I’m delighted to be able to share a few insights into the historical research I did for The Fortune Teller of Kathmandu.
I’m fascinated by history and always do a lot of research for my books. The Fortune Teller of Kathmandu was no exception.
This book is set partly in the modern day, but mainly in India, Nepal and Burma in the 1940s. The lead character, Lena, a young Eurasian girl living in Darjeeling in British India, leaves the confines of her strict boarding school where she is working as a teacher, to work on the nearby army base. She finds herself accompanying recruiting officer, Lieutenant George Harper into remote mountains of Nepal to recruit Gurkha soldiers for the Burma campaign being fought against the Japanese.
In response to a fortune teller’s prophesy, she volunteers to join the Wasbies (the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma)) and is sent to the Burmese jungle to provide morale-boosting refreshment and luxuries to front line troops.
What did make this book slightly easier to research than some of my previous books, was that I’d already written about the Burma campaign in one book (The Lake Palace) and had touched on it in another (The Tea Planter’s Club). The Fortune Teller of Kathmandu is my tenth book about the second world war in South East Asia, so I’d already done quite a bit of research on the wider campaign before I started.
In this book I drew together a few strands that had fascinated me and about which I wanted to find out more.
Firstly, I was interested in the Gurkhas who were recruited in great numbers from Nepal to support the Burma campaign. I wanted to include something about the process in the book. For that research I found a number of online resources, but the most fascinating and rewarding research I did was to visit the Gurkha Memorial Museum in Pokhara, Nepal, where there is a wealth of information about the Gurkhas, about how many very young men were recruited from remote villages during the war and how often their army salary would be vital for the survival of their families. I read the inspiring stories of many individual soldiers and viewed records and photographs from conflicts they’d been engaged in.
I was particularly interested in the rigorous selection process the young men still have to go through before they are accepted into the Gurkhas. They are already tough and strong from a childhood in the Himalayas, but their physical prowess is stretched to the limit by various tests they have to complete. The most notorious of these is the “doko race”, in which they have to run a 5km mountain route within 55 minutes with a rattan basket with 25kg of rocks on their backs.
My second line of research was about the Wasbies (The Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma). I’d never heard about this intrepid group of women before I was researching the Burma campaign for The Lake Palace but I stumbled across stories of Wasbies serving tea and cakes to frontline soldiers from converted Chevrolet vans. I went on to read the diary of a Wasbie, Maria Pilbrow Front Line and Fortitude, by EJ Lockhart-Mure. It really brought home hardships those brave women went through.
I was interested to learn that the Wasbies had to learn to drive the trucks themselves, so in my book, Lena has to undergo driving lessons with a severe sergeant. I also discovered that sometimes the Wasbies found themselves so close to the fighting that they had to be evacuated, in particular from near the front at Kohima – and I included this detail in the book too.
I hope that by carrying out historical research, I can bring the past to life in my books as effectively as possible, but I also love doing it too, and it often gives me ideas for other books or other angles on my current work in progress.