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The Fortune Teller of Kathmandu – Inspirations

The Fortune Teller of Kathmandu is the seventh novel in my Echoes of Empire collection, all stories about the Second World War in South-East Asia. The books tell the story of the war from the point of view of different characters caught up in the conflict and are mainly set in Singapore, Burma and Malaya (present-day Myanmar and Malaysia).

I was first inspired to write about the war in South-East Asia because my father served in Malaya with the British Indian Army and was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. He was forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway and remained a prisoner until the end of the war. My first book, Bamboo Heart: A Daughter’s Quest was based on his true story which I only discovered when I found his ‘Liberation Questionnaire’ in the UK National Archives at Kew four decades after his death.

My subsequent six books in this series have all been inspired by aspects of the second world war in South-East Asia too.

One of the storylines in The Fortune Teller of Kathmandu was inspired by the little-known history of the Wasbies – The Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma). Lena, the main character in the book volunteers to join the service in 1943. She wants to do her bit for the war effort and, for reasons I won’t reveal here, is anxious to get closer to the frontline.

After an initial period of training at Shillong, a hill station in India, she is sent to the border between India and Burma to join a team of Wasbies where she sees and experiences the danger of the frontline first hand. I stumbled across the Wasbies’ story when I was doing research for a previous book, The Lake Palace (incidentally part of a different series – The Oriental Lake Collection). The Lake Palace is about a young English woman who volunteers to follow General Slim’s 14th Army as an auxiliary nurse. She is sent into the hills to nurse casualties from the ferocious battle of Kohima on the Burma front. Many lives were lost at Kohima both by the Allies and by the Japanese and the conditions there were truly shocking. During my research for that book, I came across a photograph of a group of women, operating a mobile canteen out of an old, converted Chevrolet lorry near the battle lines during the Burma campaign.

They served what was known as ‘Char and Wads’ – ie Tea and Cake to troops as well as selling them ‘luxury’ items that the men wouldn’t normally have had access to, such as soap, combs, hair oil, writing paper, shoe polish etc. The presence of the Wasbies near the front was a great boost to morale for the exhausted and battle-weary men who were also suffering in the tropical climate. I realised when I saw that picture that I would like to write about these unsung heroines of the Burma campaign. I set to work to discover as much as I could about them.

To my dismay I found that not a great deal has been written about the Wasbies. My main source of inspiration and information was a fabulous book, Front Line and Fortitude, by EJ Lockhart-Mure. It is the diary of a real-life Wasbie, Maria Pilbrow, a daily account of the trials and tribulations, the frustrations as well as the camaraderie and friendships forged during those testing months and years. The writer was clearly an inspirational woman as were her fellow Wasbies. The hardships they suffered and the trauma they witnessed daily are hard to believe. To follow that up I also bought another book, a slim volume called Chinthe Women – Women’s Auxiliary Service Burma 1942-1946 – Char and Wads on the frontline. The Chinthe is a mythical Burmese lion, which became the symbol of the Wasbies. This little book contains a wealth of information, first hand accounts, photographs and such fascinating things as ID cards and record books. It was written by Sally and Lucy Jaffe, granddaughters of Major Ninian Taylor, the leader of the Wasbies.

I hope I have done the Wasbies justice in The Fortune Teller of Kathmandu. Of course, the time Lena spends with the Wasbies is only part of a much broader dual-timeline story, which also features the uncovering of a grandmother’s secret past, the discrimination experienced by Eurasians in British India, the recruitment of Gurkha soldiers from remote villages in the Himalayas, the prophesy of a mysterious fortune-teller in Kathmandu, together with natural disasters and of course romance in both timelines. I hope this inspires you to read the book and if you do, I really hope you enjoy it!

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