History entertains

History entertains

The story is as much about the two men as it is about the insidious way that the East India Company worked to eventually establish British rule in India.

The story is as much about the two men as it is about the insidious way that the East India Company worked to eventually establish British rule in India.

The friendship of two men, the fictional Nicholas Ballantyne and the actual historical figure of Robert Clive, forms the basis of the story of  Fortune’s Soldier, Alex Rutherford’s new book. The author presents history in a racy, fast-paced but decidedly ‘lite’ way in this follow-up to his bestselling Empire of the Moghul series.

The story is as much about the two men as it is about the insidious way that the East India Company worked to eventually establish British rule in India. Events move quickly with hardly any time spent on reflection or analysis and to be honest, any reflection/analysis that appears on the pages is pretty superficial. Rutherford, however, has again, as he did in the Moghul series of books, adeptly melded fact and fiction to produce an enjoyable read.

Ballantyne and Clive, both employed as writers for the East India Company,  meet on a ship The Winchester, which is en route to Hindustan from England. The tentative friendship that they forge aboard that vessel deepens as they become embroiled in the (actual) historical incidents that occur in India during that period.

This, then, is the time the British and the French, both in India ostensibly as traders, are battling it out for the control of trading routes. There are a series of wars taking place in the book — the Carnatic wars, the Tanjore campaign and finally, the Battle of Plassey in the climax. The story ends with Clive leading the East India Company to a resounding victory in that battle, paving the way for eventual British rule in India.

Clive is portrayed mesmerisingly: mercurial, arrogant and a brilliant military strategist. Ballantyne serves as his conscience: an upright, honest, idealistic Scotsman appalled at the corruption and treachery the East India Company so often indulges in. Clive, of course, has no such scruples. In considering his good and the Company’s good as being one and the same, he is able to work with single-minded ruthlessness for the success of both. In making money for the East India Company, he thinks nothing about skimming off the top for himself, too. Shrewd at gaming the system, he nonetheless believes that the only way to change the system is from within. This dichotomy in his character has him come across as most interesting.

Ballantyne is the pious, brave do-gooder, who in comparison to Clive, seems quite dull. However, the drama that unfolds in his life makes up for this. Losing and finding love, battling for the safety of his son, perceived as a traitor by some in the Company despite fighting bravely in many of the battles, his life is as colourful as his personality is not.

The Indian characters, all real historical figures, be it the wily Siraj-ud-daulah, the cunning Chanda Sahib, the shrewd Anwaruddin Khan, the canny Mir Jafar, are all perceptively delineated. Rutherford is deft at mixing the real and fictional characters; to avoid any confusion, though, he has included a cast of characters in the beginning differentiating between fact and fiction. The woman characters make what seems like guest appearances and do not leave much of a mark.

The battle scenes, be it of the successive Carnatic wars or the critical Battle of Plassey in the climax, are all well drawn but do tend to get a bit monotonous.

There is a smart mingling of the personal and the political. The friendship of Ballantyne and Clive mirrors the twists and turns taking place in the larger political canvas at that time. There is also sad resonance to the fact that India, then, was made up of warring states driven by rivalries and shifting allegiances. When Chanda Sahib says of Hindustan that alliances shift and fortunes fluctuate and nothing stays the same, he could well be talking of the political scenario today.

Rutherford is, as always, very descriptive in his writing. Right from the start when Ballantyne is assailed by the sights and smells while approaching Calcutta on The Winchester to the later battle scenes, mid-18th century India is brought beautifully to life. Little facts are incorporated in an interesting way, like the reason why ‘Kalikata’ got its name. His observations of the British in India are astute. Speaking through Ballantyne, he rues the fact the British in India carried over everything from their homeland — the clubs, the formal mannerisms, the petty etiquettes, the hierarchies. There is no attempt to change or fit in; they even stuck to wearing the clothes of their home country despite it being most unsuitable for India’s tropical climate! He keeps the dialogue in the book modern and accessible, eschewing the actual way they spoke in that period. Many universal themes like love, loyalty, deceit, duty, temptation and treachery resonate in the book. This is history presented as entertainment and education; a tale well told.