Excerpt: 'The Setting Sun: A Memoir of Empire and Family Secrets' by Bart Moore-Gilbert


Bill in 1964, the year before his death

From The Father I Did Not Know:

One midsummer afternoon, forty-three years after that terrible night, I’m at the computer. Five o’clock. I’m expected in the pub soon, but I just have time to check my emails. On Friday afternoons, nothing much comes in except offers to enhance my breasts or invitations to share the booty of some recently deceased dictator. Hurrying to purge the dross, I almost delete the message from an Indian university. This time it’s not a request for a reference or information about an author. A colleague is researching the nationalist movement during the 1940s in the Mumbai archives. ‘One finds several references to the significant role of a senior police officer named Moore Gilbert.’ What? A hot flush pulses over me. It’s not me but my long-dead father he’s interested in. I can hardly believe my eyes. ‘He had been especially brought to Satara District to deal with the powerful political agitation then going on. This officer had the distinction of having successfully suppressed the revolt of the Hoor tribes in the Sindh province (Pakistan).’ Do I have any family papers which might shed light on those events?

It’s a while before the ringing in my ears dies down. This is the first independent reminder in ages that I once had a father; that the man who castled me so often on his shoulders, found me a porcupine for a pet, taught me football, was a real person. Yet his influence still pervades so much of my life. Even the fact I was writing a lecture about African autobiography when the email arrived can probably be traced back to his accident, and the consequent trauma of expulsion from my childhood paradise. It wasn’t just losing my father, but Kimwaga, my beloved minder, the exotic pets and wildlife – and Tanganyika, too, its peoples and landscapes – everything that constituted Self and Home. Well into my thirties, I continued to consider myself an exile here in the UK. Those distant events – and my difficulty in coming to terms with them – underlie the unlikely transformation of a sports-mad, animal-obsessed, white African kid who wanted to be a game ranger like his father into what I am today, a professor of Postcolonial Studies at London University. These days I specialise less than I used to in colonial literature, and more in the literatures in English which have emerged from the formerly colonised nations, especially autobiography.

I reread Professor Bhosle’s message several times, trembling with excitement but also a little anxious. The email opens up dimensions of my father’s life I know little or nothing about. I knew he worked in the Indian Police before I was born, but this is the first I’ve heard that he’d been in what later became Pakistan. Or that he was involved in counterinsurgency. I’ve always had difficulty imagining my father as a policeman. He seemed most himself in the informal setting of safari life, clothes dishevelled, sometimes not shaving for days. So why did he join the Indian Police, with its rigid hierarchies and complex protocols? My paternal grandfather was in the colonial agricultural service. But there’s a world of difference between tropical crop research and imperial law and order. My father would’ve spent school holidays in places like Nigeria and Trinidad. Perhaps that gave him a yen to work somewhere in the empire. That and his love of adventure, wild nature and sport, must have made the IP a far more appealing prospect than some industrial enterprise or life assurance office in England. Still.

My gaze swivels to the bookshelf, where a black-and-white photo of my childhood hero stares back with a half-smile, as if he’s about to play one of his practical jokes. I feel an aftershock of the avalanche of grief and yearning which engulfed my early adolescence. Taken a few months before he died, it shows a handsome man in his mid-forties, with the strong nose I’ve inherited, a hint of heaviness settling round dark jowls, a second line starting to score his brow and wide-set, mischievous eyes. It’s an out-of-doors face, lean and tanned, a touch of mid-century film-star glamour in the immaculately groomed dark hair. Since overtaking him in age more than a decade ago, I’ve come to think of him as ‘Bill’, the nickname his peers used. It suits much better than his old-fashioned given names. I can’t imagine a Samuel Malcolm wearing that puckish expression.

It’s barely dawn and he’s still in pyjamas, at once excited and fearful, racing along the edge of the sandy shamba where Kimwaga and the cook grow maize. He’s been strictly forbidden to follow, but the boy can’t help himself, his curiosity’s too strong. Besides, he knows he’s completely safe with his father there. But why are adults so contradictory? His parents have told him a thousand times that if he meets a snake, he must back off slowly, keeping his eyes riveted on it. How can he forget poor Shotty the spaniel, coughing his guts out after the green mamba bit him? Yet here’s his father now, still in his maroon slippers, loping after the cobra through the skinny shadows of the young maize-stalks. One hand grasps the panga, a long strip of beaten metal, curved at the bottom and wickedly sharp, which Kimwaga cuts the grass with. The other’s raised defensively, palm forward, at chest height. Yet there’s a half-smile on his father’s face, as if it’s just another game.

