Crime and adventure in Bombay | Review of ‘The Kidnapping of Mark Twain’ by Anuradha Kumar

Murders, kidnapping, a complex city — Anuradha Kumar vividly recreates Twain’s time in India in the late 19th century

May 03, 2024 09:20 am | Updated 12:19 pm IST

A colourised portrait of author Mark Twain, circa 1900.

A colourised portrait of author Mark Twain, circa 1900. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The year is 1895. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, has just turned 60 and finds himself in terrible debt after a substantial investment in a failed invention: the Paige Compositor. To extricate himself from his money woes, he committed to a year-long world tour, his reminiscences of which would later come together in his travelogue Following the Equator, published in 1897. In January 1896, he landed in Mumbai, then Bombay, “a bewitching place, a bewildering place, an enchanting place — the Arabian Nights come again!”, he wrote about the city. 

Anuradha Kumar’s latest novel, The Kidnapping of Mark Twain, is a vivid recreation of Twain’s version of Bombay, a complex cosmopolitan city akin to London and New York with a sometimes-murky heart and an ancient soul. Into “this moving show this shining and shifting spectacle”, as Twain puts it, Kumar airdrops an unlikely detective duo, American Consul Henry Baker and the beautiful, mysterious Maya Barton. 

The novel opens with the murder of a young woman called Casi, who is believed to have been killed by her husband, Tuka Ram, a labour supervisor at one of the city’s textile mills. Soon after, Twain and his family arrive in the city and are received by Henry, who as the American Consul, “had to ensure the Clemenses had a pleasant stay in Bombay, and wherever else they travelled to in India”. The next day, after a rather eventful party, Twain goes missing, so Maya and Henry team up to find him; how they do, and what they encounter along the way, makes up the rest of the book. 

The Kidnapping of Mark Twain is an action-packed, pacy roman policier, complete with homicides, a kidnapping, multiple antagonists and a detective duo with an unbalanced power dynamic, vaguely reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s Holmes-Watson, Agatha Christie’s Poirot-Hastings or Poe’s Auguste Dupin and his anonymous sidekick. But it is also a lot more. Studded with references to several significant events from the 19th century, such as the long shadows cast by the British colonial enterprise, including their discriminatory policies and the start of the opium trade, the Oscar Wilde trial, the women’s reform movement and the implications of Bombay’s cotton mills on the city’s economy — it attempts to capture the zeitgeist of that era. 

My only grouse, perhaps, is that there is far too much going on — several characters, convoluted sub-plots, commentaries on multiple social issues — which can be confusing and cause a reader to fumble at times. But Kumar’s masterful storytelling and skilled scene-setting somehow propel you forward, as does the promise of the budding romance between Maya and Henry, a relationship as bewildering and complicated as the city it is set in.

The Kidnapping of Mark Twain
Anuradha Kumar
Speaking Tiger
₹499

preeti.zachariah@thehindu.co.in

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