Tainted love


Cauvery Madhavan told David Hennessy about her novel The Tainted that is based on a real-life mutiny by Irish soldiers serving for the Crown in India, why she was moved to write about the children left behind by Irish soldiers and gives her take on Ireland’s current race debate.

One hundred years ago this month there was a mutiny of the Connaught Rangers, just one of the many Irish regiments in the British army. Hearing news of the atrocities of the Black and Tans and the suffering of their families at home, the Irish soldiers decided they would no longer fight for the same crown that was allowing such horrors to happen in their homeland.

It was this uprising in a Jullunder barracks that inspired Cauvery Madhavan’s latest book, The Tainted although she writes about the fictional Kildare Rangers.

Cauvery told The Irish World: “I stumbled upon the actual story of the Connaught Rangers purely by acccident. I was at a reception at the Indian Embassy in Dublin and in an overheard conversation I heard about the mutiny in India.

“Actually those two people were discussing the similarities of the Irish and Indian flag and one person was saying the Indian flag was inspired by the Irish flag because the first time the tricolour was hoisted outside Ireland was apparently at that mutiny in India.

“The soldiers bought strips of silk and they sowed the tricolour in green, white and gold. They pulled the union jack down and hoisted the tricolour up.

“It made me so curious that literally the very next day I started looking into it. I thought that there was definitely a story there.”

It was on 27 June 1920 that Private Joseph Hawes from Kilrush asked his fellow Irish soldiers what they were going to do about the worsening situation in Ireland. The Irishmen there decided, ‘We’ll soldier no more for England’.

Refusing to obey their officers’ orders, the men were at first locked up voluntarily in the guard room. When the colonel addressed the men and recounted all the honours the regiment had to it’s name after serving at the Somme and Gallipoli, Hawes replied: ‘All the honours on the colours of the Connaught Rangers are for England. There are none for Ireland, but there is going to be one today, and it will be the greatest honour of them all’.

Soldiers also mutineed at Solan where another part of the regiment were stationed. When two mutinneers there were shot and killed, the mutiny was over. Although most mutineers were held in harsh conditions and court-martialled, the one death sentence was that of James Daly who led the Solan mutiny. James Daly was not much older than 20, if he was that old.


Cauvery explains that the British had to put a stop to the mutiny very quickly because they feared what would happen if it spread to other Irish regiments. It also came quick on the heels of the Amritsar massacre where British troops fired on and killed at least 379 unarmed civilains.

“They did quash it very quickly and very brutally.

“It was two things. It was very shortly after the massacre at Amritsar so the Indian nationalist movement was quite oiled up at that time because of what had happened there. That was in 1919 and this followed in 1920.

“They also knew that if that mutiny had spread to other Irish regiments or if the Indian population had got wind of it, there might be trouble. Jullunder is also in Punjab, not too far away from Amritsar. The two things put together, the fact that there was so many Irish regiments in India: It could have led to the early collapse of the empire if that mutiny had spread.”

The Tainted’s main character Private Michael Flaherty is based on James Daly and is consigned to the same fate. However, the story does not end with the end of the mutiny and goes on to tell the story of those left behind.

“Initially when I started the book, I was actually going to write the story of the mutiny but I very quickly realised that the interesting story actually lay in the aftermath.

“It’s a little known fact, little known in Ireland and in India except amongst academics and historians, very few know the extent of the Irish involvement in the British Raj. For 300 years, even before the empire was even established, even then Irishmen were serving in the British Raj in military capacity or civilains, they were all over the place.

“When Irishmen have been there for 300 years or more, they fathered so many many children who became this mixed race that was ostracised and what in India are still called the Anglo-Indians. Obviously it was not just Irish fathers, it was also Scot, Welsh and English.

“When I started writing the story, I very quickly felt that the real story was in the aftermath, the people who were left behind: The children Irish soldiers left behind, children who weren’t white enough to be brought back to Ireland and who unfortunately were never brown enough to be acknowledged as Indian. They were left in a kind of limbo. I felt there was a great story in that.”

One character in the book refers to her mixed race as, ‘the tainted’ but the books shows that the Irish Catholic soldiers and their Anglo-Irish superiors are also ‘tainted’ as the character says.

“I also very strongly felt in the years I’ve lived in Ireland that the Anglo-Irish people were very similar in some way to the Anglo-Indians because they were never English enough to be considered English, they were never Irish enough to be considered Irish. Anglo-Irish people are also people in limbo, until very recently anyway.

“Irish Catholic soldiers as well, they were so ostracised for having served the crown. It’s astonishing how many emails I have received from people to say, ‘My grandfather served in such and such a regiment’. And these are families who have kept it quiet. If you think that hudreds of thousands of Irish soldiers died in the two world wars, every family must have one person. It is a small island. During the wars there was only 2.5/3 million people in Ireland, every one of those families would have had someone who had served the British crown.

“I think the Irish soldier’s experience is so different from the rest of the soldiers. In India during the second world war particularly we were so close to getting independence but yet soldiers signed up. It was a voluntary army. No one was forced, there was no conscription, Indians volunteered to be in the army. Those people have been commemorated. Ireland didn’t acknowledge the people who fought for European freedom, its own sons and daughters.