Occasionally the boy glimpses the oily black wriggle in front, hurdling the furrows with surprising speed. On the far side of the shamba, Kimwaga and the cook wait, banging saucepans and shouting ‘nyoka, nyoka, hatari,’ as if no one knows that snakes are dangerous. Mainly, though, they’re laughing, the boy can’t understand why.

The author, with his minder, Kimwaga, and hyena cub c. 1957

Frightened by the commotion, perhaps, the snake pauses, turns, rears its hooded head and sways, as if on a puppeteer’s string. When his pursuer’s about four paces away, the cobra whips forward, spitting a long needle of liquid. The boy’s father flinches but doesn’t break his stride. The child averts his eyes, only to see the shadow of the panga in its awful rise and fall. For a while there’s complete silence, as Kimwaga, the cook and the boy approach warily. But his father’s soon laughing the tension away, setting the others off again.

‘That’s the last time this bugger has the chicken eggs,’ he proclaims. ‘I told you to stay back,’ he adds sharply, as the boy goes to take his hand. His son pauses, uncertain. But the face softens.

‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ His father shakes his head and puts an arm round the child’s shoulder.

The boy loves that feeling. It’s as if his father’s skin and his melt together, making them one. He smells sweat and Old Spice and severed flesh. The snake’s head lies upside down, the bobbing target cleanly cut with a single blow. Its body, six feet long and thicker than the boy’s arm, with beautiful rust and black markings, continues to thrash blindly in a circle, a few paces away.

‘Look,’ his father says, showing the palm of his left hand, sticky with milky spittle. ‘If that got in your eyes, you’d be in big trouble.’

Nonchalantly, he flicks the snake’s head over with the toe of his slipper. The tongue still flickers between white fangs. Sand clogs the eyes. The boy turns to see Kimwaga guffawing as he tries to steer the serpent’s body into the sack he’s holding. With the help of the cook, who exhales breath stale with last night’s beer, he eventually traps it. Then the boy’s father glances at his watch, grins and beckons them all to follow.

‘Bring the bag,’ he tells his son.

The boy does so unwillingly, glancing at Kimwaga for reassurance. His minder grins back, eyes wet with laughter. The sack pulsates alarmingly as the rope of muscle continues to work inside. It’s much heavier than the boy imagined and his biceps are soon red hot with effort.

He follows the adults up the drive, to where the evergreen manyara hedge meets the ditch beside the road into the village. His father signals Kimwaga and the cook to wait where they can’t be seen. He motions the boy to get down in the ditch with him and they squat next to the culvert. The boy’s confused again. Isn’t this just the kind of cool, dark place snakes love to hide? Soon they hear the messenger’s bicycle wheezing up the sandy track, and the boy’s father puts one forefinger to his lips. Through the tall spring grass growing up from the ditch, the man comes into sight. When he’s a few yards away, the boy’s father opens the sack and the snake flails out into the road as if being confined has given it new energy. There’s a cry and the clanking sound of the bicycle falling. When the boy stands up, he sees the messenger running back the way he came, while the snake writhes sinuously into the verge on the other side. His father’s eyes brim with the effort of keeping quiet. But Kimwaga’s snorting giggle is uncontainable, setting off the cook’s bass gurgle. The boy laughs along, he doesn’t know why. Adults are such a mystery. More than anything he’s relieved to be rid of the snake. Once he’s sure the coast is clear, his father hauls him out of the ditch and they begin gathering up the manila envelopes.

How vague, by contrast, is my sense of Bill’s life in India between 1938 and 1947. I’ve no memories, and even relics are few and far between. My younger brother has the police uniform he wore on his wedding day, his medals, a fearsome braided leather riding-crop, a Sam Browne belt and the red pennant from the front wing of his car. In an album compiled by his sister Pat, who phoned my school from Nairobi with news of the air crash, are some black-and-white photos from that phase of his life. Two show an eighteen-year-old Bill uncomfortably stuffed into what looks like mess dress, black tails, wing collar and cummerbund. There’s one of a tiger hunt, the head of the unfortunate creature propped on an improvised tripod. The snarling trophy was part of the furniture of my African childhood, its glass eyes swivelling uncannily as one passed, as though calculating the moment for revenge. At the time, it never occurred to me that this was an odd thing to find in a game ranger’s house.

