Searching for Australia’s first novelist in the foothills of the Himalayas
The former British hill station of Mussoorie, in the foothills of the Himalayas, affords the visitor two extraordinary views. Facing south, one takes in the seemingly endless Doon Valley, lit up at night by the city of Dehradun. That city is only 36 kilometres away as the crow flies, but it’s also several thousand metres below, should the crow in question plummet. Turn north and the mountains predominate. Indeed, from a certain vantage on Camel Back Road, snow-capped peaks can be glimpsed, several sources of the Ganges among them, through trace elements of cloud.
At the eastern end of the town’s 1.6 km-long mall, along which civil and military men and their wives once took their evening constitutionals, the Hotel Himalaya Club is grandly situated to take in both views, which is to say that its original building is. My own lodgings are across the road, in the Hari Niwas Block, which was built long after the original. But my hosts assure me that the block was here in ‘the old days’ too, by which they mean the days prior to Indian independence. Indeed, there is still something of the old mess hall about the dining room, with its communal seating and collegial atmosphere. As I sit at my table and sip gingerly on a lassi, I open John Lang’s Wanderings in India and Other Sketches of Hindostan. It opens in this very room, or, at least, in its equivalent across the way:
[Jack Apsley] is still here, and is now singing ‘Rule, Britannia,’ with an energy and enthusiasm which are at once both pleasing and ridiculous to behold … Go home, Apsley! Go home, reeking of tobacco-smoke and brandy-and-water—with your eyes like boiled gooseberries, your hair in frightful disorder—go home! … I will tiff with you to-day at half-past two.
There is something loving and nostalgic in this that largely belies the tone of what is to follow. Throughout Wanderings in India, the British colonial project is treated as something of a farce. Both the government and the British East India Company are regularly dragged across the coals, shown up as myopic, foolish, negligent and wilfully ignorant of the people they are ostensibly in India to rule. When Lang’s not poking fun, as he is in passages like this one, he’s being openly critical. It seems remarkable to me that, until a week before my arrival, his name had been completely unknown to me.
• • •
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in 2014, he gifted our own then leader, Tony Abbott, a photo collage about Lang’s time in India. As Modi applauded Lang on Twitter, celebrating the ‘remarkable Australian’s extraordinary Indian journey’, many Australians, the prime minister doubtless among them, were probably thinking to themselves, John who? That was certainly my reaction when the Dehradun-based journalist Raju Gusain mentioned him to me with a certain off-hand familiarity when we met in Rishikesh. If you had asked me who Australia’s first native-born novelist was, I don’t know who I would have said. Marcus Clarke, probably, and he was born in London. It certainly wouldn’t have been a long-forgotten newspaper man buried on a hillside in northern India.
‘When I first heard about him, about fifteen years ago, I was drawn to the mysteries surrounding him,’ Gusain told me. ‘Nobody knew exactly how he died. No-one even knew his date of birth. It is difficult to let something like that go. I thought we could learn more about India at that time from studying his work.’
Gusain began writing stories for the Hindustan Times and the Garhwal Post, exploring these mysteries, plunging ever deeper. He even had an Australian friend track down copies of the Mussofilite, which Lang edited for 20 years, and send them to him in Dehradun. He claims to be the only man in India who has read every number of the paper. He was soon advocating for greater recognition of the writer, both in India and abroad.
‘Everyone in Mussoorie knows who John Lang is now,’ he says. ‘That’s largely because of my work. That was never my intention, though,’ he adds. ‘I didn’t care what people thought. I simply have a tendency to become obsessed about these things.’
There’s no question that Lang remains best known in India, even though most of his ‘wanderings’ were first recounted in the pages of Household Words, the weekly magazine Charles Dickens edited in the 1850s. But it’s not for those wanderings, or indeed for his fiction—melodramatic pulp, by most accounts—that he has been plucked from obscurity and adopted as a native son by India’s current government. Born in Parramatta in 1816, Lang arrived in India in the early 1840s, where, between setting up the Mussofilite and writing some 30 novels, he also occasionally worked as a barrister.
It was in this role that, as far as certain Indians are concerned, he really earned his place in the pantheon. He took on cases against the mighty British East India Company, which he was impolite enough to win, and provided legal advice to Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, who later went on to become a key player in the Indian Uprising of 1857. (As readers of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels will recall, the Rani is a central character in Flashman in the Great Game, one of the best volumes in the series. Given that Lang’s is the only firsthand account of Lakshmibai that we have by a foreigner—‘It was only for a moment, it is true; still I saw her sufficiently to be able to describe her’—it doesn’t seem too much to surmise that Fraser consulted his work.)