“I think that(attitude)’s changed now. I think people have come around. I think they realised that men and women who signed up to join the British army did so for such a variety of economic reasons, to put food on the table I suppose.”

After his execution, Michael’s sweetheart Rose is left unmarried and pregnant with his baby. She is shamed for her pre-marital sex and consigned to such awful torture that she could have been at a Magdalene Laundry in Ireland.

“In that respect, both countries are so similar in their social outllook, their absolute ostracisation of women who had children out of wedlock. It’s identical. Even though the religions are different, they dominated in a very similar fashion.”

Cauvery was taught by Irish nuns in her childhood. Her father was in the army and military children were sent to the local convent. Although she never thought then, it has been her home for three decades.

“It’s absolutely home. I’ve lived eleven years here more than I ever lived in India. I left India when I was 24, I’m 58 now. Our children are born here, they’ve grown up now. It’s home for them and for us.”

In Ireland since 1987, Cauvery came to a country that was unused foreigners and people of colour. There has been much said and written about racism in Ireland in recent weeks.

“If we had felt unwelcome, we would not have stayed. My husband would have been very happy professionally in India as well and I could have done my writing anywhere in the world. If we felt in any way threatened or that we were suffering racist abuse, we would not have stayed.

“We came to a very white Ireland. When we came to Sligo, we were maybe five or six Asian families and maybe about eight or nine bachelor doctors. They were all doctors. There was no other kind of brown person. You would only get a visa if you were a doctor.

“In retrospect, I think we were cocooned by my husband’s profession. Because of him being a medical worker, I think we have never had a problem.

“Maybe in the last five years, you suddenly become very conscious of it but nothing overtly to us, everything is always second hand.

“We’re very happy here. If we were unhappy in any way, we would have gone back.”

Does Cauvery agree that the Irish racists are just a minority? “Absolutely, definitely because we’ve stayed in many places.

“Wherever you come from, regardless of whether Irish or non-Irish or whatever, junior doctors move every six months. That’s the nature of the job. You change households every six months and when you become a registrar, you’re moving every year and it’s only later on when you become a consultant that you get to stay in one place permanently.

“In the course of the 33 years we’ve been here, we have lived in so many different places and wherever we have gone, we have collected lifelong friends.

“My husband might have had one or two occasions. In the 30 years only one or two occasions where somebody might have said, ‘I don’t want to be treated by that doctor’ or ‘Can I be seen by a white doctor or an Irish doctor?’ And he would have just shrugged his shoulders and walked away and said, ‘Good luck, goodbye’.

“There’s racist people like that all over the world. There are always bad eggs. I think our experience has coloured- I didn’t mean to use that word,” she laughs- “By the fact that the profession protects us in a way. And that’s actually a horrible thing. You shouldn’t have to be protected by a profession, you should be protected because you’re a human being.

“I think black people have it worse than brown people in Ireland and I think that’s because of a perception: ‘Brown people, he must be a doctor whereas black people are all useless’. That’s a horrible way to think and there’s just as many black doctors. Anyway, your profession shouldn’t come into it. I do think black people have a bigger hill to climb than brown people.”


Cauvery refers to the racism of Indians relating to us that when Africans travel to India to study medicine or engineering, they find it very hard to find accommodation, calling it ‘shameful’.

“Asian people have been subjected to racism but they can be racist themselves.

“There’s a lot of introspection going on at the moment amongst Asian people. You hold a placard saying Black Lives Matter but then back in India, you’re doing the same.

“There’s no point saying Black Lives Matter if back in India you follow the caste system or you treat people who are of the untouchable caste so badly. There’s a lot of introspection, what are our own morals? What are we up to as Asians?”

The Tainted feels very cinematic to the reader and you can imagine it being adapted very much like The Siege of Jadotville. Could Cauvery see it being adapted into a film? “That would be my dream.

“Genuinely, I think it’s a part of Indo-Irish history which is not well known but it is of such contemporary relevance because in twenty years’ time, there’s going to be a massive, massive increase in the number of mixed race people in Ireland.

“Asian people are marrying Irish people. Irish people are marrying black people. It’s going to be a huge community of mixed race children.

“Our children are grown up now. My eldest girl, who is 29, is dating a lad from Derry and my youngest is dating a lad from Balbriggan. Those two families just embraced my daughters, not a thought for the colour or origin of the parents. They just accepted them for what they are, two wonderful girls. I have to say that, I’m their mother,” she laughs.

“My son is dating a Norwegian girl. I know my grandchildren are all going to be mixed race.

“It’s a contemporary story even though it’s set in history. This is something Ireland is going to have to come to terms with. How do we treat mixed race people? Because there is going to be so many mixed race Irish people, half-Irish and half-something else.

“If people think racism is a distant problem, has nothing to do with them, wait until your daughter starts dating an Asian guy or wait until your nephew wants to get married to a Muslim. That’s happening all the time now.”

The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan is out now on Hope Road.

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