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Harjit and the South Asian Presence in Victorian London

By James Chew, January 11, 2022 · Fallen London Mask of the Rose

Following on from our consultation on Jewish Communities in Victorian London in June, which honed in on the lives and social landscape of Rachel and David, the two major Jewish characters in Mask of the Rose, we wanted to turn our attention to another significant character: Harjit Singh, a Sikh man recently arrived in London who has taken up the mantle of constable.

We knew that in terms of the game’s timeline, the Anglo-Sikh wars were in the recent past, and as such likely to have had an impact on Harjit’s own history and experiences. Furthermore, as a Sikh, his framework for understanding and interpreting the events of the Fall are likely to be different to that of other Londoners experiencing the same upheaval. But we also knew that there was a lot about Harjit’s personal history and experience as a Sikh man in Victorian London that we didn’t know yet.

harjit at horatias

Harjit at Horatia’s lodging-house

Bringing Harjit into the story of Mask of the Rose suggested opportunities for storytelling and research we’ve not previously explored in any great depth in the Fallen London universe. The topic of Sikhism in Victorian London, and the presence of South Asians in Victorian London more broadly seemed an excellent opportunity for us to approach an expert in the field for an in-depth consultation.

We reached out to our game development networks and were blown away with the response – both the quality and the quantity of suggestions of avenues to explore and people to approach. Ultimately, we approached Dr Vikram Visana of the University of Huddersfield, whose research expertise in Empire, Imperial History and 19th Century South Asia and interest and familiarity with games made him an ideal candidate to lead the consultation.

As with our previous consultations, our aim was to empower us to tell better stories by widening our perspective, uncovering storytelling opportunities we may not have identified otherwise. With that in mind, here are the goals we outlined for the session:

  • To get a historical introduction to the South Asian presence in Victorian London in/around 1862 and the 1890s (when Fallen London is set), looking at specific people, places and circumstances within the period.
  • To get some recommendations for additional sources we could use independently to deepen our knowledge.
  • To learn about issues we should avoid or treat sensitively in the game. Stereotypes are a common peril when writing, and one we’d like to avoid.

Both the writing and art teams also had a number of specific requests on how specific South Asian systems of belief would respond to the disruption represented by the Fall, on culturally appropriate visual signifiers, and the experiences of those who’d lived through the Anglo-Sikh wars (and possible correspondence/similarity with then living through the Fall).

Duleep_Singh_on_the_Lower_Terrace_of_Osbourne,_1854

A photograph of Maharajah Duleep Singh, last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire who spent most of his life in exile in England

We wanted to make sure the session was relevant both to our current work on Mask of the Rose but also to future work on Fallen London. As such, we asked Dr Vikram to divide the session into several sections:

  • A presentation on the general background of South Asians in Victorian London, followed by a Q&A session for the writing team.
  • A more free-flowing discussion about Indian belief systems specifically in the context of the Fallen London universe, as well as the likely appearance and lived experience of such characters in Fallen London.
  • A closer discussion on Harjit himself, informed by Dr Vikram’s experience of playing the internal demo of Mask of the Rose.

Dr Vikram provided a lively, wide-ranging and immersive discussion, contextualising a broad period of history for us while illustrating the general trends with specific, intriguing and underexplored examples. Over the three hour session, we covered topics including:

  • The fall of the Sikh Empire and the British romanticisation of Sikh warriors in the aftermath
  • Religious relations, including the invitations extended by various Christian groups in the UK to visiting Hindu reformers to effectively tour the country
  • The political campaigns of several Indian men, including Lalmohan Ghosh, running for Parliament, with some such as Ghosh running on a platform of shared Irish and Indian liberation
  • Sexuality and Empire, the opportunities and divisions enabled and erected by the social structures of the British Empire
  • Relations between different South Asian groups within London, and with other marginal communities in London – such as the Masons
  • Zoroastrian burial rites and their likely interpretation in a Neathy London
  • The place of the Djinn in Islamic mythology and possible use as an interpretive tool following the Fall
Kitab_al-Bulhan_--_devil

A depiction of a Djinn from a manuscript of the Kitab-al-Bulhan, or Book of Wonders

We came out of the session with an abundance of story ideas, new material and historical context. We were able to fill in some significant pieces of Harjit’s history, including his love-life prior to the game, his place of origin in Lahore and the likely (significant) position his relatives once held. With Dr Vikram’s help, we were able to assemble the cultural context needed to link together Harjit’s personal history and his character development in Mask of the Rose.

Looking at South Asian representation in our universe more broadly, our discussions alerted us to areas, events and story opportunities contemporary to our period to explore in our setting. Other discussions were more speculative, focusing on the likely intersection of culture and belief with the departure represented by London’s Fall in our setting. How might a character rising from the dead be perceived? What of those without souls, who nevertheless lead out fulfilled existences?

As with our prior consultations, we emerged excited to put what we’d taken from the session into practice, armed with a host of new story ideas to expand and deepen the Fallen London universe.

3 Comments

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Siddharth Jan 12, 11:51pm

Thank you very much! :)

Hannah Flynn Jan 12, 2:40pm

Of course, here are a few that might interest you: William Dalrymple, especially The Anarchy and The Last Mughal, but he's written a lot on this subject Priya Atwal, Royals and Rebels (best if you already know the broad outline of the history of the Sikh Empire) Nisid Hajari's Midnight's Furies is about the Partition of India and its consequences. The Anarchy and this will cover the beginning and the end of the period well.

Siddharth Jan 12, 1:46am

I'm really enjoying hearing about the consultations, especially about how you prepared for them! You mentioned asking Dr Visana for additional sources for independent research ; I'm doing some reading on the British Empire in India and would be very interested in those sources, if it wouldn't be too much of a bother to share them!