Under my byline

Save them from history

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 15 July 2010

A historical novel/spy thriller on the British victory over Siraj ud-Daulah makes one wonder: when will the great Indians be fictionalised?

One of Gore Vidal’s seven historical novels covering the rise and “fall” of the American empire is Lincoln: A Novel. In it, he views Abraham Lincoln and his presidency through the eyes of the president’s contemporaries and close associates — real historical individuals, including members of the cabinet and even Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Published in 1984, the book drew praise as well as fierce criticism — Lincoln is, after all, one of the secular saints, and Vidal is held by many to be a great sinner.

In 1988, when the book was made into a TV mini-series, a very entertaining exchange developed in the pages of the New York Review of Books between Vidal and his critics (you can read it here and then here). The critics were academic historians who said that Vidal had toyed with Lincoln and thereby created a figure who was a) diminished in stature and b) not true to history. Vidal, with his usual cool brilliance and nastiness, dispatched the “scholar-squirrels” by being, apart from the better polemicist, by far the better historian.

As a novelist, Vidal had a broad perspective rather than a narrow focus on a few facts, and a sensitivity to lived reality rather than hindsight. So he was better attuned to drawing maximum truth from existing evidence. Thus, on several major and minor points — among the latter, the quality of Lincoln’s bowel movements — Vidal was more right than the professional historians. Thanks partly to Vidal, we can think of Abraham Lincoln as both more and less than the towering figure of American republican hagiography.

If only it were possible to do likewise with important Indians. Poor James Laine, who dared to take a broad perspective on Shivaji. His Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India was banned and burned. A high-quality non-reverent fictionalisation of Dr Ambedkar, or indeed any Indian historical leader (alleged bigots like Aurangzeb and Firoz Shah Tughluq aside), by an Indian author, is difficult to imagine. Prakash Jha’s film Raajneeti and Javier Moro’s novel El Sari Rojo (The Red Sari) were angrily received, because they both bore slight similarities to the story of Sonia Gandhi. What is the Indian novelist to do? Well, what can he do but spurn the gift of history?

Too bad. Others will step in and have their fun. Grant Sutherland, an Australian thriller-writer who lives in England, has just published the first of a series of novels called the Decipherer’s Chronicles which will focus on the Anglo-French rivalry at the time of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). The Cobras of Calcutta makes narrative use of the greed, intrigue, lies and brinkmanship that resulted in the victory, in 1757, of the British over both Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah of Murshidabad and their fellow Europeans and competitors the French.

With only a few exceptions, the chief characters of Sutherland’s novel are drawn from history. They include the quarrelsome members of the East India Company’s council of Calcutta, among them the wily William Watts, and also Colonel Robert Clive (supposed architect of the victory at Plassey) — apart from Indians like the tragic young nawab, scheming merchants like Omichand and Jagat Seth, and the usurper Mir Jafar Khan.

But the protagonist is fictional: young Alistair Douglas, a provincial gentleman come to make his fortune in India as an East India Company “writer”. He has little taste for the counting house, and quickly involves himself in the fighting — and there is a lot of fighting, between the nawab’s forces (“the Moors”) and the British, and the British and the French — as well as the intrigue. Douglas becomes assistant to William Watts, who is the Company’s representative to the nawab’s court and is thus the linchpin of the secret effort to, first, extend the Company’s influence and, later, to overthrow the nawab.

Since this is the first of a series, Sutherland doesn’t exert himself to live up to the title. Having read it you will not know what the Cobras of Calcutta are, nor how the network of international espionage worked. This book is about the here and now of the struggle for Bengal; the protagonist, young Douglas, is kept so busy doing things that he remains two-dimensional. Sutherland writes thrillers, and his book has some of the thriller’s flaws: where there is too much plot there is too little detail, and vice versa. Others (like the excellent Patrick O’Brian) have written early 19th-century naval warfare with far greater skill. And, one presumes the later books in this series will be set elsewhere in the world.

So this is fun, and reasonably true to recorded history (this reviewer read the real William Watts’ memoirs, and looked up several of the other characters). Even though this book is not going to be a classic, Sutherland has claimed for himself, and for rigorous, evidence-based historical fiction, a crucial territory of Indian history. But not the kingdom entire: there is room for a good novel which will make use of these Indian characters, notably the powerful, shadowy merchants Jagat Seth and Omichand and perhaps even the nawab and Mir Jafar — all of whom have long been simply cast as the bad guys. It’s time to rescue these Indians, and so many others, from history.

The Cobras of Calcutta
Grant Sutherland
pp viii + 456


One Response

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  1. Anonymous said, on 27 July 2010 at 11:44 am

    good observation

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