Books: A Thrilling Tale Inspired by Tipu
Loot (Knopf), the latest novel by Tania James, is a dazzling work that takes you on a magic carpet ride, first to exotic Seringapatam on the banks of Kaveri—and then to Rouen, France, and finally to Twickenham on the Thames.
Not being a fan of historical fiction, my intent was to nibble on a few chapters to get a flavor of the genre, but that’s not what happened. I got hooked. This thrilling story is about how the British East India company, after killing Mysore’s Tipu Sultan for flimsy reasons, plundered his palace. In fact, the Hindi word “lut”—which became “loot”—stands for the spoils of war.
Normally, when the canvas is vast, as in this tale, straddling the 18th and 19th centuries and two very contrasting continents, there is always the danger of some parts becoming insignificant. But like Rembrandt, whose mastery is displayed in his massive 14 ft by 12 ft Night Watch, James populates every square foot with sparkling characters and delectable details.
Rangappa Rao (aka Rum), who starts out as Col. Selwyn’s aide-de-camp, has to later carry his master’s ashes to his widow in England. Rum morphs into a personal secretary cum property agent for Lady Selwyn—and privately, Midnight Cowboy as well. And “the Frenchman De Luze who was sent by King Luis XVI to be an artisan in Tipu’s court wears a shahtu, its soft wool collected from thorns where Kashmiri mountain goats brushed their underbellies in passing.”
The intrigues that James uncovers through the fast-paced chapters remind one of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca, with its Victorian ethos. Tipu’s Brahmin confidant, Purnaiya, had been fervently loyal to Hyder Ali, Tipu’s father. “It was Purnaiya who had wisely folded Hyder Ali’s body into an ornate chest and filled it with marigolds, carnations, and aromatics so that all along its journey none would suspect they were carrying a rotting corpse. And he sent a secret message to Tipu—ride to Seringapatam and declare your inheritance, before any one of the ambitious generals grabs the kingdom, like Hyder Ali had usurped the throne from the Wodeyar dynasty.”
In Tipu’s summer palace, De Luze and his young intern, Abbas, using their mechanical genius, create a bewildering yet fascinating contraption: a full-sized tiger mauling a hapless European beneath him, accompanied by harrowing grunts. Through the vagaries of history, this automaton, which John Keats later described as Man-Tiger-Organ, changes hands and continents over a period of nearly 250 years (America’s age) and rests today at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Cromwell Road in London. Amazingly, an Indian tiger devouring a white man is now proudly displayed in a British museum!
Photo: Elliott O’Donovan
The author interweaves verifiable facts and believable fiction, interspersing the vibrant threads with nuggets that stay embedded long after the page is turned. We get a close look—potbelly, short legs, warts and all—at Tipu. There are vivid descriptions of the voyage Abbas makes to France; how Jehanne, the Kannada-speaking French beauty, journeys back to her homeland but struggles to stay afloat; and how the two meet. The contrasts between the Abbas family’s poverty and Lady Selwyn’s patrician life, with the Jehannes somewhere in the middle, are brought out with skilled ease.
For the discerning reader, James dishes out the period details like crunchy tidbits. The sea voyage from Pondicherry to Europe took one year. Tipu, who was fluent in Persian, used imported engineering books to design rockets, which Sir William Congreve later incorporated into his artillery rockets. The youngest son of Tipu, Ghulam Muhammed, was knighted in 1870 but lived on a paltry stipend provided by the Brits. And then there is enchanting poetry from a most unlikely quarter—Zeb-un-Nissa, the daughter of Aurangzeb.
When life is maya anyway, penned by the gods, all that matters is what appears close to believable. This creation by Tania James is compelling and a sheer joy.
Jayant Kamicheril, who won a Kerala Sahithya Academy Award in the humor category, writes in Malayalam and English. He has published one novel, along with a collection of short stories and an essay collection. A chemical engineer by training, he currently works for a U.S.-based multinational company in its Food Ingredients Sales Division.
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