This book came about because I’d been thinking a lot about growing older, about what is going to happen to us all. The population is ageing – for the first time the over 50s outnumber the rest of us – and it’s getting older. Where are we all going to live? Care homes are closing, pensions are dwindling, and life expectancy is rising. Then I had a brainwave. We live in a global age – the internet, cheap travel, satellite TV…when it comes to goods and services it hardly matters where we live. “Geography is history.” Our healthcare is sourced from the developing countries; how about turning the tables and outsourcing the elderly? How about setting up retirement homes in developing countries where it’s sunny and labour is cheap? So I created an Indian whizz-kid called Sonny who sets up a retirement home in Bangalore and fills it with Brits.
I wanted to explore questions of race and mortality, but I also wanted it to be funny. I wanted to write a comedy of manners between east and west, and chose Bangalore because it’s both an old Raj cantonement town and Silicon City, home to gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech offices. .And call centres. In the novel Evelyn, one of my characters, wanders into a call centre because she thinks she can phone from there. And ends up befriending a young operative who has to pretend she comes from England. (“What’s Enfield like, aunty?”) Evelyn’s Enfield is a place of tea dances, a place that no longer exists – except in India. For in many ways India resembles the Britain of fifty years ago, the Britain of my characters’ youth, where children were polite and Morris Oxfords puttered along the streets. Or so it seems. But that, too, can be an illusion.
There are many characters in the book, each with a reason for going to India: escape, revenge, spiritual enlightenment, marriage to a rich maharaja. And India changes them profoundly, in ways they would never have expected. Norman is a frightful old lech; Minoo and Mrs Cowasjee are the Parsi couple who run the hotel – a shabby, former guest house. Mrs Cowasjee is the resident nurse, though in truth she has only worked, a long time ago, as a chiropdist’s assistant. Evelyn is a gentle soul from Sussex. Muriel is a working class Londoner who has come out to India because she’s been mugged and robbed, back in Peckham.
Enticed by advertisements for a newly restored palatial hotel and filled with visions of a life of leisure, good weather and mango juice in their gin, a group of very different people leave England to begin a new life in India. On arrival they are dismayed to find the palace is a shell of its former self, the staff more than a little eccentric, and the days of the Raj long gone. But, as they soon discover, life and love can begin again, even in the most unexpected circumstances.