Another photo shows him in riding boots and spurs, astride a white horse, concentrating hard. There are others of men in various uniforms, presumably his comrades, and one page is captioned ‘Bill’s girl-friends in India’. Most are of someone called Beryl Grey. In the first, looking like an aviator in her bathing cap, she smiles coquettishly, toned forearms folded on the lip of a swimming pool. In an adjacent picture, she’s holding an infant with her own ash-blonde locks. Somebody’s wife? Below her is a brunette identified as ‘Maria, Bill’s fiancée’. She wears a forage cap and on one cropped shoulder of her uniform are three letters: ‘W.A.O.’. Women’s Army Ordinance Corps? She has a pretty, open face, with full lips and a slightly startled expression. Why didn’t they get married? I was disappointed that there wasn’t a picture of the Gaekwad of Baroda’s sister. Aunt Pat had once told me that Bill knew her ‘very well’, and scandalised the members of the Bombay Yacht Club by taking her in for a drink. It seemed an unlikely story. Surely the Indian princes and their families were exempt from the racial distinctions of the Raj?

‘He adored women, your father,’ Pat insisted, ‘they made him thrilled skinny to be alive. It didn’t matter who they were or where they came from, young or old as God. Before the war, he did social work in Wales one school holidays. He got on like a house on fire with the miners’ wives and daughters.

One of them used to write for years afterwards. He was always so gallant.’

The old-fashioned stress on the last syllable made Bill seem even more part of a bygone era.

Not for the first time, the cook’s wife has fled her quarters to take refuge in their house. She’s crying and, jiggling her baby on one hip, shows the boy’s mother the weal on her arm. One eye’s already closing. The indignant voice outside grows louder.

‘Send Eunice out or I will come in and get her.’

The boy’s never heard the cook talk like this. He rushes to the bathroom window which looks onto the yard. His father’s already on the kitchen steps, threatening to sack the man if he doesn’t go home at once. The cook makes to lunge past his employer and regain Eunice, who begins wailing. The boy’s father shoves him back. In a trice the two men are locked in a wrestling hold. The cook’s the same height but considerably broader than the boy’s father, though much of him is beer belly. Time is suspended, the two men completely motionless, heads resting on each others’ shoulders, as if companionably supporting one another. But through the cook’s torn shirt and below his father’s shorts, the boy can see muscle quivering with effort. It’s like when male buffaloes lock horns. Sometimes minutes pass as they push at each other, sinews standing out like cables, even through the thick hide, before one concedes. There’s no snorting and stamping now, but both men are breathing heavily and the boy has the same sensation of the earth trembling. He senses his whole world will be shaken to bits if the cook wins. The boy can’t bear to look any longer and runs to his room. But he can’t stay still. He has to go and help his father.

By the time he’s evaded his mother’s snatch and got into the kitchen, however, his father’s walking back up the steps, tossing a piece of torn cloth towards the grate beneath the 44-gallon drum which heats their bathwater. There’s a graze on his neck and his face flushes with an expression of disgust as he wipes some drool off his shirt-front. The boy throws his arms round his father’s waist in sheer relief and won’t let go. Behind, he sees the cook stumbling towards his quarters. The rip in the back of his shirt is wider and the black skin beneath dusty. Otherwise everything’s eerily normal.

‘We can’t sack him,’ he hears his mother say later. ‘He’ll take it out on Eunice.’

‘He should bloody well learn to appreciate her,’ the boy’s father complains. ‘Do you know, the bugger tried to touch me for an advance yesterday so he can get himself a second wife.’

‘It’s just the way they are,’ his mother rejoins, ‘we shouldn’t interfere more than we have to. Besides, where are we going to find someone who cooks like him out here in the bush?’

‘He’s a bloody bully when he’s had a drink.’

‘Tell him how quickly he could get his second wife if he stopped the booze.’

But Bill hardly ever mentioned India. He once demonstrated some unarmed combat moves he said he’d learned at police training school. They worked beautifully on me, but when my turn came, Bill was too stocky, my muscles too feeble, to unbalance him. Another time he explained that his poor hearing in one ear was the result of a perforated tympanum.

‘I was lured to a house by terrorists, who threw a homemade grenade into the room where I was waiting.’

‘What does terrorist mean?’ The word was cropping up increasingly on the radio in connection with the Mau Mau uprising in neighbouring Kenya, where Pat had married into a settler family, their farmhouse increasingly resembling a fortress.

There was a second wound, which used to fascinate and scare me, a lumpy patch of hard yellowish skin above his right knee. Another improvised bomb had done the damage, this one hurled during a communalist riot. When it particularly troubled him, my father would sometimes call us to his bedroom and my brothers and I would take turns massaging the ache away, watching almost sorrowfully as the pain slowly evaporated from an expression grey as his eyes. It was an incomparable feeling when he needed us like that.

