Far Away and Long Ago

Once upon a time, though it seems so far away now, it was 1978 and I was a child. My father was an officer in the Indian Railways and was presiding over the phased withdrawal of steam and its eventual replacement by diesel and electric. Narrow gauge lines were being dismantled in favour of broad gauge, which meant a standard five feet width so that express trains could gallop past at alarming speed. The old locomotives were being sold as scrap, or put into museums or made to decorate the entrances of railway colonies, stations and offices.

We were in a small town in Bengal, so small that no one knows its name save for the fifty or so railway officers who lived in red brick bungalows in its tiny nineteenth century colony. The bungalows had front gardens, lily pools, back gardens, summer houses, green houses, Bougainvillea trellises, Rangoon creepers over the wooden balustrades and large tin baths in enormous bathrooms, under which lay coiled snakes as they glided in for shelter on a hot summer day.

As we played amongst the sunflowers and tamarind trees, the smell of Railway mutton curry drifted in from the kitchens,  prepared by the station cook in fiery chilly sauce. And in the evenings one set off for the Club, with its wooden ballroom where the moms and dads played rummy and sipped beer while the children scrambled around the badminton courts and gardens playing ‘catch’ or ‘Red Rover’ or the exciting “Wolf and the Lamb”.

It had been a terrible year for rains and flash floods had suddenly left us all marooned. My father was in a terrible state because all the lines had been flooded and train movement ground to a halt. Passengers were stranded, it is true, but the more serious trouble was the movement of freight.

When Lord Dalhousie built the first railway lines it was less for passenger movement than for the quick movement of troops, raw materials for industries and freight movement across the country. And so we put ourselves into a saloon car and travelled as far down as we dared while my father supervised flood relief work and I, cut off from my school in Calcutta, could enjoy three weeks of wondrous confinement in a train.

Oh, what a time I had! We baked in the saloon car by day, because there was no air-conditioning and the slatted shutters had to be pulled down. In the evening the carriage went for a spot of shunting and I hung my head out of the window as we wandered up and down branch lines, backward and forward, backward and forward till we were put on the ‘up’ or ‘down’ siding. And all the while our steam engine puffed and panted and whooshed, screaming  a thin tinny horn as the wheels went jhuk-jhuk-jhuk and the carriage clicked and rattled.

Saloon RA-6 (232)

Once every three days another steam engine would ponderously pull up alongside ours with a tremendous whooosh and the driver would give me a wink and tug at the horn as his mate shovelled across coal from his engine to ours for. . . . cooking, for the saloon kitchen had no gas range but a mighty coal-fed chula upon which meals were cooked. And yes, the sunny-side-up for my father’s breakfast was perfectly done.

We were the last Romantics! Alas, steam was out by 1980! Never again would I ride on a train pulled by a steam locomotive, with its tugging, jerky movements and its tremendous hissing and spitting as it breathed fire and brimstone and hurtled headlong into the night. I have travelled far and wide on clinical trains that pull noiselessly  in and glide gently out, but never felt the thrill of that first tremendous tug as the wheels pulled and the doors  slammed and we could smell the smoky air and had to dust the soot from the seat before settling in.

The British Raj took much away from India but gave some things in return and the Railways has been one of those things that has given so many of us life, sustenance and memories.

Is it any wonder that Bhowani Junction has always been one of my most favourite novels and movies? I lived in the last of the Bhowani Junctions.

I miss them.

August, Munnoo and Empire

Shashi Tharoor’s famed speech on British reparation for its misdeeds has always struck me as being the brilliant but theatrical rant of a showy man. Colonial rule was oppressive, money-minded and debilitating but it was also a historically complex phenomenon in which many Indians collaborated and benefits were sown. Leaving aside the Princely States who were frank defenders of British rule, the fact that I am writing this post in English from a beautiful high-ceilinged British-built bungalow of the nineteenth century in Calcutta which was the British city to beat all others  shows that I too may be a product of colonialism. My school and college institutions certainly were—the one set up by the Loretto Sisters in the garden house of an eighteenth century British judge, the other established in 1817 to facilitate Western secular education through the medium of English. Tharoor certainly is also a product of Empire. His voice is modulated to Etonian splendour and I’m really not sure if the shopgirl at Debenhams  in Liverpool would have quite understood him. But then he wouldn’t go there, would he! A spot of shooting with cronies in an impressive two hundred year old estate in the Scottish Highlands would be more his style.