You don’t walk away from such dalliances with the ‘natives’ without gaining a reputation for serious anti-colonial leanings, the sort of leanings that are likely to be emphasised by nationalist politicians down the line. Which isn’t to say that India didn’t eventually forget about Lang as well. For nearly a century after his death, it did.
• • •
It is about half an hour’s walk from the Hotel Himalaya Club to Ivy Cottage in the Landour cantonment. I know the name from the fellow in Mussoorie’s bookstore, and the way there from some articles I’ve found online. They are all impassioned dispatches by budding novelists and devoted readers on personal pilgrimages to meet their hero.
I don’t have an appointment lined up. I also know, from these same dispatches, that Ruskin Bond doesn’t exactly enjoy being interrupted by strangers. If I arrive too late, the dispatches tell me, the 84-year-old writer is likely to be taking his afternoon nap. In the event, however, my timing is perfect. Dressed in blue pyjama bottoms, which he later tells me he wears all day, Bond is in the middle of autographing books for his weekly appearance at the bookstore. A girl from the store spells out names for him as he does so. ‘This surname has too many letters,’ he complains. But he’s happy to do two things at once and is quick to invite me in.
Bond is one of India’s most prolific writers—his bibliography runs to more than 500 published volumes—and his living room overflows with copies of his work. There are the novels, the short stories, the essays, the poetry, the children’s books, and various collections of each. I take a seat in an armchair opposite him and glance at the shelves that speak to his own tastes. Omnibuses of detective fiction brush up against others of ghost stories. Bertrand Russell rubs shoulders with John Buchan. To my delight, a massive volume of PG Wodehouse looms large. He says he’s in the middle of Peter James’s latest crime novel, Not Dead Yet, which he’s reading on the grounds that ‘the title seemed relevant’.
In addition to everything else he’s achieved, Bond is also the guy who, not long after he moved to Mussoorie from Dehli in 1964, went digging about in the local cemetery until he discovered John Lang’s grave. Lang had died exactly a century earlier. I’m interested to know what compelled him to go digging.
‘Around that time, a friend in Australia sent me a clipping from the newspaper, saying that Australia’s first novelist had lived and died in Mussoorie,’ he says, ‘I thought that was rather interesting, if unlikely, so I went to look for his grave.’
‘After several expeditions, I found it, and wrote about it, and over the years I took an interest in him, too. It was very hard to find his books or anything he’d written back then,’ he says. ‘We didn’t have the technology that we do today.’
A friend in England visited the British Museum and found Bond a copy of Wanderings in India, which Bond later helped to reissue. In addition to the obvious historical value of the work, Bond was also impressed by its aesthetic qualities. ‘I liked it because it was so different to anything else that was being written at that time,’ he says. ‘Lang can be very funny, you know, very tongue in cheek. His account of meeting Rani of Jhansi is not only unique, in that no other foreign writer ever met her, but also very entertaining.’
‘I told her that the whole world resounded with the praises of her beauty and the greatness of her intellect,’ Lang writes of the meeting in Wanderings in India, ‘and she told me that there was not a corner of the earth in which prayers for my welfare remained unsaid.’ I ask whether Bond doesn’t also feel some affinity with the writer. He is widely known in India as ‘the writer on the hill’. Had he never considered the fact that Lang was that writer, and on the very same hill, exactly a hundred years before he was?
‘That never actually occurred to me,’ he says. ‘I was always much more interested in the fact that he was one of the few Anglo-Saxons writing about India at that time. But I do think you might be right.’
But Bond is also a more critical reader of Lang than Narendra Modi appears to be. He believes that the Indian government’s adoption of the writer is based on a probably deliberate misreading. ‘In Lang’s work as a lawyer, it is true that he came into conflict with the East India Company,’ he says. ‘But he was still very much a part of the colonial milieu and his writing exhibits many of the prejudices that came with being part of it.’
It is true that Lang’s criticisms of the British project are occasionally couched—one suspects necessarily—between flourishes of jingoism. The Uprising of 1857 and the massacres that attended it were fresh in everyone’s minds when Wanderings in India was first published in the 1860s. It wouldn’t have done to have been disrespectful towards the British dead. What’s more, Lang was in England during the Uprising, hobnobbing with Dickens and others—he desperately wanted to break through as a novelist—and thus missed the biggest story of his career. He was also, in addition to being an Australian, a Jew and an Irishman, and had a deep-seated desire to be respected, an attribute that can perhaps be ascribed to all three. It might also explain his occasional nod to the professed aims of the British in India. One wouldn’t want to get turned away from the Himalaya Club.
