His researches reveal the practices of the East India Company itself, whose Hertfordshire training college was ‘notorious throughout England as a den of iniquity’, and whose ‘griffins’ – greenhorns – were dispatched to India with little idea of what to expect, and few abilities beyond ‘throwing half-eaten chickens across the table’ at dinner parties. Nigel, Hillsbery decides, was a cut above such talentless wasters, and sought ‘the real India’, whose essentials he quickly came to learn: ‘Life was hard, and many starved.’
This isn’t a history book – Hillsbery fictionalises his ancestor, providing imagined glimpses into his thoughts and feelings – but there’s much history unearthed all the same: ‘India is full of surprises,’ he notes, many of which involve mysterious deaths and hidden beauties; beheadings, blindings and servant girls made queens. Some of Nigel’s contemporaries are afforded brief biographies, which add up to a picture of a continent preparing to shrug off colonial rule, and Hillsbery’s own Asian travels are chronicled too, which, in the end, is what allows for a resolution of sorts to be reached. Because behind the rumours of jewel-smuggling, and secret moves in the everlasting Great Game, this is a love story at heart: if Nigel Halleck never returned, it was because he had found his home elsewhere. A moving and enjoyable read.