Looking back, I realise that, even if rarely mentioned, his previous life marked my African childhood in other ways. A few Indian words found their way into our vocabulary, including tatee, Bill’s word for pooh, whether ours or the dogs’. Another was desk-wallah. ‘I’m turning into a bloody desk-wallah,’ he’d moan, when paperwork kept him too long from safari.

Besides the threatening tiger-head, there were bronze figurines in the display cabinet, Shiva, Kali and – my favourite – the pot-bellied Ganesh with his elephant head. Once a ringtailed mongoose set up camp in our garden. It was soon christened ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’.


‘Gosh, you’re just like the elephant’s child in the Just So Stories,’ Bill grinned, tweaking my nose gently in his knuckles, ‘such a one for questions. I’ll ask Gran to send you the Jungle Books when I next write. Then you can find out all about Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.’

Two months later, they arrived from England. Perhaps that was the germ of my lifelong interest in Kipling, who became the subject of my first book.

There was an Indian flavour, too, in what we ate and drank. Bill’s favourite tipple was freshly squeezed lime-and-soda, a taste he’d acquired in the subcontinent. Except during our posting to chilly Ngorongoro in northern Tanganyika, he’d usually have one as soon as he got in from the office. I loved to aim the soda siphon into his chunky glass tankard, scattering the pips and betting which dimple they’d settle under. Racing my brothers to jump on his lap as the strains of ‘Lillibullero’ heralded the news from London, followed on Saturdays by the football scores, I’d triumphantly nurse his saucer of nuts, lightly fried with chilli, while we anticipated the results from the announcer’s intonation. Sundays, we usually had curry with chapattis, dal, mango pickle so strong it stripped the lining from your mouth and – when it could be ordered from the coast – Bombay Duck. The moment the tin was opened, the fetid stink betrayed it as fish, however, dark and stringy as a chocolate flake.

‘Why’s it called duck, then?’ I inevitably asked.

Bill shrugged with an amused look. ‘Things aren’t always what they seem in India.’


‘You’ll have to go and see for yourself.’

I’d stare, heart racing, as he speared a fragment into the pot of pickle, manoeuvred out a chunk of mango and crunched it all together in his mouth. No one, surely, could consume such a combination and survive. But Bill simply laughed, ha-ha breath fiery as a flame-thrower. His maroon slippers also came from Bombay, the leather uppers conserved through periodic re-solings, instruments of terror when we children misbehaved.


The obvious source of information about Bill’s life in India was my mother. How could he have resisted seducing her with tales of the gorgeous East during their courtship in Blitzedout, monochrome London, to which he returned after Indian Independence in 1947? But she became ever more remote after his death. Barely forty, her hair was dappled-grey with shock by the time she finally returned from Switzerland. She seemed dazed, unreachable, when she first visited us at school.

Despite my own bewildered grief, I was painfully struck by how unwilling she was to discuss what had happened. She had so many difficult practical issues to address, I suppose: where we’d live now, how she was going to manage with three of us still to educate.

Perhaps her unwillingness to talk about Bill was because she was trying to protect us. More likely, she was barely coping herself, now that history had repeated itself. My father was the second husband she’d lost to a violent death. The first was an impoverished Irishman she defied her outraged parents to marry, who drowned in the oil spill of his torpedoed destroyer. While she was pregnant. She’d never mentioned him much, so I was scandalised when his photo appeared one day next to Bill’s on her bedside table in the red-brick terrace house she bought us in Gorleston-on-Sea – a decaying Norfolk seaside resort where her father had practised law and my frail grandmother still lived, in a flat on the cliffs.

‘What’s he doing there?’ I once asked with adolescent resentfulness.

My mother smiled uncertainly. But I began to connect Sub- Lieutenant Hopkins with the misty inner world into which she increasingly retreated.

That first encounter after Bill’s death established the pattern. Even years later, her face would cloud if anyone asked about Africa. Outwardly, at least, I observed her wish that we accept that England was home now, though I hated the huddle of dreary, fog-prone streets facing the brown North Sea wastes which was Gorleston. In such circumstances, Bill’s life in India seemed as remote as Mars on the few occasions I gave it any thought. Once a letter came from a former police colleague, now stationed in Assam, covered with crossed-out addresses and stamps from three continents, which my brothers and I fought over for our collections. But whether my mother even answered it, I don’t know.