But there’s no getting around the fact that his sketches of two of the Uprising’s key players, Lakshmibai and Nana Sahib, are more nuanced than would have been politic at the time. ‘I am not a bad billiard-player,’ Lang writes in his chapter on the latter figure, ‘but it was quite evident that [he] did not play his best, and that he suffered me to beat him as easily as I did, simply out of what he considered to be politeness.’ He later goes as far as to argue that Nana Sahib was not directly responsible for the Satichaura Ghat and Bibighar massacres at Cawnpore during the Uprising, an argument that historians largely agree with today, but which was all but forbidden to make at the time. The other Indians who people his narrative, though occasionally chastised for avarice, tend to be learned, hospitable and a damned sight more cognisant of what’s going on in the country than anyone claiming to rule it seems to be.
‘John Lang,’ Bond says, ‘is a difficult writer to pin down.’
• • •
I meet Gusain’s brother-in-law Ajay outside the hotel he runs on Camel Back Road at the western end of the mall. We have arranged to walk to the cemetery together, primarily because it is usually closed and he’ll have to call the caretaker to let us in. Prem Singh has worked here for 30 years and knows, quite literally, where the bodies are buried. John Lang’s is a short walk away, he says. Perhaps I would like to see some others?
Ajay isn’t into Lang to same extent as his brother-in-law, though he admits that the man holds a unique place in the hill station’s history. But then Gusain’s obsession, as I have already learned, is almost without parallel. It is strange to go back and read his articles about the writer today. Published between 2006 and 2014, they seem always to be suggesting, or at least fervently hoping, that a wave of interest in Lang and his work is suddenly about to break out. An Australian publishing house is about to reissue John Lang’s collected works! The Mussofilite is to be relaunched!
Upon closer inspection, these claims all seem to be connected to the work of the Australian academic Victor Crittenden, whose biography John Lang: Australia’s Larrikin Writer: Barrister, Novelist, Journalist and Gentleman—a bit unwieldy, one has to admit—was self-published in 2005. Crittenden died in 2014 and many of his plans for Lang’s work went with him. According to the University of Queensland’s AustLit database, Crittenden’s Mulini Press published only a handful of books by Lang, including the largely fictitious Further Tales from Botany Bay, before his most dedicated admirer died. The so-called New Mussofilite—what Gusain described in his articles as a rebirth of Lang’s newspaper, but which was a biannual newsletter for die-hard cultists—appears to have only published one issue.
Gusain’s articles also attempt to sex up Lang’s story a bit, with suggestions that he died under ‘mysterious circumstances’. It’s difficult to see where the mystery lies. Mussoorie was known as a station for convalescents, somewhere soldiers would come to take the air and recuperate. Bond is sure Lang died of some tropical malady, most likely malaria or tuberculosis. (Lang is known to have had issues with his lungs.)
Rory Medcalf is head of the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra and is one of only four living Lang obsessives I have been able to track down. He thinks the writer’s years of travel most likely took their toll as well. Forty-seven, after all, was a ripe old age back then.
Medcalf worked as a diplomat in India 2000–03. He first learned of Lang through Bond’s writings, and has since contributed to the corpus himself. When he returned to Australia, he got to know Crittenden, and helped the latter to publish his biography.
‘Lang was such an extraordinary figure that I sometimes wonder whether he wouldn’t be a better subject for fiction,’ Medcalf says:
It continues to surprise me that he has so little recognition in Australia. Not only was he the first novelist born in this country, but he went on to make a real mark in India. Like the more famous George Morrison in China [Morrison of Peking, a correspondent for The Times], he was a pioneer of Australian cultural, intellectual and political engagement with Asia.
‘Of course,’ Medcalf adds, ‘he was also ultimately an exile, one of the first tall poppies. He was too clever by half, too brash even for colonial Sydney. Perhaps it will take us a while to welcome him back.’
One is reminded of Alan Moorehead, another Australian scribbler who set out to take on the world. Despite Robert Hughes’s passages about Moorehead in Things I Didn’t Know, not to mention Clive James’s fawning essay in Cultural Amnesia, it wasn’t until Thornton McCamish’s Our Man Elsewhere was published in 2016 that Moorehead’s legacy was finally secured. We have a tendency to forget such people in Australia. We only grudgingly respect our cultural exports.
Medcalf hopes his own biography of Lang—‘I have found traces of East India Company records that may shed light on the apparent vendetta the powers-that-be in India had against the troublesome Australian,’ he says—might do for the writer what McCamish’s did for Moorehead. But he admits that, what with his day job and all, ‘the Lang project has unfortunately become a part-time hobby’.
