into her narrative and discusses historical and modern-day Myanmar.

What inspired you to write The King in Exile?

“A brilliant work of fiction—Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace—sparked my interest in the last king of Burma and his family. Amitav eloquently describes the loss of the kingdom to the British and the family’s exile in India. I was curious as to how a family that once had it all—power, glory, unimaginable wealth—dealt with the loss, how they coped with exile, isolation and loneliness, gave meaning to their lives and their hopes and aspirations. I was fascinated by how the four princesses, victims of circumstance who grew up with almost no education or interaction with the outside world, but who had been endowed with a deep awareness of their ancestry, coped when they were suddenly released, after their father’s death, into a world they had no knowledge of. Astonishingly, I found little had been written about the family, and the more I delved the more fascinated I became. It was a book begging to be written.”

The biography is rich in historical information and detail. How extensive was your research process? “The research was expansive—it had to be. It took me eight years to research and write this book. The details helped bring the protagonists alive for me, and enabled me to give the story the kind of depth and dimension it needed. My sources included interviews with King Thibaw’s descendants including four of his grandchildren; libraries, newspaper records and government archives in Bombay, London, Rangoon and New Delhi; published material including some now out-of-print books; and letters, articles, rare family photographs and other material given to me by members of the late king’s family and Burmese historians.”

What was your most surprising or interesting discovery during the process? “This is a story with bizarre twists and turns—so many that it perhaps wouldn’t have made a credible work of fiction. One cluster of archival papers made very poignant reading and gave me much pause for thought. On reflection, I realized how much the king and queen had changed, how their roles and personalities had actually reversed during the exile.

When Thibaw’s father was dying, there were many contenders for the throne. Thibaw was considered weak and malleable, and many conspired putting him on the throne to make him their puppet. They, however, underestimated the woman he was in love with and who would later be his queen—Supayalat. It was well known that Queen Supayalat held the real power. Her control was described as dah-htet-te, meaning ‘as sharp as a razor.’ Even on the critical matter of whether or not to go to war with Britain, the king deferred to her.

Archival papers described the toll the exile took on Queen Supayalat. Their dire lack of money, total absence of power, forced alienation from their beloved homeland to a country she could never call her own and the absence of any hope of reclamation of any part of her past was, I believe, too much for her to bear. The once strong queen crumbled, while the once weak king bravely shouldered the responsibility of holding their lives together.”

You create a fascinating narrative about the royal family and offer insight into their characters and behaviors. How did you craft factual information into a compelling plot? “My angst was whether I'd be able to do the story the kind of justice it deserved. The story had to be set in its historical, political, social and cultural context, without which it would not have had much meaning. The challenge was in trying to craft a human-interest story that was factual and that had a strong narrative voice. I structured the book in three parts—before, during and after the exile—and wrote some bits to flow chronologically and some not, in an attempt to tell a complex story as lucidly as possible.”

Who are your literary influences? “I would like to begin with Amitav Ghosh whose book influenced mine. I also love Vikram Seth, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Toni Morrison, Jean Rhys, Pascal Khoo Thwe, Sylvia Path, P.G. Wodehouse, Somerset Maugham, Guy de Maupassant, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene, Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood; there are so many excellent writers that I have enjoyed reading and who have influenced me. I’m unable to name them all!”

Were there any places in which The King in Exile took place that were particularly memorable? “There is a beauty to Mandalay’s location on the mighty Irrawaddy, the arterial river that runs almost vertically through Burma. I’m captivated by the folklore that led to the founding of the city; it is said that Lord Buddha stood on Mandalay Hill and predicted that a grand city would rise up as an important center of Buddhism. To honor this prophecy, the reigning king of Burma began the construction of Mandalay in 1857. The Golden Palace was built just below the hill, and outside its fortified walls the rest of the city was laid out in a neat grid-like pattern with wide, tree-lined avenues.

Rudyard Kipling forever romanticized the city with his famous poem Mandalay, but it was not supposed to have been a pretty one. In fact, George Orwell, who worked as a policeman in Burma in the 1920s, described it in very unflattering terms as the city of the five Ps—pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitute’s. Today, it continues to be the country’s cultural and religious center, and its second largest city. It is, however, overbuilt and perhaps not particularly attractive to the casual visitor, but for those who scratch the surface the city is evocative and holds memories and structures of a period not so very long ago, when Burma was a kingdom, and Mandalay its capital.”

What are you working on now? “My next book is also going to be narrative non-fiction; true stories have a strange fascination for me. I enjoy this genre because one clue leads to another—I feel like a detective on a trail—until suddenly things fall into place and a picture emerges.”

Published onSeptember 1, 2015

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