Monday, April 12, 2010

The Adventure of the Name-dropper

[The following review of Holmes of the Raj appeared, with some edits, in the Deccan Herald]

Holmes of the Raj, by Vithal Rajan

You have to say this about Vithal Rajan – he gets the language down pat. For anyone who’s been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes, and can’t get enough of Doyle’s crisp narration, reading Holmes of the Raj will be nostalgic. The book consists of 6 stories of Sherlock Holmes, chronicling an extended visit to British-era India, narrated by the sturdy Dr. Watson, using very similar language to the original.

The language, however, is where the similarities end. It’s fun to read about Holmes travelling to all the popular spots in Raj-era India – Madras, Nainital, Calcutta – but, well, he doesn’t seem to be doing all that much. The core of the Holmes stories are always murders that are just not possible, incredible-sounding mysteries, and in general, puzzles that make us go “Ah!” once we understand the answers. Holmes doesn’t get into any such thing here. At most he’s traipsing through Central India looking for a tribal deity, figuring out a smuggling ring, or stumbling across Jack the Ripper while looking for something else. Where are the speckled bands, the dancing men, the curious incidents of dogs in the night-time? The stories here would have fit on Allan Quatermain or The Saint or maybe even Fleming’s James Bond – any heroic British character, in fact.

More than the locations, Rajan relies on references to real-life and fictional characters from the era to set in the book in the Raj. Unfortunately, there’s rather too many of these. There are no less than 64 entries in the appendix of Holmes of the Raj, most of them about the real-life people referenced in it. This doesn’t include the dozen or so fictional characters referenced. Considering that the book is 260 pages long, that comes to about one reference every three pages. And these references go all over: Dhyan Chand, Motilal Nehru, Ronald Ross, Kim, Clark Gable, Madam Blavatsky, even Balraj and Parikshit Sahni. It’s as if Rajan was attempting to stuff in as many names as he could think of. And there’s no subtlety about it, each character is named and described and given his dialogues, so you never have to make any effort to spot them, which is no fun.

In addition, Holmes and Watson sometimes seem like the aliens from 2001: A Space Odyssey, teaching the natives all sorts of things that they couldn’t have thought of themselves – how malaria is actually spread, how to bowl the doosra, how Rabindranath Tagore should begin his famous poem. More focus on the mysteries themselves, and less on all these clever hints about India, would have made it worthwhile.

To his credit, Rajan has done a lot of reading on the topic. His descriptions of the railway systems, of the British dwellings of the day, and so on are meticulous and detailed, and the stories use these things as integral elements. The characters making cameo appearances often expound upon their points of view about British Rule and India, and assuming these are historically correct, the book serves as an interesting reference about who said what. And, as mentioned before, the language is very close to Doyle’s language.

But it takes a special kind of writer to create convoluted murder mysteries – to imagine strange circumstances, to think up clues and red herrings, to model the murderer’s and the detective’s mind, and Rajan simply does not belong to that class.

Read this book as an interesting journey through the Raj as narrated by a familiar voice, but not as a series of detective stories.