Amit Ranjan and Priti Joshi are both working on books about Lang as well, or at least books in which he features heavily. A former Fulbright scholar, Ranjan discovered the writer in 2006, while researching an Australian girl, Alice Richman from South Australia, who died in India in 1882. ‘Her “lone grave” is in Alice Garden at Pune University,’ Ranjan says. ‘There are urban legends around her: that her ghost haunts the campus, that she was in love with an Indian boy. I was fascinated with her and started looking into Australians in nineteenth-century India for context,’ he says. ‘That is how I discovered Lang, and once I started reading the scant information there was about him, I understood that this was my calling.’ Lang went on to become the subject of Ranjan’s PhD, and his own biography of the author is due out this year.
Joshi is a professor of English at the University of Puget Sound. ‘I encountered John Lang through Dickens,’ she says.
A number of years ago I was writing an article about A Tale of Two Cities and the Indian Uprising. I turned to Household Words to look at the journal’s coverage of those events. At first there was little mention of them, but then, beginning in November 1857, the journal started running a 12-part series entitled ‘Wanderings in India’. As was the norm, the piece appeared without a byline, but scholars had identified the author as John Lang. The rest, as they say, is history.
Joshi recently finished a scholarly book, Empire News: The Anglo-Indian Press Writes India, in which Lang and the Mussofilite play a central role.
The researchers have somewhat differing views about Lang’s supposed anti-colonialism. ‘It was highly unusual for a colonial gentleman to challenge and defeat the all-powerful East India Company in court, and in defence of an Indian at that,’ Medcalf says. ‘As such, he is a useful symbol of fearlessness in pursuit of the democratic values that may be able to unite our countries. Australians and Indians can both be proud of him.’
Joshi, like Bond before her, is not so sure. ‘Lang is a fascinating figure through whom we can trace the complex, ambivalent, never-straightforward workings of colonialism, as well as its reception by locals,’ she says. ‘He was a friend to some Indians. That’s true. And the company viewed him—correctly, I think—as a foe. Yet he was also an imperialist.’
Indeed, for all his criticisms of the government and the company, Lang never questions whether Britain should rule over India. In fact, he regularly offers suggestions as to how the imperial project might be run more effectively. In the final pages of Wanderings in India, even as Lang casts doubt on Nana Sahib’s responsibility for Cawnpore, he also describes the Uprising as ‘fiendish treachery’ and urges harsh retribution against its authors.
‘[I would] make death the first favour for which they should crave,’ he writes, ‘and the last which should be granted to them.’ He seems almost to be channelling Dickens in this passage, who famously wrote, in a private letter, that had he been commander in chief in India at the time of the Uprising, ‘I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested.’
Dickens, it is now widely agreed, wasn’t exactly the world’s nicest guy.
• • •
John Lang’s work predates that of Rudyard Kipling by several decades. Indeed, he died a year before the fabled ‘poet of empire’ was born. Medcalf remains all but certain that ‘some of Kipling’s more celebrated work was, to put it politely, inspired by Lang’.
Aside from the relative quality of the writers’ work—Kipling was obviously the more accomplished of the two—it is difficult not to wonder whether Lang has been forgotten precisely because he was a kind of anti-Kipling, suspicious of empire where Kipling sang its praises, mocking where Kipling was reverential. In a word, Australian where Kipling was British, at least to the extent that we tend to see ourselves as a knockabout, anti-authoritarian people, which is a characterisation that history tends not to support. But it’s an attractive reading nonetheless. While Kipling’s ashes remain interred in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, sandwiched between Dickens and Thomas Hardy, one suspects that Lang would feel a greater sense of vindication than his successor were he to glance at his own final resting place today. Unlike Kipling, he would have seen it coming.
The crumbling headstone has been overtaken by nature, forgotten by all but us hobbyists, and sits on the outskirts of a former British hill station that now serves as a getaway for locals up from Delhi. Few ever come down here to visit their former rulers: few even know that the cemetery exists. There’s a metaphor for the whole British project in this somewhere, as indeed there is a metaphor for John Lang himself in the fact that, when we eventually reach the grave, we have to brush the detritus away. This is where Australia’s first native-born novelist, our first emissary to the world, now lies.
It is hardly surprising, but remains somehow saddening. One can barely read his name on the headstone.
Matthew Clayfield is a Canberra-based writer. His debut novel, A Death in Phnom Penh, is forthcoming.