Issues regarding identity have always been touchy though. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s masterly novel “English, August : An Indian Story” shows an English Literature graduate remembering his Milton and Pope in the grimy heat of fictional Madna which represents small town India. Agastya can make nothing of nothing and finds himself alien in the IAS society as well as in village life. A century and a half ago  Gilbert Elliott, the first Lord Minto yearned for the Scottish Borders as he sat watching a nautch in a sweat-soaking evening at the Governor General’s weekend retreat at Barrackpore.

When Lord Minto went to Java for a Company campaign, the Hindu Rajah of Bali presented him with a brood of young girls and boys as slaves. Lord Minto took a fancy to two of them, and as he tells us in his Reminiscences, named them Child and Man and took them back to Scotland in 1813. The good Lord Minto died before he could reach his home  but Child and Man had been sent on there in advance. What happened to them after he died? Sunk in history except for a few mentions in a Scotsman’s letters in the nineteenth century, I think of two Malayan children, torn from their home in Asia, alone in the chill green of a village near the North Sea and wonder what befell them.

Carrying slaves back to England was a bad habit in the nineteenth century. William Hickey (1749-1830) was a lawyer better known for his Memoirs, written around 1810 and giving us extraordinary glimpses of colonial life in London, Madras and Calcutta. In Calcutta his Memoirs provide a fascinating account of famous names and events, including the young Rose Aylmer, beloved of Walter Savage Landor, who died of a most severe bowel complaint “brought on entirely by indulging too much with that mischievous and dangerous fruit: the pineapple”.  Hickey returned to England in 1810 after burying two wives, one of which was his Indian mistress Jemdanee and their young son. On his return he brought with him his servant Munnoo and a pie-bald dog Tiger. Munnoo had been acquired some time before.
Here’s how:

“I engaged a remarkably smart, good-tempered boy about thirteen years old named Munnoo, who had then lived with me upwards of four years, without ever being of the least real use, his chief occupation being to make other servants laugh by his monkey tricks when waiting at table and standing at the back of my chair as he always did; his mother, who doated upon the boy, would not for a long time consent to let him go to Europe, until an offer of [approximately £60] which I made her proved irresistible; she accepted the money and agreed to part with her favourite Munnoo, and a more attached and faithful creature never existed than he has proved to me.”

By December 1808 Mr Hickey had taken a house in Beaconsfield to be near an old friend and his twin sisters. Here he resumed the life of an elderly English gentleman ( in great contrast to the peccadilloes of his youth) walking, reading, going to London. Here too lived Munnoo in a precarious in-between manner till the child took the matter in his own hands.

“In the month of February my favourite Munnoo, without the least hint or solicitation on my part upon the subject, expressed an earnest desire to be made a Christian.  I had upon first coming to Beaconsfield put him to school to be taught to read and write; his schoolmaster, having made the Catechism the first object, probably turned his thoughts that way.  I therefore applied to the Reverend Mr Bradford, Curate of the place, who very kindly furnished him with the books requisite to give him all the necessary information previous to becoming a member of the Church of England, and as the boy was extremely zealous, he soon entitled himself to receive baptism, which ceremony was performed in the church of Beaconsfield, by Mr Bradford, his sponsors being myself, a man-servant of mine, and my sister Sarah.  Upon this occasion I thought it would be as well to anglify his name a little, and therefore instead of Munnoo, I had him designated in the parochial register, “William Munnew”.

Poor Munnoo! Caught between two worlds, belonging to neither, Mr Munnew married in 1813 a girl called Anne and had two children, christened most unimaginatively Anne and William, before rising from servant to “licensed victualler”. He died in the 1830s and left behind a large Munnew family in Westminster whose descendants had little Indian in them save their genes. The image tagged to this post shows a portrait of Munnoo with his master and the dog Tiger, all three looking distant and thoughtful to India which they have left behind.

An interesting way of seeing the British colonisation of India  is to see it as one in a wave of colonisations and empires of over two thousand years. The British experience was no worse or better than the others.  And though Munnoo and Jemdanee, Child and Man lived fragile lives, they showed that humanity can adapt itself to the unfamiliar in many ways.

Stray Thoughts

Here’s a secret: I am partial to reading books in which the relationship between man and dog forms a part of the plot. I’m not sure if this is because I grew up on a healthy diet of Enid Blytons with Buster snapping and Timmy woofing and Loony dancing on the kitchen mat, or because my first real friends in this world were brown eyed mongrels sheltering in the garden of our railway bungalows or begging for waste chapatis at the outhouse door. Whatsoever may be the cause, an ill fed stray haunting  the rubbish heap for left overs still brings a lump to my throat.

