The drama of Sherlock Holmes' adventures is transferred easily to the Indian context.
This book has two faces. The first, adventures of Sherlock Holmes visiting India in 1888. The other: word pictures of life during the Raj. The two combined give the author license to paint a wide canvas of colourful events and prominent personalities.
Holmes of The Raj is published by Random House India and has 255 pages. It has six different stories. A dozen pages of notes which reveal the mind of the author and the subjects he researched. The author Vithal Rajan is celebrated and accomplished. A Ph.D from the London School of Economics, Dr. Rajan has been active in the areas of world peace and upliftment of the poor. He has three books to his credit — a couple of plays and many papers on development issues.
Holmes' visit to India was due to a grave threat to the British Empire in India. “..Whitehall places the greatest importance on your successfully helping out the Government of India...” The narrative style is close to Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories. And the props that Conan Doyle used to create Sherlock Holmes and his companion in crime detection Dr. Watson, are used.
The mysterious visit of strange men, the unsigned letters, the frequent disappearances of Holmes, and voila, the crime is solved and the perpetrator revealed. If this book falls short, it is in creating the suspense of the original Sherlock Holmes stories.
Holmes and Watson travel the breadth of India, solving one mystery after the other. The murder at the Kumbakonam Mutt, the strange meeting of ‘Naga Baiga” the lost son of Alan Bloomfield the commissioner of the division, Kim who turns into the lovely Kasturi, the meeting with Holmes' sworn enemy Moriarty. There is a chapter on Dr.Watson saving the “remaining male heir of our gracious ruler Sahibzada Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur, ill with the dreaded disease of malaria”.
Finally in 1913, as war threatens Holmes was recalled from retirementby Sir Edward Gray the foreign Secretary. “He writes to me that it is a matter of some importance, nothing but the gravity of the letter and the state of the world would have induced me to leave the country”.
It's the other face of the book that enthrals the reader. The word pictures of life in the Raj. It evokes memories of another book Plain Tales from the Raj by Charles Allen. Mr. Rajan skilfully weaves vignettes of life in India. The Punkawallahs, Boxwallahs, the duck shoots, single horse tongas, the officer's Club, cricket, the night train to Jhansi, the arrival at Kathgodam “...from where the Colonel's Carriage conveyed us to Naini Tal”. Visiting the imperial capital Calcutta at the invitation of the Viceroy Lord Landsdowne.
Food was part of the Raj. Tea with fresh cucumber sandwiches, buttered toast, a pleasant jam made of Mangoes. samosa, the Indian version of a patty, kippers and sausages, river fish, kebabs, canard l'orange, mutton dhamsak, whiskey and soda, port and cigars.
Many leading personalities of the day make an appearance. Lady Blavatsky and Annie Besant of the theosophists, Sir Ronald Ross born in Almora, Kipling and Kim the inspiration for Jungle Book, Rabindranath Tagore with whom Holmes helped fashion the famous line “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”, Mothilal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Ramanujam the famous mathematician who evades arrest because Holmes reveals to the police that his scribblings are mathematical formulae not secret code as, they believed.
If you allow the author the license to play around with personalities and history then this book is a satisfying read. Finish it in one sitting and you journey to an era which had a romance and mystery of its own; it helps to have Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson come along.
Holmes of the Raj; Vithal Rajan, Random House; Rs.550