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Mulligatawny, dear Watson!

‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth…’ Generations of young readers have had their first brush with Aristotelian logic outside of their geometry books in this admonition by Sherlock Holmes to his impressionable friend Dr Watson.

india Updated: Jan 30, 2010 00:01 IST
Dipankar Bhattacharya

‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth…’ Generations of young readers have had their first brush with Aristotelian logic outside of their geometry books in this admonition by Sherlock Holmes to his impressionable friend Dr Watson.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s cerebral Dick retains his attraction centuries later because of the scientific rigour he brought to the art of solving crime. The method, of course, results from Doyle’s training as a doctor, which relies as much on deduction as detective work. No crime writer has, understandably, scaled the heights Doyle has.

It, therefore, takes a hardy soul to recreate Holmes. But there seems to be a band of die-hard fans who cannot resist the temptation to keep the saga alive, among them Doyle’s son, Adrian, whose pastiche doesn’t come close to the The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a 1974 novel by American Nicholas Meyer. Holmes has even been sent ahead in time — Sherlock Holmes In The 22nd Century — so it was only a matter of time before a Raj version appeared.

Vithal Rajan’s Holmes of the Raj (first published in 2006 by Writers Workshop) suffers from the common affliction of most Indian writing in English of trying too hard to overwhelm the reader with the sights and smells of India. Rajan makes a valiant attempt to rise above the ‘naked fakir’ genre of writing by adding dollops of potted history. From Vivekananda to Jinnah, they’re all there in this collection of Holmes’ adventures in India. The menagerie of historical characters, however, distracts. Doyle, writing when Britannia ruled the waves, had the luxury of choosing his cast from across the Empire. But he used the artifice lightly and only to the extent that they fleshed out his plots.

Doyle’s camera was always trained on his protagonist in an attempt to faithfully recreate the crime. When out of the frame, Holmes served to show up the contrast between his thought process and that of the rest of the world. So it is unnerving when Rajan’s Holmes resurfaces late in the episode to do his “Elementary!” number.

Only that elementary is truly elementary in this case. “With patience… and the right amounts pressed into the right hands at the right moment, I learnt about all the suspicious movements of the recent past.” Holmes has indeed lost big chunks of his acute deductive prowess on the long sea voyage to India.

Rajan enters the crime fiction genre from the wrong end of the plot-protagonist-prop progression. In the event, he does justice neither to Holmes nor to the crimes Doyle got him to solve.