Lately there are fewer dogs on the city streets. Sometimes I gather rice and bones and have to look for hours before I can spot a decently starving one. The ones that move in packs are huge fellows, battle scarred veterans of years on the streets, worldly wise and grave who disdain my offers. Wasted puppies have disappeared — perhaps they have all been crushed by the cruelties of urban life and its  shrinking spaces. So too has human tolerance — in my childhood the shanty dwellers near my grandmother’s home shared their meagre meals with a brown spotted mutt but the shanties are now pucca houses with television and computer and the mutt is no longer to be seen.

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is the obvious choice for dogs as a metaphor for the unaccountable sadness of modern life, but so are lesser known classics — The Kingdom by the Sea by Robert Westall with its wonderful evocation of World War II in which a boy and dog stay together to survive, Jim Kjelgaard’s A Nose for Trouble and surprisingly Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in which Mutt the dog suffers a bleak end, befitting the general melancholy of Kalimpong split by the Gorkhaland agitation.


Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation has been one of the most influential texts in the world of animal ethics but another one which is no less informative and relevant is Hiranmay Karlekar’s Savage Humans and Stray Dogs: A Study in Aggression. Karlekar, a senior journalist, writer and thinker, who was in college with my parents, has done much to promote awareness of aggression against animals through his columns.

Hinduism, in its general inclusivity, has Bhairav, a manifestation of Shiva in his terrible form, with a dog as his vahana or vehicle. On the left is a favourite representation of mine: the God as a wanderer surrounded by a host of defenceless animals. I like to think of a day when man realises that he is, after all, a non-human animal. That and nothing more. Perhaps even less!

Bloody Scotland!

It’s been ten days since I returned from a crime writing festival called Bloody Scotland and what a bloody exciting experience it was! A kind of  David Lodge -small world recaptured complete with writers, critics, literary enthusiasts and book agents along with thousands of men and women celebrating late summer sun in picturesque Stirling. And sampling delicious crime! Irreverent snatches of conversation as I tripped to and fro the Albert Halls and Allen Park Church included “I hate Josephine Tey-however did they call her a crime writer” and “the Scots are a bit of a nuisance but they do their detectives well”.

Fellow panelists Lin Anderson, Doug Johnstone and Abir Mukherjee remembered Calcutta including the frayed nerves, yellow taxis, College Street and much else that is this vast chaotic churning city I call home. We also remembered Calcutta’s Scottish connection, the jute, tea and indigo, the Dum Dum bullets, the 1857 encounter, Byomkesh Bakshi and real life crime at Lalbazar. Abir read out an excerpt from his first novel A Rising Man while I did a short piece from my first book F.I.R. For an hour, at least, there was some corner of a foreign field that was briefly Calcutta.

Bloody India!

This was my first visit to the Scottish Highlands. As the train slid away from Edinburgh to Inverness I was struck by the change in landscape -hedges and homely looking pastures gradually shifting into bleak Northern scenery with a strangeness about the sweeping hills and still lochs as if they were frozen in time. So too were the sheep, motionless in the twilight, gathering themselves for the cold night, while bunches of woolly brown cows so different from our Indian ones fringed the meadows at what seemed like eight o clock at night in the long twilight of the Northern skies. Most of the stations we stopped at were deserted and looked like a detached almost surreal movie set, as in the 1970s series Sapphire and Steel with their flowers, benches, clocks and empty waiting rooms.

Loch Ness

I can think of no better crime scene than Scotland. No wonder Douglas Henshall, who played DI Jimmy Perez in the television series Shetland drew a packed audience at his event with Ann Cleeves!

In The Middle of the Night: Tagore’s Nisithey

I sit in a darkened room in a 300 year old crumbling mansion known in the neighbourhood as the Fox Kuthir with the Bhagirathi flowing outside my window. Doves coo in the wooden lattice shades of the enormous 20 feet high verandah, a bulbul trails incessantly from the branches of a neem tree and the oars of a lonely boat splash past on the still waters. Five hundred meters away stands the Hazarduari Palace. It is 1998 in Murshidabad and I  am watching television. Though the screen flickers with a patchy disturbed reel,  I watch entranced as Uttam Kumar stands on the rooftop of another crumbling mansion. I see a flock of wild geese reel and soar above him, beating huge black wings against the clouds as a woman’s face superimposed on the sky laughs a full hungry mocking laugh and asks “Who’s she, who’s she, who’s she.” The print is scratched, the visual blurred but the hero’s anguished eyes against the burning peal of laughter is indelible. The black and white screen creates a sinister noir effect as she laughs and speaks and laughs again “O ke go, O ke, O ke go“.

