Across the Black Waters at Eighty

This post was written by Dominic Rai. Dominic is Co-director, with Caroline Goffin, of Salt of the Sarkar.

In autumn 2020 and throughout 2021 we are marking the eightieth year of the publication of Mulk Raj Anand’s classic novel Across the Black Waters. Our vision remains to introduce and promote this unique book and story, Across the Black Waters, to the general reader and to work with teachers to create space for this novel in schools. 

Our major aims for the coming year:

  • 80th anniversary print-on-demand edition of the novel
  • an educational guidebook – Across the Black Waters: Fact, Fiction and Photography

‘Slowly, slowly, gentreman, Franceville is not running away,’ Kirpu said, blinking his mischievous eyes and shaking his sly, weather-beaten face in a mockery of Lalu’s haste.
‘Being a man of many campaigns, you feel there is nothing new,’ Lalu teased.
‘I don’t feel peevish and shy as a virgin, as you do, son,’ said Uncle Kirpu and patted Lalu on the back affectionately.
‘Where is Daddy Dhanoo?’ Lalu said with a pale smile.
‘First on deck in full war kit! Just to set the young an example!’ Kirpu said.
‘Let us hurry, then, and follow his example,’ Lalu said and pulled the protesting Kirpu.
Extract from Across the Black Waters, Chapter one, as the ship reaches Marseilles

‘As far as thoughts and feelings go, the book has the touch of complete authenticity, and we follow with confidence the reactions of the various characters, Lalu, Uncle Kirpu, and the unpleasant Subah.’.
 The Spectator, Bonamy Dobrée, November 1940

Map-Marseille, excerpt from original commission by Sam Holland

It’s hard to imagine how a novel set in The Great War managed to get printed at all during World War Two telling the story of Indian troops fighting in Europe for the first time.

With paper in short supply and printing companies servicing the war effort, Jonathan Cape managed to produce a beautiful hardback edition which reached bookshops in London and Toronto in 1940.

Mulk’s novel is needed even more today as British and international educators struggle to find resources to teach literature and history that is inclusive and suitable for the twenty-first century.

To quote the National Education Union what is needed now is a ‘Review and to develop a Department for Education plan to teach about the history of the UK and its relationship to the rest of the world – including Britain’s colonial history and the history of migration.’

Mulk Raj Anand’s acclaimed novel Across the Black Waters is the second book in the Lalu trilogy. In the first book The Village, Lalu disgraced leaves his village in rural Panjab and joins the Indian Army during British colonial rule.

Mulk came on a scholarship to study in London in the 1920s. His first novel Untouchable was published in 1935 and has remained in print ever since. Across The Black Waters was Mulk’s fifth book.

In 1998 while running Mán Melá theatre company in London we were thrilled to produce Across the Black Waters as a play with Mulk Raj Anand’s blessing and permission. This association with Mulk continued up to his death in 2004 aged 99, when we hosted an evening to celebrate his life and work at the Nehru Centre in London: read the event programme here.  (Note: The programme link opens in a PDF in a new tab)

Our relationship with Mulk Raj Anand eventually led to obtaining the rights in 2014 for the first British printing of the novel since the 1950s.

With our World War One centenary edition sold out, our plans are to make a new celebratory print-on-demand edition available in spring 2021. We will use the text of the 1940 first edition which over the last sixty years of Indian printing has differed from the original. See Sarah Dronfield’s blog post ‘Proofreading Across the Black Waters’.

We are inviting guest blog posts by educators who are already using Across the Black Waters as part of English Literature and History lessons, as well as blog posts of memories of Mulk by his friends and associates.

Our last blog post for the end of our World War One Centenary programme, featured our first photographic exhibition with 1914 images of events in the novel taken in Marseilles and Orléans by Daily Mirror pioneer photographer Horace Grant. This exhibition and accompanying events took place in November 2018 thanks to our partners at Insole Court, Cardiff, whose support made this a significant ending to previous work, and now a stepping stone to our new plans and vision.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as we move toward a new reality in 2021, we are even more committed to our work with Mulk Raj Anand’s novel and continuing to develop a vital education resource.

We will shortly share with you: 

  • a new introductory film for the next phase of our work
  • a map of Lalu’s journey from India to the Front Line via the port city of Marseilles
  • a pilot online course using the Daily Mirror images which document the Indian soldiers arrival in Marseilles and their journey to the Front Line.

This will form part of Across the Black Waters: Fact, Fiction and Photography, a guidebook illuminating the literary and historical threads in our on-going journey of discovery.


Acknowledgments and further reading

Sarah Dronfield is a freelance editor. Here’s the link to her blog post ‘Proofreading Across the Black Waters’:

The map excerpt depicted in this article is a small part of a new image that Salt of the Sarkar has commissioned from Sam Holland at givememmaps, for the 80th Anniversary edition of Across the Black Waters.

Dominic Rai is Co-director of Salt of the Sarkar. Illustrating Across the Black Waters is a short film made of his visit to the Daily Mirrors archive in Watford to see how the images of Indian soldiers were first seen by the general public in 1914:


To find out more, contact us at: or call Dominic on 07519 634 282


Image credits:  Salt of the Sarkar