The other person who could have told me about Bill’s previous life was his sister Pat, who followed us back from Africa some years after his death, settling in an equally cheerless seaside town in Kent. We met only once or twice, however, during my adolescence, because of the bitterness my mother felt towards her. The feud had begun during their time on my paternal grandparents’ coffee farm in southern Tanganyika.

Bill’s father bought it as a retirement hobby, after stepping down as director of the government Coffee Research Station in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. Following decades as an agricultural officer in Nigeria, Trinidad and Tanganyika, he had no immediate wish to return to England. Bill, his bride and four-year-old son from her first marriage emigrated to the farm immediately after their wedding in December 1947. But it was a struggle for two families to make a living, and soon there was such friction between my mother and her female in-laws that my father escaped as soon as he could to a job in the Game Department. Bill’s death, however, brought the old vendetta to a climax. Unable to contact my mother, Pat had – very reasonably, I thought, even at the time – flown his broken body up to Nairobi to be buried. For my mother it was the last straw. Not only had she been deprived of the opportunity of seeing Bill off, she once complained, but Pat had taken him out of Tanganyika, away from the national parks which were his life.

‘He always wanted his ashes scattered in the Ngorongoro Crater if something happened,’ my mother sniffled into her tissue.

Instead he’d been plonked in a suburban cemetery, hemmed in by desk-wallahs who’d died of drink and boredom.

‘Can’t we move him?’ I couldn’t bear the thought he was lying somewhere he might be unhappy.

My mother shrugged helplessly.

Only once I’d left home did I feel free to contact Pat. A flamboyant extrovert, with a colourful life of her own, her stories about Bill seemed too melodramatic, or gilded by time, to take very seriously. As far as India was concerned, she claimed he’d worked undercover for a while, dressed in a kaftan and passing as a Pathan in the border region abutting Afghanistan.

Had she mixed up the North-West Frontier with Sindh? Once, apparently, Bill and an Indian subordinate chased some malefactors into a ravine. Turning a dog-leg in the chasm, the Indian suddenly barged my father from his saddle, cushioning him in his arms as they fell. Only as he dusted himself down did Bill notice the wire ahead, stretched taut and sharp as a blade at neck height across the defile.

Another time she talked of riots he’d distinguished himself in handling, as Partition approached. But there were never any specific places, dates, or names to anchor these daredevil tales. Like my mother, Pat had never been to India, which she seemed to conceive in terms of Orientalist romances like Beau Geste or The Four Feathers, so unaccountably popular with moviegoers in the 1930s. She was nine years younger than Bill, still at school when he left for the subcontinent; and when she described his exploits there, it was with the starry-eyed look of someone describing a matinee idol.

‘Do you know he was the youngest-ever winner of the Indian Police Medal?’ she’d enthuse. ‘You should be incredibly proud of him.’

But Bill had been in the subcontinent well before I was born, and if I occasionally wondered about his experiences there, other questions were much more pressing. Why had my father been on that plane in February 1965? Why had he joined the UN-funded mission to the mountainous south-west of what by then had become Tanzania, scouting for suitable areas to settle Tutsis fleeing from the Hutu terror in neighbouring Rwanda – events repeated with such catastrophic results thirty years later? Why were too many passengers aboard? Why had no one factored in the extra distance required for take-off at that altitude? Why had the plane broken in two when, according to witnesses, it barely brushed the tree-tops at the end of the dirt runway? Why had only the front part burst into flames when it hit the ground, so that Bill and the pilot were probably burned alive? Why Bill, why us? It was no consolation that he’d died trying to help refugees, the line so many people took after his death. As a young adult I returned to Tanzania on several occasions, hoping to settle the ghosts of the past. The new African owners of the houses we’d lived in looked at me kindly but blankly, as if the times I talked about were already as remote as the Triassic era. The bitterest disappointment was that Kimwaga had vanished. After Bill’s death, he’d apparently worked briefly for another European family, before joining the Game Department himself. But no one could tell me where he’d been posted, or name the village he originally came from.


In the pub, Anna leans across the table. ‘Maybe this email’s a sign? That you should go yourself. Find out about the Hoors and Sindh and what your father got up to in Satara.’

I shrug.

‘You’ve never been to India, have you?’