I did not know it then but this was the last time I would see Nishithey. The film was directed by Agragami and released in 1963,  starring the reigning king of Bengali filmdom Uttam Kumar and his famous co-star Supriya Devi. Frantic efforts to locate a print of this now forgotten movie before writing this piece led to naught. Possibly this is the reason why the article entitled ‘From fiction to film: Reading Tagore texts as visual narratives’, in a volume commemorating Tagore ignores this particular adaptation.[1] Resurrecting forgotten memories, it is my aim in this article to re-address Rabindranath Tagore’s use of the supernatural by referring to his short story Nishithey (In the Middle of the Night) and using it to show how Tagore’s artistic genius created a mood piece, almost Gothic in its texture that exploits the tension between the natural and the supernatural to create a masterly tale. Poe-like in intensity, noir-like in effect, Gothic in feel, Nishithey deserves  another look.[2]

Ever since his sensational appearance on the Western literary scene in 1913 as the author of the Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore’s overwhelming presence in world literature continues unabated. His corpus is formidable and the sheer range of his artistry include  poems, songs, plays, short stories and novels,  lectures and essays, letters, diaries and paintings.  He was a writer who had explored almost every genre and literary style.  It is interesting to find that at least a small but rewarding portion of his corpus are stories dealing with the supernatural.   These stories contain a network of romantic imagery dealing with  states such as  dreams, hallucinations, special states of the mind and consciousness and in at least one, the picture of the revenant returning to claim her lost jewel.[3] It is a commonplace to connect Tagore’s yearning for the mysterious and the unattainable to  his evocative childhood experiences as he wandered the rooms of his ancestral mansion at Jorasanko.  Pages from his autobiographical Jiban Smriti  and Chelebela paint a vivid picture of the call of the mystery in imagination. In his Reminiscences Tagore describes how “Looking back on childhood’s days, the thing that recurs most often is the mystery which used to fill both life and world. Something undreamt of was lurking everywhere, and the uppermost question everyday was: When, oh! When would we come across it? “[4]

Elsewhere, in an article on Tagore’s interest in folklore, Sukumar Sen                                                                                                                                                                                                      has described how the dreamlike languor of life in the Jorasanko mansion created in the writer Tagore  a love of the idiom of the simple, childlike motifs of folk myth. ” Rabindranath Tagore, as he tells us in his reminiscences, was a lonely boy from his early childhood days, in spite of the fact that he was born in a large family.  Before he came to the school-going age, he was left to himself during most part of the day. That meant he was confined in a rather narrow room in the servant’s quarter which had a window overlooking a garden and a tank beyond. At night, after dinner, he went to bed in an inner apartment, where a maid would recite nursery rhymes and fairy tales to put him to sleep quietly. These rhymes and tales made a deep impression on the mind and imagination of the boy. And he would often lie awake and ruminate on the images evoked by  the rhymes and tales…

The child had nothing to do during the long midday hours. And taking his seat by the window of the servants room, he would let his fancy work freely on the sights and sounds of the outside world gleaming through the window. Thus the fleeting clouds would conjure up for him a picture of the prince of the fairy-tales riding on a wind horse and out to rescue the princess in distress. The dark undergrowths at the foot of the banyan tree standing in a corner of the tank beyond the garden would appear to him as the den of the dreadful demons that kept the princess confined”.[5]

The child Tagore’s fluid blurring and mirroring of the real world and the imaginary are reproduced in the shadowy figures of his supernatural short stories.  In her masterly exposition  on Tagore’s supernaturalism France Bhattacharya isolates  ten stories that may be labelled as examples of supernatural stories. Drawing on  Todorov’s theory of the  supernatural fantastic[6], Bhattacharya analyses stories as varied as Ghater Katha, Guptadhan and Kankal  before concluding that Tagore’s moral preoccupations prevented him from exploiting to the full the possible outcome of the confrontation between the real and the unreal. “He resisted the temptation to play with the supernatural, to write a straightforward ghost story bhuter galpa perhaps because of his humanitarianism and concern for truth”. [7]

Modern criticism has however extended an understanding of Tagore’s supernatural stories from the realm of the bhuter galpa to the realm of the socially conscious. These stories are now considered in the light of the writer’s increasing engagement with questions about women’s marginalisation and their quest for self esteem within the narrow domestic space afforded them.[8] Nisithey thus transcends its supernaturalism to becoming a tale of a childless, ailing woman and her obsessive love for her husband. Though the wife magnanimously entreats her husband the zamindar Dakshinacharan to remarry after her death, the zamindar swears eternal fidelity. In the course of a few pages Tagore shows how feeble Dakshinacharan’s love is as he is irresistibly drawn to the physician’s daughter Manorama and neglects his wife with  cold brutality. The broken hearted wife dwindles into death, caught between her desire to believe her husband but pragmatic enough to understand these empty protestations of everlasting love as meaningless.

