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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Strangling vines, thuggery, and the Raj


It was yet another unexpected outcome of visiting the Wellington Public Library.

The library's website, that is.

Being immersed deeply in the India that Eleanor, wife of Captain Reid of the East Indies ship Friendship, found in September 1800, I am reading anything pertinent to Calcutta of her period. So, my search of the library catalogue simply asked for books on the subject of the East India Company.

And for some strange reason a novel came up.  A first novel by non-fiction writer, M. J. Carter.

Did I want to read it?

Here is the annotation on the library website.

'M.J. Carter has cooked up a spicy dish: a pinch of Moonstone, a dash of Sherlock and a soup├žon of Fu Manchu added to a rich stew of John Masters. A splendid romp and just the job for a cold winter's evening in front of a blazing fire' William Dalrymple Calcutta 1837. 

The East India Company rules India - or most of it; and its most notorious and celebrated son, Xavier Mountstuart, has gone missing.William Avery, a down-at-heel junior officer in the Company's army, is sent to find him, in the unlikely company of the enigmatic and uncouth Jeremiah Blake. A more mismatched duo couldn't be imagined, but they must bury their differences as they are caught up in a search that turns up too many unanswered questions and seems bound to end in failure.What was it that so captivated Mountstuart about the Thugs, the murderous sect of Kali-worshippers who strangle innocent travellers by the roadside? Who is Jeremiah Blake and can he be trusted? And why is the whole enterprise shrouded in such secrecy?
I imagine that this is the publisher's blurb.  Who, I wonder, is William Dalrymple?  A descendant of the East India Company hydrographer who did his best to sink Captain James Cook's career?  That, and the over-the-top blurb almost dissuaded me, but the book, I found, was in the local branch library, so next trip into the village, I took it out.

And I am very pleased that I did.  The blurb does the writer a grave disservice.  Instead of comparing her to old detective story writers, I would liken her to the Indian novelist who made the Booker shortlist with Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh.  The characters are as alive, and the writing as harshly brilliant.  There is the same vividness, the sense of being there, in that place and at that time.

In the story, a silly young officer, William Avery, is coerced into agreeing to head upriver from Calcutta in search of a mad poet he greatly admires, Xavier Mountstuart. His companion is to be a European fakir, Jeremiah Blake, and they are to be escorted by two Indians.  On the eve of their departure, Avery's best friend is murdered, and his reputation disgraced.  Therein lies the only mystery.  This is NOT a detective novel.

Instead, it is a fascinating picaresque, with the mission of questioning the reader's acceptance of the myth (or maybe not a myth) of thuggery -- thugs being members of a sect who worship the warlike Kali, and waylay innocent travelers to murder them in the goddess's name.

When I returned the book today, I recommended it to the librarian, who said, "Is it violent?"

My answer was no.  This is a book that you could read alone in the house at night.  But it is also one that will leave you thinking deeply about India and the Raj, and whether our mental pictures of the Orient in the nineteenth century are, in fact, correct. 

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