I feel a little foolish, as I always do when people ask me that. The subcontinent’s always loomed large in my research. Why haven’t I gone? Partly because for many years I used what time and money I had to head back to Africa. Since then, there’s been the rest of the world to see. In any case, I’d always assumed that the India I’d been most interested in, the India of the Raj, has vanished even more definitively than the Tanganyika of my childhood. The summer, when I have most time to travel, is one long monsoon downpour in western India, making it difficult to get around. By Easter, it’s an oven again, the thermometer at forty degrees or more. Christmas, which everyone agrees is the best period to visit, has been spoken for as long as I can remember. Professor Bhosle’s email hasn’t made me any keener to go. I’m sure I can now find out all there is to know about Bill’s time in India from him.

My confidence is misplaced, however. Following his request, I contact my brothers, asking if any of them found papers about Bill’s time in India after our mother’s death a few years ago. In the meantime, my historian colleague informs me that he’s written books on the Independence Movement in Bombay Province and has recently begun to focus on Satara District more specifically. He’s especially interested in a secret Memorandum Bill’s supposed to have written about the Parallel Government. Google reveals that Satara is a remote country district several hundred miles south of Mumbai, and that the Parallel Government was an armed underground movement formed after Gandhi’s imprisonment in August 1942. I’m now burning to know more about Bill’s involvement.

Frustratingly, Bhosle doesn’t add much to what he said about him in his first email. He does, however, tell me where the relevant archives are located, offers some pointers about histories of Sindh and directs me to what he describes as the best book so far on the Parallel Government, by one A.B. Shinde. Unfortunately, it’s not in the British Library; nor can I find a copy for sale on the internet. When I report back from my brothers in the negative, Bhosle starts taking longer and longer to return my emails. Eventually, he says he’ll collate everything he’s got on Bill after his next research trip to Mumbai. He’s planning two weeks there in December. It’s only intuition, but I can’t help feeling he’s increasingly reluctant to answer my questions. Why?

By the end of summer, the idea’s taken root. For the first time in years I’ll be free this Christmas. I could spend part of the vacation in the archives, alongside Bhosle himself, perhaps. Maybe, after all, something of the India of my father’s time has survived the tsunami of globalisation driving this latest tiger economy? It’s a golden opportunity to add to my knowledge of Bill. I only knew him for my first eleven years; that’s just two years more than the period he spent in India, which was no doubt crucial in making the man I remember. On the other hand, I wonder how much personal material there’s likely to be in public archives. Will I really learn much about what he was like as a young man from administrative reports?

Still undecided, I contact Bhosle again in mid-October, asking if we can meet over Christmas. In his reply, the professor tells me he won’t be going to Mumbai in December after all. Nor can he receive me in his home city of Kolhapur, where I’ve offered to travel to meet him. However, he promises to advise Dr Dhavatkar, the director of the Elphinstone Archives and a friend of his, to smooth my passage should I decide to go. His apparent evasiveness is disconcerting. But even if Bhosle’s so inexplicably unavailable all of a sudden, he’s given me enough to get started. If I don’t seize the chance, I know I’ll regret it. Before I can change my mind, I book the flight. On 26 November, ten days after getting my visa, and barely two weeks before my intended departure date, Mumbai is attacked by a dozen heavily armed Islamists, who apparently arrived by sea from Pakistan. Scores of civilians are killed in and around sites favoured by Westerners in the city, as well as in the main railway station. The Foreign Office immediately advises against all non-essential travel. Shocked by graphic pictures of the still-burning Taj hotel, the bloodied platforms of Victoria Terminus and the heart-rending story of the Israeli infant saved by his Indian ayah from the mayhem in Nariman House, I question the wisdom of my trip. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 provoked serious sabre-rattling between Pakistan and India and only a few years earlier the subcontinental neighbours were on the brink of nuclear war. The current rhetoric between the two sides is reaching an alarming pitch.

‘I wouldn’t go, if I were you,’ Anna advises when we meet again at the beginning of December in a Waterloo pub. ‘It’s not the right time.’

‘If something else kicks off, maybe not. But Mumbai will be swarming with security, there’s probably never been a safer time. Besides, it’s cost me a packet and I can’t claim on insurance if I cancel, because it’s a terrorist incident. Anyway, I’m too curious now about Bill’s life in India.’

As she’s getting us another round, I overhear a woman at an adjoining table declaiming drunkenly about the Muslim plot to take over Britain.

‘It’s all been planned, you’ll see!’ she shrieks. ‘Mumbai’s a warning to us all.’

 Excerpted from The Setting Sun: A Memoir of Empire and Family Secrets by Bart Moore-Gilbert. Copyright (c) 2014 Verso Books and Bart Moore-Gilbert. Excerpt republished with permission of Verso Books.