What follows is an inchoate sequence of phantasmagoric images as Dakshinacharan’s urgent attempts at fulfilling his desire for his new wife is thwarted by visions of his dead wife’s face haunting him, her guffaw of mocking laughter and her incessant question “Who’s she? Who’s she, who’s she.” Interestingly, although Monorama, the second wife is given a name, the first wife is nameless and only described as “my wife”. The nameless wife has a deliberate ambiguity of identity to match her faceless existence- childless, ailing, and trapped in a poignant death-in-life situation, harnessed to a barren bed and a sterile existence. Childlessness, sickness, the tyranny of a transgressive husband, unfulfilled desires are motifs repeated in other supernatural stories including Monihara, Khudita Pashan and Kankal.  Because these cultural images of wifehood and infidelity resonate with the magical or physically impossible world of the supernatural, they contribute to both plot and theme as well as the hypnotic effect. Nisithey is rich in readings of the paranormal contained within contexts of gender and identity.

The supernatural elements in the story bring in  a sense of unremitting doom. In terms of Todorov’s theory it contains the fantastic marvelous– in which explanations reinforce the sense of the irrational as well as the fantastic uncanny– that which is extraordinary but possible. Thus the peals of laughter may or may not be the screech of migratory birds, the zamindar may or may not be hallucinating under the influence of wine-“I had been drinking that afternoon, and my mind was in a fluid, maudlin state” and the dead wife’s disturbing return may or may not be the shadows of the mosquito net casting a gloom on guilty minds. “But someone came and stood by my mosquito-net in the dark, and pointing once at Manorama with a long, thin, bony finger whispered ever so softly and indistinctly into my ear, “Who’s she? Who’s she? Who’s she?” Tagore refuses to offer the reassurance of a closed ending or a redemptive conclusion containing expiation, for in the last sentence it is dark once again, with the zamindar pounding upon the doors of the physicians house ” The next night, halfway through, there was a knocking at my door again, and the sound of Doctor! Doctor!”

One of the hallmarks of Gothic fiction, the craze for which dates from Horace Walpole’s classic formulation of the genre in The Castle of Otranto (1764) was the fact that the tale commonly involved mysteries and terrors occasioned by economic or sexual intrigue, based on a curse, accompanied by supernatural manifestations in a castle-type setting. In the classic Gothic tale there would be an usurpation of an inheritance, and the infliction of violence, usually upon hapless female victims. Nishithey contains the trappings of  Gothic fiction – a large crumbling mansion, the wife associated in her sickness and in her dangerously distorted love with images of incarceration together with an extended psychological analysis of the paranormal events. Like these tales also the story contains multiple disruptions or clashes such as the supernatural clashing with the natural, the living wife bent under the shadow of the dead one or of death contending with life. In the Gothic tale nature came to be regarded as an objective co-relative of mental states: the ruined mansions or castles, the wild landscapes, the dark and dank labyrinths and the frequent storms and natural upheavals. Tagore’s story images these Gothic tales in which a darkly imagined counter world symbolizing the dark regions of human mind is set against the rugged landscape.”Suddenly the darkness over the jhau bushes seemed to catch fire: a thin, yellow crescent moon climbed slowly into the sky above the trees, lighting the face of the woman slumped in her white sari on the white stone seat. ” Later, as they sail away to forget the wild laughter the landscape is similarly portentous:” The awesome river had started her long winter sleep, lifeless and inert as a hibernating snake. To the north, barren banks of sand stretched bleakly towards the horizon; and in the villages on the steep southern banks, mango groves quaked and pleaded in the face of the river’s demonic power”.  Suggestions of a ghostly presence seen through nature introduce horror. “But the next moment we realized it was not a human voice, not a supernatural one either- just the call of the water birds scouring the sandbanks. ” Yet at the climactic moment the super-natural is not explained away but exists according to its own laws of cause and effect. This increases the imaginative experience. ” I decided I’d have to turn out the light or never sleep-but as soon as I did so and lay down again, immediately that strangulated voice returned to the darkness next to my mosquito-net, close to my ear: Who’s she? Who’s she? Who’s she? The story has the dark eerie fervor of many Gothic writings prompting at least one critic to note, in a debunking manner though, how it bears resemblance to Edger Alan Poe’s story Leigia[9]. Defending Tagore from charges of frivolity William Radice points out in his introduction how a taste for the macabre and ghostly had long been fostered in Bengal by folk tales . Tagore blended folk myths and supernaturalism, recreated in his short stories in a simple narrative style.

