City of Stolen Magic: Re-imagining the British colonisation of India with a fantasy twist
It’s 1855, and the British rule India. Danger lurks around every corner for Indians who dare to fight back against their colonisers, and the British are keen to take Indian resources, including magic, and use them to their own advantage.
For a moment there, that sentence might have seemed like a recounting of history, until the word magic appeared. Welcome to the world of the City of Stolen Magic, academic Nazneen Ahmed Pathak’s debut children’s novel, which presents the British colonisation of India with a fantasy twist.
The result is a heart-stopping adventure story, following the determined Chompa as she navigates Dacca and then London to try and find her mother, whose magic has led to her being kidnapped by the sinister Company.
On the way, Chompa discovers her own powers and makes friends with other children who are alone in their own ways, including maid Leeza and ship worker Tipu.
The idea for the book came about when Pathak was on maternity leave after having her son Roshan. While reading a story to him, she “looked down at him and realised there were no stories out there about his heritage as a British-Indian-Bangladeshi child”.
Pathak had previously been working on a research project examining the history of migrant communities in East London and had begun thinking that her own community from Bangladesh had only arrived in London in the 1960s.
"I wanted to write a book about colonialism for children like my son, but I also felt children also deserve adventure stories – stories that are fun, and filled with characters who look like them, with agency and the ability to change the course of their own lives"
“But I was so surprised,” she says. “I discovered merchant navy sailors from Bengal and South Asia had been travelling to London and making East London home for centuries. They had set up lodging houses for other sailors – these were the first ‘Indian’ restaurants in the area that’s now known as Banglatown. When I discovered this history, just months before having my first child, for the first time my place in Britain, the place of my family, made sense.”
The combination of these experiences resulted in the City of Stolen Magic, a rollicking adventure that is complete with a cast of child characters who are mischievous, an endearing found family, escapades on land and sea, and plenty of tension and drama.
Its magical twist wasn’t just a way for Pathak to deliver history through a slightly more appealing lens. Instead, she says she set out to tell “unheard stories – and the story of magical traditions in South Asia and the rest of the world is one such lesser known story, just like the real history of empire and colonialism”.
As well as being full of fun, the City of Stolen Magic is also a serious story, one that follows a tradition of fantasy books that speak about power.
Pathak tries (and succeeds) to shed light on the devastating effects of colonialism on the colonised; she’s careful not to scare her young readers, but the book is also firm about the effects the British had on India and its people.
"Because of the way history is preserved and recorded by those in power (usually white upper-class men), we often don’t actually have many factual stories told from the perspective of communities who aren’t in power – the colonised and enslaved, women, children, non-binary people"
“I wanted to write a book about colonialism for children like my son, but I also felt children like Roshan, with heritage from places that had been colonised, also deserve adventure stories – stories that are fun, and filled with characters who look like them, with agency and the ability to change the course of their own lives,” she says.
“I didn’t want to write something that would re-traumatise children who have already inherited traumatic histories. I also adore children’s fantasy and think it often tells stories of power, inequity and resistance to oppression. So it was the perfect genre for what I wanted to do.”
Facts and figures, says Pathak, are important if we are to understand the “scale and massive impact of colonialism”. But fiction has its own power in helping us to acknowledge and appreciate what everyday people went through.
“Because of the way history is preserved and recorded by those in power (usually white upper-class men), we often don’t actually have many factual stories told from the perspective of communities who aren’t in power – the colonised and enslaved, women, children, non-binary people,” says Pathak.
“So to try to imagine the everyday human histories that belong to them, we need to empathise and imagine and piece together fragments into narratives – a process I call embroidering.
“I am an embroiderer in my artistic practice and I love that the word can mean both stitching and making things up – because that’s what I think writing really is. Stitching together fragments and filling gaps with made-up things, to create something whole, and real. And fantasy, when written well, can feel as real as the world around us – sometimes even more.”
Bringing history to life is perhaps not the primary job of fiction, but it is definitely one of the more powerful and magical aspects of stories. The best way to teach history, says Pathak, is “to enable everyone to become historians – to research history, interpret evidence, and come to conclusions themselves” through following a trail of breadcrumbs.
“Fiction is a brilliant vehicle for seeding these breadcrumbs,” Pathak continues. “I do this in the City of Stolen Magic: the name Tipu, for example, refers to Tipu Sultan, an Indian king who stood up to British colonialism in the eighteenth century, and was killed in battle by the British.
“By following breadcrumbs and doing research themselves, young people can make up their own minds about historical events and what they think the events tell us about our society then and now. And that, in a world of fake news and polarised debates, will be for the benefit of us all.”
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance literary journalist and editor. She writes about books for Stylist Magazine online and is the books editor at Phoenix Magazine.
Follow her here: @sarahshaffi