Palanquin, set in 19th-century India and Victorian London, opens with a fictional preface and introduction by the son of one of the story’s second-tier characters. This is followed by a short publisher’s note explaining the decade-long delay in the book’s release to protect one character’s sacred reputation. These three statements present the novel’s conceit, that it is a factual chronicle of actual persons and events as recorded in the collected papers and documents of the writer’s deceased father, and in others’ journals, diaries, etc. to which the son had access.
The two opening chapters establish historical context for the main narrative, the first describing the birth of British trade in 17th-Century India with a fictionalized encounter between historical figures Capt. William Hawkins, master of the Hector, and Mughal Emperor Jahangir. This leads to the emperor’s execution of three high-placed traitors whom Hawkins exposes, and advancement of British trade. A short second chapter reports on how the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) sets the tone for much of Britain’s imperialist conflicts that follow (and, incidentally, in Afghanistan today).