Tagore’s narrative begins with a frame narrative which creates a tension between narrative and frame, a sense of moving between different worlds such as the cozy known world of the doctor and the mysterious world of Dakshinacharan. By casting the story not in the realm of the fantastic but that of the every day, Tagore creates an effective ghost story which erupts within the familiar[10]. There is also a psychological crises not just in the young zamindar torn between loyalty to the first wife and his obvious attraction to the second but also in the character of Haran Doctor, the physician who treats his first wife. The latter could not have failed to notice Dakshinacharan’s increasing attraction towards his daughter, perhaps this is why he unaccountably places two bottles of medicines – one harmless and one fatal at her bedside along with repeated warnings which also suggested an convenient means of death. The world of Nishithey is a world of repressed urges, ambivalent motives and tortured minds which parallel, as it were, the dark winding complex Gothic architecture.

Tagore uses mystery, horror and the super-natural to give substance to his realistic concerns. Nishithey is the mirror of the real world and its characters are created with twisted images, dreams, trance-states and the feeling that the ultimate horror lies within. I am reminded of Tagore’s paintings in which cruel black shapes of menace abound along with dancing figures, portraits of an oval face, a smiling mouth, a slope of forehead, a touch of hair. The dream like quality of his pictures is reproduced in the chill shadowy forms of Nishithey and the noir-like movie poster of the 1963 film adaptation. If Tagore had written nothing at all but a handful of short stories then this one would command an impressive place in the world’s super-natural fiction.

[1] Sanjukta Dasgupta, Sudeshna Chakravarti, Mary Mathew, Radical Rabindranath: Nation, Family and Gender in Tagore’s Fiction and Films, Orient Blackswan, 2013.

[2]William Radice translated“In the Middle of the Night” in Rabindranath Tagore Selected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics 2000

[3] Monihara and other Stories, Rupa 2004

[4] Uma Das Gupta edited Rabindranath Tagore My Life in my Words, Penguin Books India, 2006.

[5] Sukumar Sen, “Tagore and Folklore”,Indian Literature, Vol 4 1961, Sahitya Akademi.

[6] Richard Howard translated The Fantastic A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Tzvetan Todorov, Cornell University Press, 1975

[7]  France Bhattacharya, “The Supernatural in Tagore’s Short Stories,” in Rabindranath Tagore, Perspectives in Time, edited by Mary Lago and Ronald Warwick, Macmillan Press Limited, 1989

[8] Radical Rabindranath, ibid

[9] Pratap Narayan Biswas, “Rahasya Golpo o onanyo prabandha”, 1984 quoted in Santosh Chakrabarti Studies in Tagore Critical Essays, Atlantic Publishers 2004.

[10] Preface, M.R. James, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Reprint edition Wildside Press 2006

The Murder of the Maharaja – H.R.F. Keating

HRF Keating’s The Murder of the Maharajah has been enthusiastically described on its cover blurbs (Mysterious Press, 1980) as ‘Pluperfect Entertainment’,  ‘A Truly Classic  detective story’  and ‘a lovely picture of a world that has disappeared.’  Further endorsements of its success comes from the fact that it won the  Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger award in the year of its publication   and was cited in 1990 as one of the top hundred crime novels of the world in a catalogue published by the Crime Writers’ association, sharing honours with Christie, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers, PDJames, Ruth Rendell and Raymond Chandler to name a few. As a whodunit,  the puzzle element in the book  is played out to perfection till the last sentence and indeed continues till the last word,  the twist is pleasurable and establishes  a continuity  with his other famous Inspector Ghote books. More importantly the events adhere to the dictates of the classic detective novel, with its emphasis on a closed circle of suspects, a search for clues, a series of false leads and the all-knowing detective who solves the crime with his superior observation, intelligence and deduction.

But beyond this is something more,  a purer kind of wisdom which  attempts to understand the world in which we live in. It transcends its entertainment motif and becomes one with other great crime novels of the world  that use crime as a critique of social and cultural criticisms, something that frees the crime novel from its perennial taint of  being cheap entertainment , populist and low brow.  Like the hardboiled detective stories of Hammett, Chandler and  Ross MacDonald, Keating has a vision of a vile world where treachery, poverty and slavery exist at many levels.  Within  the softer contours of a Sayers or Margery Allingham novel, Keating’s book uses  the codes and conventions of Golden Age crime novels- indeed uses the Golden Age itself-that age between the interwar years of the last century when the detective cosy as a form flourished- as a medium for deeper introspection about the problems of  race, class, sex and  Empire through an imaginative reordering of character and setting .  In this sense,  the book can be re-read as having a heavily layered  thematic structure and a multiplicity of meanings that  offers tantalizing glimpses of the truth of life, the truth of Empire distilled.

