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Sherlock Holmes’ afterlife in India: The adventure of the drowned detective

The game is afoot: A statue of Sherlock Holmes stands outside Baker Street tube station in London   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Istock

Waiting for a train at Coimbatore Junction a few days ago, I browsed at the Higginbothams only to find that the bookstall doesn’t have that many books on offer — mainly Chetan Bhagat and Sudha Murthy, the ruling pulp maharajah and maharani respectively, while the foreign section consisted, predictably enough, of Dan Brown and Sidney Sheldon. As well as a bunch of crime novels with lurid covers but, myopic as I am, I couldn’t quite make out the author’s name. The proprietor handed them over and they turned out to be a set of detective story collections by an author who was born exactly 160 years ago and whose books have never been out of print — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mind matters

It is an elementary fact that Sherlock Holmes is literary history’s most popular sleuth and his presence on the Coimbatore railway platform just reinforces that. I purchase The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes at a rather affordable ₹140, start reading and get so engrossed I nearly miss my train — I’m especially taken by a story called ‘The Crooked Man’ in which the Indian Mutiny plays a pivotal role and the suspect is a British soldier who is captured by rebels and kept as a slave in Darjeeling. After escaping from their clutches he learns conjuring tricks from Punjabis before returning to Britain as a queer sideshow attraction. But as I continue reading more of the stories on the train, I find the writing style jarring and somewhat unfamiliar, the language appears sloppy, there are inexplicable gaps in the narratives that are not told from Doctor Watson’s perspective.

This book reads, in fact, as if Bhagat and Brown co-authored it to pay off a mortgage. I’m puzzled until I recheck the cover which, although it features the original author’s name in discreet print, is adorned with a prominent banner that I had somehow missed: “Abridged, Rewritten & Illustrated for Ultimate Reading Pleasure!” Whose pleasure that might be I cannot fathom, but I certainly don’t get any added kicks from the dumbing down of Sherlock Holmes, the prototype of all literary detectives.

Rewritten spin-offs of Sherlock books at Higginbothams bookstall in Coimbatore Junction.

Rewritten spin-offs of Sherlock books at Higginbothams bookstall in Coimbatore Junction.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

Even if he is slightly dated and dusty, he’s still mined for inspiration by modern crime writers like myself because in one way or another, all fictional detectives are related to him — just consider Bengali detective fiction’s brainy sleuths Byomkesh Bakshi (created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay) and Feluda (by Satyajit Ray) who are rather directly derivative of the Sherlock persona. So any tampering with the corpus of Sherlockiana feels like an unholy desecration of a sacred book.

That way I am a purist. I was never able to watch the recent film adaptations of the Holmes stories starring that terrible actor essaying him as a ballistic cartoon character. Holmes to me isn’t about running around like James Bond getting brain-bashed, but about sitting in a chair and doing the most remarkable things with one’s brain. The original books embodied an idea of the supremacy of the mind over all other organs — such as biceps and six-pack abs, which are more prominent in modern crime literature and cinema — and how, in order to solve problems, one must not let one’s emotions get in the way but coolly examine details, and draw rational conclusions.

An armchair type

Or as Holmes himself said, “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The cerebral image of Holmes is perhaps idealised but it is, in fact, based on a real model, Doctor Joseph Bell, who had been Doyle’s dazzling mentor during his medical training. Granted Holmes occasionally stepped out on creepy moors to investigate mysterious incidents regarding the nightly behaviour patterns of dogs and he once famously popped down a waterfall in the Alps, allegedly losing his life in the process. But by and large he was an armchair type, just like myself — which is what is so likeable about him.

It also gives me infinite pleasure to spot the Indian elements in the stories, such as the doped mutton curry in ‘The Silver Blaze’, while in ‘The Adventure of the Three Students’ one suspect is “a quiet, inscrutable fellow; as most of those Indians are,” and in ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ — Doyle’s own favourite plot — the murder weapon turns out to be an extremely deadly Bengali swamp-adder trained to kill. Although quite unscientific (Bengal never exported swamp-adders to be used by Western murderers simply because there are no swamp-adders in India), the corrupting influences of colonialism loomed large: the culprit, if you recall, turns out to be a Calcutta-returned brutish British self-taught snake charmer.

