It may come as a surprise to Indians, although perhaps it should not, that there were colonisers who were less than comfortable with the entire project of colonisation. With the advantage of hindsight, and the availability of archives, the new writing about the empire has begun to disrupt the boundaries the colonised and the colonisers as mutually exclusive categories.

One new book in this vein is Kief Hillsbery’s The Tiger and the Ruby: A Journey to the Other Side of British India, the account of a clerk who came to Calcutta to make a career but soon sabotaged it by getting himself transferred to a provincial city, and later on, disappeared from India but did not return to England.

1842: Nigel Halleck, the author’s mother’s grandfather’s great-uncle, came to India as an employee of the East India Company. He worked with revenue collection offices in several locations in India: Calcutta, Dhaka, Jullundar, Hoshiarpur, Patna. In 1850, he visited England briefly as a part of the huge retinue of the maharaja of Nepal, and was never heard from after that.

Rumours have it that he had something to do with the missing carats from the Koh-i-noor diamond gifted to Queen Victoria in that visit. Some speculate that he was a spy. His family thinks that he had “gone native”.

Very little of his correspondence survives; a lot of it was destroyed in the 1940 German bombing of Coventry.

His interest pricked by this family mystery, Hillsbery set out in 1975 and 1982 to find more concrete details. His journey into Pakistan, India and Nepal, more than a century after his ancestor’s, makes for a detective story merged with a sensitive history of the British Empire in India.

Hillsbery’s is a huge canvas: it covers passing laws such as banning of the practice of sacrificing children to crocodiles and sharks in the Ganga Sagar island, action taken against the Thugs who looted caravans and strangled the victims to wipe out any possibility of being identified. There are details about events leading to the Anglo-Sikh wars and the Anglo-Afghan wars. Hillsbery discusses these events in light of how Halleck must have made sense of the larger debates of the day: the British attempt to secure a foothold in South Asia in an attempt to save it from the imperial aspirations of Russia, and the divide among the British between those who wanted to expand the empire through force and those who wanted to use diplomacy and strategy.

Hillsbery wanted to be the first from his family to pay respects at Halleck’s grave. Apart from that goal, he fights his own battles with terrain and temperatures. As a result, Patna, the oldest most inhabited city in India, and the Ganges come alive with a deep sense of observation:

The humidity in Patna rose from the Plain in extravagant whiffs, binding the damp grey ground to the billowing clouds that smothered the sky. The driver of the minibus who dropped us off at the Ganges Guest House didn’t know if Patna was the hottest place in India, but it was one of the wettest. The abundance of moisture was a terrifying thing. It drenched you from within and deceived you from without, suppressing the spectrum and dissolving all you saw into a uniform, enigmatic grey. It might have been the colour of the Ganges, which was more like a sea than a river there – three miles wide, swift and deep and dense with silt. But what was the colour of the Ganges but the colour of the mud-hut villages that ranged to the horizon, villages in their turn the colour of the footpaths that lined them, and the fields that fed them, and the canals that watered the fields, opening into buffalo ponds with their sheen of tarnished pewter in the saturated light?

But it is not just his own travel that Hillsbery writes about; he writes about Halleck’s journey too. Halleck’s surviving letters, esoteric accounts from the 19th century, and Hillsbery’s capacity to reconstruct Halleck’s days in India and Nepal come together to imagine what it must have been like to live in those times, to deal with fellow-workers and Indians. The chapter on Halleck’s arrival in India stands out:

It took a moment for him to realize that the clamour of the palanquin bearers competing for a fare was directed at him. As a foreigner, he existed in a state of ritual impurity, outside India’s complex system of hereditary castes and subcastes. But his place in the social order was as fixed as any Hindu’s. In a society based on knowing one’s place, he could no more choose his own than the lowest sweeper could choose to be a Brahmin priest. A sahib – the respectful term used by natives to address Englishmen, corresponding to “sir” but more freighted with obeisance – was born, not made. And he was born, above all, to command natives. He was a ruler, but also a prisoner – of expectations, good and bad. A sahib had to act like a sahib. He was resolute in his actions, definite in his prejudices, dignified in his manner.

Many such insights into how Halleck must have imbibed his preparatory examination, the company’s system of administration, the recklessness of its officers, the attitudes of “noble” and “virtuous” lieutenants prepare the reader for the reason behind his self-exile. Hillsbery opens with the clarity that his uncle found the “white man’s burden” too difficult to bear.

It takes 21 years, three journeys, and a chance encounter with a Japanese man in Nepal in 1996, to come full circle, to understand why.

The discovery takes Hillsbery and, now, the readers, through labyrinthine accounts of the various governors-general of India in Sindh and Punjab, the wars fought by the Company not just in India but in Afghanistan, the diplomatic strategies with Nepal, and everything done to keep the Russian empire at bay. Halleck removed himself from the scene just in time: the Revolt of 1857 was a testimony to the fact that the British had taken it too far.

The Tiger and the Ruby is a hybrid. Two travelogues – Halleck’s and Hillsbery’s – rolled into one, as well as a biography which unfolds as a whodunit encompassing elements as varied as poetry by the Persian poet Jami, the Koh-i-noor legend, an Afghan prince, and even an encounter with a seeress in Kathmandu, the occult capital of the world.

Then there are things that the book does not explicitly spell out, such as a commentary on the sexual mores of Victorian times. In this sense, the book is not just a hybrid, but also a transgressive text, studying an act of what was at the time consider a serious social transgression.

The Tiger and the Ruby is also very fluid in the way it traverses history and imagination. Hillsbery ends with a list of books he uses as sources but does not use notes throughout the book to identify those sources, or to differentiate his reconstruction from recorded history. It makes for an intimate history – a personal story culled out from a historical time.

It would appear that at least some in the West are now writing about the British side of Empire via a sympathetic lens to point out that the British did not constitute a homogenous group of despots who indiscriminately looted and exploited Indians. But the way Hillsbery handles the subject, treating history as mystery, makes it an interesting debate from the point of view of storytelling too.

The Tiger and the Ruby: A Journey to the Other Side of British India, Kief Hillsbery, Penguin India.

This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.