The Tiger Vanquished: LTTE’s story
by M R Narayan Swamy
Cobbling together a regurgitation of past work often results in a frustratingly stunted product. But this new collection, perhaps with the help of a thoughtful (and original) introduction, transcends this tired model. Swamy is the executive editor of the IANS news service, and his articles from 2003 to 2009 chronicle the decline and fall of the Sri Lankan insurgency. The author’s exhaustive research (which also led to a critically acclaimed unauthorised biography of LTTE leader Vellupilai Prabhakaran) not only adds depth to the sequence of events, but also underlines the authoritativeness of the wide-angle lens he uses to analyse the international implications of the Sri Lankan conflict.
Despite Swamy’s periodic tendency to eschew journalistic objectivity (his staunch support for New Delhi’s covert dabbling and Sri Lanka’s overt military offensive is only mildly veiled), his reporting is sound. From capturing the behind-the-scenes crumbling of the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire of 2002, to his well-rounded profiles of the LTTE top brass, the author’s deft handling of shifting geopolitics and brutal violence in Tamil-controlled Sri Lanka successfully draws a logical line from LTTE dominance to LTTE destruction.
But it is the melding of strong reporting with individual stories of despair that elevates this collection beyond a mere retelling of the past. As the hammer starts to drop on the LTTE, Swamy’s portrait of panicked and fleeing Tamils – often to save their children from recruitment by the LTTE – carries such power that it often leaves the reader breathless. As a result, the conflict, when viewed through the author’s lens, becomes more about the individuals, the blood and muscle, than the feuding entities. (Sam Holder)
The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
by Ted Riccardi
Himal Books, 2010
What was Sherlock Holmes doing during the ‘lost years’ between 1891, when Arthur Doyle tried to kill him off, and 1894, when he was forced to resurrect his famous creation in response to public demand? Playing the Great Game in Southasia, of course, if Riccardi, a Southasia scholar from Columbia University, is to be believed. Given that Riccardi is an India and Nepal buff of long standing, his answer hardly comes as a surprise – and who are we to complain, when Doyle himself laid the ground for this speculation, with Holmes reminiscing, ‘I travelled for two years in Tibet … You may have heard of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson.’ Thus we have Holmes, among other forays in the service of the Empire, besting Russian agents in Lhasa; guarding the British Resident in Kathmandu; and duelling with Moriarty’s henchman, Colonel Sebastian Moran, in Sri Lanka.
Riccardi succeeds in staying reasonably faithful to the atmosphere of the original stories. But ultimately he fails to create tales that work as detective stories, abruptly producing Russian agents and suchlike out of his hat, to solve mysteries that are clearly going nowhere. Raymond Chandler once complained that ‘Sherlock Holmes is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.’ While this is uncharitable when applied to the original canon, which works quite well as detective stories, it is a description that suits Riccardi’s book – at least insofar as the attitude, if not the rather flat dialogue, is concerned. (Vidyadhar Gadgil)
translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy
Shobasakthi, a former LTTE child soldier, gives a stark account of some of the most bloodcurdling moments in the history of what his protagonist, Nesakumaran, refers to throughout as ‘the Movement’. The story begins with Nesakumaran in exile in the US, but quickly we go back to his years in the ‘Movement’. Throughout the narrative, Nesakumaran is neither ‘heroic’ nor superhuman – he gives in to tears and pleads with his Sinhalese tormentors when threatened with sexual humiliation. But he also survives, and in order to do so, the preyed-upon often becomes party to the predation. Every school of thought within ‘the Movement’ is examined – from the raw anger of ‘goons’ to the non-violence of the benign, intellectually inclined Pakkiri, who ‘gently pushes the gun barrel away from his face’ just before his Tamil tormentors ‘tear open his mouth and beat him to death with their bare hands’. Yet his characters are neither saints nor demons – the war is never depicted as one between good and evil. (Urooj Zia)
The Crimson Throne
by Sudhir Kakar
Kakar’s new work is set during the end of Emperor Shah Jahan’s rule and the battle for his throne, presented through the narratives of two Europeans – the unscrupulous Venetian Niccolao Manucci and the disdainful Frenchman Francois Bernier. Kakar, a psychoanalyst, uses their interpretation of events to give the reader a flavour of the culture of the times, alongside the religious and political tensions that existed between Hindus and Muslims, rulers and subjects, and men and women. Both men enter into Mughal service as physicians, Bernier proudly upholding the ‘superiority’ of Western medicine, while Niccolao learns the art of bloodletting and the like. Along the way, the reader comes across spirit possessions among harem women and lengthy discussions on the importance of bowel movements in determining a person’s well-being. What emerges is a constant comparison, and at times re-evaluation, of what they know based on what they see.
Although Kakar paints a vivid picture of Mughal rule under Shah Jahan, the narrative is less successful in drawing in the reader. The characters, although each with a different voice, are flimsy and not particularly convincing – rather than entering their heads one can only read their thoughts, most of which vacillate from deep appreciation and awe (Niccolao) to revulsion (Bernier). Still, those interested in the politics behind Aurangzeb’s accession to the Peacock Throne should have a go, not to read about the intricate marble flooring, but to know more about the ideologies and inclinations of such figures as Prince Dara Shukoh, Shah Jahan and of course, Aurangzeb himself. (Meher Ali)