A debut novel by the University of Huddersfield’s Dr Sarah Hussain is confronting traditional narratives, redressing the balance in writing about the Raj era and British colonialism in India.

‘In the Foothills of the Himalayas’ is Dr Hussain’s first full-length book and follows on from her novella ‘Escaped From Syria’ and a short story collection, ‘Sit up, Stand up, Speak up’.

The novel encompasses family tragedy, environmental catastrophe and conspiracy in India through the 20th century, but comes from a very different place compared to traditional fiction about the British Raj era. Works like ‘The Far Pavilions’ and ‘A Passage To India’ took a British-centric approach, with Indian characters pushed to the side-lines, while women were often portrayed as powerless victims.

It is the culmination of more than seven years of post-colonial research, following on from a Master’s degree that saw Sarah complete her PhD whilst also juggling the demands of being a mother of two. Throw pandemic lockdowns into the mix, and Sarah is understandably proud of the novel that will be published by Foreshore, with a launch event to be held at the Huddersfield Literature Festival on 20 April.

“I love my culture and my heritage, but that does not necessarily mean that I don’t love being British. You can be proud of both,” says Dr Hussain, who teaches humanities at the University’s International Study Centre. “This novel was about connecting with my roots and the journey of learning about my history. It’s like building a house – you build the outside, which is the main structure, but then you have to add all the important details like plastering and decorating. For me, that meant going through draft after draft adding the finer detail.”

Dr Hussain’s book celebrates the women who raised awareness of the damage done to India’s environment by colonialism, by drawing attention to a non-violent protest, inspired by the Chipko Movement. This saw women organising themselves to protest logging and deforestation in the 1960s and 1970s, by keeping vigils over and attaching themselves to trees that had been earmarked for felling. However, there is a long history of women’s environmental activism that predates the independence era, and the novel pays homage to those unsung female activists.

“The literature I found about the British colonial era in India were very much romanticised depictions, and women were almost wholly absent from this whole narrative. South Asian women were depicted as oppressed or as victims, and they were voiceless,” Dr Hussain adds.

“I found it amazing to discover these women, who were not well-known. I wanted to create a novel that was telling the real story of what happened in the Raj era to acknowledge South Asian women and give them a fairer representation, to show we are not just victims,” she continues.

An anti-colonial eco-thriller, despite being set decades in the past, Dr Hussain’s novel has an all-too-modern relevance by looking at the effects of deforestation and climate change.

“There is often an assumption that landslides and flooding are just natural disasters but flooding in the region was a result of deforestation. English traders replaced natural broad-leafed tea trees with commercial pine. When they took the broad-leafed trees away, they took away the leaf mould deposit, which means rain cannot be soaked up, resulting in landslides.

“These women were aware how their landscape was being destroyed. A lot of research focuses on the social and political aspects of imperialism, but there has not been as much research on the ecological decline in the region due to colonialism. The ecological damage affects livelihoods, and these women are aware of that,” says Dr Hussain.