Revisiting the Raj

Revisiting the Raj

Revisiting the Raj

Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
Niyogi Books
2015, pp 287, Rs. 395

Historical fiction usually has two purposes: to entertain and to re-evaluate or revisit a past society. This book, called Lynsdale Raj, named after the protagonist, can, on a scale of one to 10, be listed as six or even a seven as far as the first criteria i.e., to be entertaining, is concerned. The characters have been fleshed out with emphasis on their peccadilloes; descriptions encourage the imagination by their words: “he had….mouse brown whiskers which tended to twitch long before he said anything as if his words were mustering the courage to venture out.” (p55)

The protagonist, John Yale Lynsdale, was born to be the King of England. The time is 300 years ago. However, the Fates are against him, and he follows his dream to India; this is the story of his adventures set against the dramatic backdrop of the multinational East India Company. Somewhere along the way, Lynsdale gets introduced to his rite of passage by a wanton beautiful woman; somewhere along the way he is introduced to the harsh elements and the cruel life on the high seas; and somewhere along the way he makes money and leads the good life; and somewhere along that same way he falls in love with a seemingly perfect woman. A tale of adventure and romance with enmeshings of political ambition and avarice.

In historical fiction, often the main role is that of a powerful man or woman, with seemingly larger than life qualities — his or her life is the stuff that myth and legend arise from and spread. However, the Gantzers’ Lynsdale is not so. On the one hand, he is more believable than many of our heroes such as Scaramouche or Beau Brummel. But he does not set hearts racing and can sometimes be as bland as milk. The most admirably presented character — except for his name Canker Nair (could it have been Sanker?) — is his philosopher, friend and guide. Invaluable for his insight and strategy, which included the use of the ancient martial art form in Kerala — the kalaripayattu. It is he who goes with John to India, he who teaches John all about India, and he who watches John’s back and encourages him to follow his dream. In fact, he fills the space which should have been filled by his father — the weak Prince of Wales.

The authors have skillfully blended fact and fiction and created a highly plausible story of the dream of a young man and the journey he undertook to fulfil that “glorious but uncertain” dream: of a kingdom in the Himalayas, where “the sun shimmers on the green fields” and where there is fruit: apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots; and grapes grown on trellises behind every home. In the course of this journey, he comes to India, a country contrary and ridden with snobbery, narrow-mindedness and intolerance of the British ruling class for the inhabitants of the country. It is plausible partly because the authors have captured in their descriptions the flavour of India, its opulence which invited some great names in Anglo Indian history such as the Skinners and the Herseys, those who carved out their little kingdoms not just to “shake the pagoda tree”, but to leave their impress of love on this country.

The many names that are familiar to us crop up with regularity in the pages of this book are Beau Nash of Bath, Elihu Yale, great grandfather of John Lynsdale, Jeanne Dupleix, Chanda Sahib and Mohammad Ali, Major Stringer Lawrence, the Armenians in the Madras that was, and the tenuous connection of Lynsdale — Armenian which brings to mind a recent connection, that of the Royals (Princess Diana) and Indian-Armenian. Hugh Gantzer decrees in an interview that Norbert Kline in the book resembles Robert Clive. He also affirms that his mother is a Lynsdale, who settled in India. So maybe it was a voyage of discovery for the Gantzers themselves.

There are some nuggets of knowledge: why did the company come to be called John Company and the facts behind the nursery rhyme: “Rock-a-bye-baby.”

But while this is a nod to the great writers of historical fiction like Hilary Mantel, M M Kaye etc, it falls somewhat short; something is missing in the telling — a spark, that intangible quality that would have lifted it out of being a tale just told. But, if the authors intended it to be a book that one can take up on a quiet evening, it serves its purpose. And we like John Lynsdale sufficiently to wish him and his beautiful wife contentment when they achieve their dream.

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