The Maharajah of Bhopore, a fictional kingdom modelled upon one of the Princely states –  apparently independent but monitored by the British Resident Sir Arthur Pendeverel – is an arrogant,  sensual and pleasure loving prankster whose lavish lifestyle continually drains the Royal Treasury.  As the story begins it is the 1st of April and he has laid out a web of pranks to celebrate April Fool.  Meanwhile ten people make their way to the palace of Bhopore on various duties. Mrs. Alcott and her daughter Judy  are on the train for Bhopore from distant Wisconsin,  guests of the Maharajah because their brother Joe Alcott who has constructed the largest dam in India on the Maharajah’s territory wishes them to witness the grand inauguration by the Viceroy. At the same time the Maharajkumar Porgy, so named after King George the V is on his way back home from London with his lover Dolly Brattle to plead for his father’s permission in marriage. He is soon to be joined by Henry Morton III, soft metals King of the American Midwest who is out to do business in Bhopore to mine zinc using the abundance of  mineral resources and cheap labour that the villagers of Bhopore provide. Captain Ram Singh, ADC to the Maharajah is also returning from an unsuccessful  expedition to persuade his father the Thakur of Panna to meet payments of tribute that he has stopped paying citing patriotic concerns.  At the Maharaja’s palace itself Lieutenant James Frere, guest of the Maharajah, whiles away his time playing chess under the sharp eyes of the Dewan Akhtar Ali who manipulates his actions as the Maharajah childishly cheats. And Little Michael, nine year old son of the Resident prepares to go to tea with the Maharajah in an apprehension of gloom. By the time the Maharajah is murdered in the middle of the book    he has riled just about everyone he has met.

If Keating was using the plot as a faithful homage to the classic detective story he was never more successful. With twelve  immediate suspects, including the villager  who supplies the sapura bark and the Eldest Mama- who has journeyed to the village on a mysterious and deadly errand- and the victim who has murderously angered everyone of these ten, the plot focuses on not why or how as much as who.  Part of the pleasure of the novel lies in following District Superintendent of Police Howard immerse himself in palace ritual as he is given three days to solve the murder if Bhopore can receive security clearance, to use modern police jargon, for the Viceroy of India to grace the state and inaugurate the dam.  And so, fulfilling the S.S.Van Dine principle of  allowing the readers into all the facts, Howard moves from character to character perusing motive, opportunity  and fact as he pins down who could have jammed the shooting guns so that it explodes and kills the Maharajah during the shikar.  With him  is the  faithful reader, matching fact for fact, matching his intellect with Howards, following the unmasking of the murderer and restoring the posh and stylized milieu to its state of pre-lapsarian innocence where the Viceroy can perform his duties to the Crown.

But the book is of course more than that. Reading The Murder of the Maharajah  one gets the feeling that though   the characters are too fanciful to offer a real sense of  moral evil, they certainly exude a historical sense  of   the wrongness of Empire. The English Country House is replaced by the Palace of Pleasure “all domes and arches like a snowy mountain range”. Within rules the Maharajah,  given over only to self aggrandizement and self gratification. A pack of unruly children born out of his multiple concubines are taught by the weary schoolmaster who finds that the old maharajah shows ” few signs, despite his sixty odd years of bringing to an end newcomers to the schoolroom. ” The Number One Highness keeps a catalogue of all the women her husband beds, together with actual date and time so that an illegitimate child cannot claim dynasty rights and her son can never be accused of  being the improper heir. The palace is filled with an assortment of objects amassed by the whimsical Maharajah, from pinball machines to a skating dome and a dozen roller skates supplied by a gleeful Harrods. The ms chessboard is specially constructed for him where each of the ivory statues resembled a real man from the palace. The king dines at the table separately from an enormous gold tureen padlocked by a gold lock and key while his guests feed on caviar and roast saddle of buck.  The highpoint of the dining table is a silver train which chugs around the table carrying wine and sweets and nuts and a hundred other delicacies; the diner lifts whatever he wants off the train as it comes round to him. An Arabian Nights phantasm fills the pages as DSP Howard tours the palace from the hathikhana to the motimahal to   the gardens within. Within the palace, all around is impossible opulence and luxury. Without -a baked desert  where the sand grouse are kept thirsty  for three days so that they come in thousands to the jheel to drink where the Maharajah shoots hundreds down in a shikar.  Keating recreates a world where deprivation exits easily alongside wanton luxury. The murder turns the Palace of Pleasure into a Palace of Intrigue. Peasants exist only as servants or, like the tribesman who runs to gift the precious Sapura bark, to supply commodities to the Maharajah.  Though the fairy tale element  in the text creates a careful distancing from an actual sense of outrage at the plight of the poor people, the realities of  an impoverished India seething under the double tribulations of colonial masters and their Princely counterparts cannot be overlooked.