It is a well-known fact that Doctor Watson, Holmes’ trusted companion and chronicler, had partaken in the Afghan campaigns. But the one remarkable journey that Holmes himself undertook in his fictional life, and which is the most fascinatingly alluring aspect of his myth, is his purported trip to India. I hear your doubts — and yes, there’s no story by Doyle that tells us of his adventures hereabouts. But clues in the compiled Sherlockiana hint at an Indian sojourn. As mentioned above, Holmes drowned in the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland as a result of a mortal battle with the Napoleon of crime, Professor Moriarty; this was a ruse Doyle used at a time when he felt that writing detective stories was distracting him from more important work (he was into fairies and spiritualism).

Spiritual world tour

Due to the public outcry at Holmes’ death, Doyle resurrected him a few years later and upon returning to London, the detective shrugs off his absence by casually mentioning that he had disguised himself as a Norwegian who hung out with the Dalai Lama! Says Holmes, “I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head Llama.” He simply faked his own death in order to hoodwink his enemies and went on a spiritual world tour that, apparently, also took him to Mecca — which was probably something of a dream itinerary for the spiritualistic Doyle himself.

Interestingly, several Indian writers have taken up the challenge to rewrite Holmes’ adventures from an Indian point of view: I’m thinking, for example, of Partha Basu’s The Curious Case of 221B: The Secret Notebooks of John H Watson, MD, which looks at Holmes from a subaltern perspective (here Watson provides us with the real facts behind the published cases); even more of Vithal Rajan’s Holmes of the Raj that spoofs the Orientalist fiction genre and in which Holmes is dispatched on a confidential mission to India, where he makes the acquaintance of the virtual who’s who of colonial days, including Motilal Nehru, Tagore, Aurobindo, Kipling, Ronald Ross and Madame Blavatsky; and most of all the prominent Tibetan freedom fighter Jamyang Norbu’s The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, which justly won the Crossword fiction award in 2000. It was that Tibetan quip by the detective that inspired Norbu, who grew up in exile in India, to write his novel that contains some very evocative episodes set in Bombay about a hundred years ago. To top it all, Holmes teams up in this novel with a fictional spy from Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim! Eventually, the clues of the case lead him to travel up to Tibet, filling in that famous gap that Doyle left open in the larger narrative.

But an even more remarkable story is, perhaps, Doyle’s own investigation into a real-life criminal case involving an Indian family persecuted by British racists, which inspired Julian Barnes’ Booker-shortlisted Arthur & George. That novel is centred around George Edalji, a half-Indian solicitor in Birmingham who was jailed on trumped-up racist charges. He was the son of a British vicar’s daughter and Shapurji Edalji, a Parsi from Bombay who converted to Christianity and worked as a priest in Britain, and who too was the focus of the vicious hate mail campaign lasting many years.

Doyle tried to clear the family’s reputation by doing what Holmes would have done — checking out the crime scenes and talking to the people involved. George Edalji was accused by anonymous racists of running around during rainy nights, slashing and killing ponies and other animals. But how could he? He was blinder than a bat and in the dark he couldn’t see a pony even if it stood inches away. Doyle, who was trained as an ophthalmologist, was “confident in his diagnosis. Myopia, possibly of quite a high degree. And who knows, perhaps a touch of astigmatism too.” No way could this man be guilty: the police investigation was an incompetent affair full of racist conjecture and his trial was a farce. Because of his fame as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, people took Doyle’s conclusions seriously, and eventually Edalji was pardoned. Subsequently, appeal laws were modified in 1907 to allow more protection for those wrongly accused of crimes.

Elementary, as Holmes would have said.

The writer is a detective novelist based in Bengaluru. He is the author of the Majestic Trilogy: Mr. Majestic, Hari a Hero for Hire, and Tropical Detective.

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 10:45:35 AM |

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