Fiction Books

Unlearnt history lessons

The Untitled; Gayathri Prabhu, Fourth Estate, Rs. 350.

The Untitled; Gayathri Prabhu, Fourth Estate, Rs. 350.  

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Historical research is the true hero of this book, which fails to follow up promising narrative threads

The Untitled is a book that harks back to the novels of the 20th century, an era when literary enterprises comfortably contained orphans, fortune-seeking travellers, spies, political intrigue, love and betrayal, all jostling for space in a single narrative. Gayathri Prabhu stitches these elements together with a politics that is sympathetic, as the title obliquely conveys, to those whom typical histories would leave out. The story’s central protagonists are unusual choices — a ragged English portraitist, a laconic young Brahmin whose aspirations veer towards art rather than astrology, and an adopted daughter of a temple priest whose intelligence places her at the centre of both a love triangle and the machinations of the royal court.

But the author’s historical research is the real hero of the book. (The jacket mentions research done at the National Archive in Delhi and the British Library in London.) The details she collected allow her to effectively harness the inherent drama and romance surrounding the end of an empire — Tipu Sultan’s last stand against the rampaging British East India Company at Srirangapatna. Tipu Sultan emerges as a conflicted figure who is hard to classify and the book’s best sequences are those involving his dreams and the future that he feels they predicate. But alas, the French never send reinforcements and history is what it is.

The Untitled ultimately invokes a similar disappointment. The book doesn’t suffer from lack of ambition but ultimately fails to satisfy any one particular desire of a reader. The story of Richard Dawson, a struggling artist from England, who comes to Fort St. George to seek his fortunes, might make for an adventure novel. But this isn’t a book about Dawson’s adventures; his role is only a part of the narrative. This opportunity to play with the idea of the Western gaze and subvert typical narratives of ‘white men in the colonies’ is mostly ignored.

The second major character in the book is also an artist. Mukunda is the son of a Brahmin astrologer who rebels against his father’s profession, first as a theatre actor where he plays female roles, and then finally, as a painter, an occupation that was as caste-bound as any other. At a conceptual level, the insertion of a Western artist into the traditional Indian art world might have been an interesting juxtaposition, but apart from a mutual appreciation, all that the book gives us is a tepid exchange over the value of ‘the real’. Dawson tries to capture ‘the real’ in his painting and the Indian artist responds saying, “What is real? Everything is an illusion. All Maya.”

The book doesn’t suffer from lack of ambition but ultimately fails to satisfy any one particular desire of a reader

This juxtaposition isn’t explored on a personal level either. The peak of Mukunda and Dawson’s personal relationship is a bland professional rivalry and a heated romantic one. Suhasini, the apex of this triangle, is an interesting character. The dark-skinned adopted daughter of a fair-skinned priest, a literate and intelligent woman living away from her husband, her existence is a contravention of the rules. But in the end, her role is painfully secondary. She is roped into the scheming of the Wodeyar royal family where the queen seeks to ally with the British to reclaim the throne stolen by Tipu Sultan’s father Haider Ali. Her alluring charm captures the fascination of both Dawson and Mukunda and she convinces them to betray Tipu and aid in the reinstatement of the Wodeyars. They both also paint a portrait of her.

Suhasini is also the locus of a strange stylistic decision by the author. While the book is typically in the third-person, the narration slides unpredictably into the first person a handful of times over the course of the book’s 250 pages — with no clear reason for doing so. This mostly happens with Suhasini and Mukunda.

The sympathetic politics of the book are borne out by the ending — the capture of the fort is horrific to the common people. There is rape and pillage. Both Mukunda and Suhasini are left broken but Dawson finds wealth and returns to England. The Wodeyar royal family takes back the throne and become faithful allies to the British. The only rich or powerful person who comes out losing in the book is probably Tipu himself who dies during the capture of the Srirangapatna fort. In that sense, war today is not very different. The rich and the powerful crush the weak and the poor. Life goes on. In the words of writer Steven Erikson, “the true lesson of history is that no one ever really learns.”

Thomas Manuel is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2019 4:36:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/Unlearnt-history-lessons/article15568323.ece

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