In every way the outward reconstruction of Bhopore conforms to the Western notion of India. The complex of images about the Orient found in art and literature creates a careful distancing between the exciting exotic but so different East and the ordered familiar west. Keating’s Resident Sir Arthur quotes Kipling to his son Lille Michael whose life is conducted along the lines of Duty, Order, Obedience and the Right Thing all which are missing in non-British India. Mrs. Alcott worries about finding a snake in her bed because she has remembered a Holmes story “the one about…India”. Lodged perhaps in her subconscious is the knowledge that the thrust of the villainous characters in The Sign of Four are inherently malignant because they are of India and all things Indian are of strange criminality. This prevents Mrs. Alcott from enjoying the elephant ride or a bath or even the sights of the palace- ” Well it is a damned country and if I want to use bad language about the damned place I damn well will”. Henry Morton the American tycoon sees India only as a place producing enormous quantities of cheap and uninformed labour who will not end up forming trade unions as in American industry. The Maharajah and his large family of two wives, two legitimate sons, countless illegitimate ones and a harem are idle, lascivious, effete and ineffective.

Yet Keating’s attitude is ambivalent. Is Bhopore an exotic locale  because, as in the stories of Collins and Doyle  India is a highly contrived world of great evil or is it a writing back on the conventions of Empire. In a gallery of hypocrites, brutes and gulls there is no selectivity based on race- rather the white characters surrounding the Maharajah are as contemptible as he is. Sir Arthur’s pomposity is described as something ridiculous- his motto is “Now      Obey” and he feels that “Remember, we’re here to see that things are done in this country in the right way”. Little Michael, brought up in the stern old school sits ramrod straight as a British grenadier even atop an elephant. Chilled by his father’s discipline he remains a cold lonely figure, except when we see him the last time, bursting into tears. The jostling for power between the old Maharajah and the new one over the latter’s decision to marry a chorus girl signifies the delink between the old and the modern. But Porgy ascends the throne and takes the same decisions as his father- refusal to allow mining, refusing to marry Dolly Brattle, even asserting that he loved his father for all that he opposed him.  Perhaps Keating suggests that there is no real difference between the long established and the modern- modernity absorbs and  continues the old way of life.  Porgy is torn between his need to live up to his Eton education and introduce new forms of thinking into Bhopore and his desire to keep to tradition. Keating appreciates  and is perhaps sympathetic to Porgy’s dilemma. To  Henry Morton’s aggressive and grandiose plans for the modernisation of Bhopore  by building  zinc mines  The King’s Dewan makes a dignified rebuttal when he says that it is nothing but yet another attempt to foist another mad scheme of colonial exploitation on India.

Representations of the Indian or the British settled in India  in many 19th and early 20th century writings show us a latent bias. Emphasized is the criminality inherent in a certain racial type. From the time of arrival the British emphasized on this distance as a nervous reaction to the fact of colonial repression and while pre-1857 Britain took on a guarded approach to liberal outlook and social reform, the war of 1857 was replaced by a rigorous manner of authority seen in their administrative policies as well as a rigid kind of difference as seen in their way of life. Keating’s Resident Sir Arthur emphasizes this repeatedly- he is filled with foreboding as to why Little Michael is the subject of the Maharajah’s attention because the Maharajah, his ilk and all Indians are despicable. The only time he acknowledges the possibility of equality is in the shikar and even there Kipling is quoted to allay his inherent mistrust.

In this sense, the murder of the Maharajah is the one final act of revenge by a wronged person. But the pranks that the Maharajah play on his western guests is an act of defiance, even subversion of his puppet -like rule in the hands of the British. They are at his mercy as he fools them and punctures their dignity-the Maharajah’s persecution of his guests is a mirror of the British persecution of India- the last evening he plays April Fool he is running his kingdom like a Lord of Misrule so that even the Resident, whose job was to  impose order and British gravity  is stilled into silence.

Keating establishes a heroic lineage for his hero by drawing freely from Indian history and establishing the Maharajah’s ancestors as the warriors who resisted Mughal role. When the Maharajah dies he does so in a moment of glory and exultation. Judy Alcott watches mesmerized as he shoots down the sand grouse with the grace and abandon of an artist, before the rifle bursts and he is felled. Like his ancestors of yore he dies with a gun in his hands.  Looking back, we realise that it is this dying image that fixes itself on our minds. As with all great crime novels, Keating turns a puzzle story into a deeper comment on Empire and colonialism.

Picture courtesy: Amazon.com