The historic moment before empire

  • Aishwarya Subramanian, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 24, 2014 15:47 IST

Idris: Keeper of the Light
Anita Nair
Harper Collins
Rs 380, PP 599

The most fascinating histories, to me, are the ones that situate India in a wider world, full of comings and goings and trade and shared knowledge and culture clashes, long before most of the territories involved in these exchanges became part of one or the other European empire. Received history, having a lot of ground to cover, tends to skim over these stories; it’s left to those of us who love them either to do a lot of research or to look to historical fiction. Nair’s Idris: Keeper of the Light seems at first to offer exactly this kind of history. Idris Maymoon Samataar Guleed is a wanderer and trader from 17th Century Dikhil (in modern day Djibouti) who, on a visit to India, has a brief liaison with a young woman. Twelve years later, he returns to the country and by chance meets a boy he knows to be his son. Charged with distracting the boy from joining a group of assassins, Idris takes him instead on a journey across coastal India by land and by sea.

By far the best thing about the book is Idris’s developing relationship with his son Kandavar, treading carefully between truth and untruth in order to keep Kandavar and his mother safe. Kandavar is intended for the central character of Nair’s projected trilogy, though he’s rather sidelined here in favour of his father.

But for a book rooted in such a fascinating period, Idris makes little of its setting. Issues of caste and religion affect the relationships between characters, but in a rather perfunctory way. A narrator who is both a traveller and an outsider, Idris is able to drift from set piece to set piece (a kalari on the bank of the Nila, pearl fishing in Thoothukudi, the diamond mines in Golkonda) without any real engagement with the historical realities of place and time. There is much to be made of this moment in history, at the beginning of empire. For all the use the book makes of it, it’s unclear why this story needed to be set in this time and place at all.

Idris’ outsider-status isn’t merely due to his being a foreigner, and one of a different race. A multilingual scholar and amateur astrologer with a jewelled eye, as the book presents him, he alone is exempt from the religious and cultural prejudices of everyone he meets.

The other characters all seem willing to accept the book’s assumption of his specialness — frequently when Idris is introduced to a new character the perspective shifts so that we can see said new character dwelling on how they are drawn to Idris’ obvious wisdom (and superior height). Everything about Idris: Keeper of the Light makes it seem exactly the sort of thing one wants to see; beautifully produced, with its vision of a fascinating, cosmopolitan past. The book this could have been makes the book that it is even more of a disappointment.

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