Review: Loot by Tania James - Hindustan Times

Review: Loot by Tania James

ByNikhil Kumar
Jun 20, 2024 04:45 PM IST

Masterfully plotted, Loot, which plunges the reader into the heart of Tipu Sultan’s desperate last stand and then hurtles through the British conquest and beyond, is a novel dealing with revolutions and war, colonisation and cultural restitution, relationships, personal journeys and multicultural exchange

“that little buzzing noise,Whatever your palmistry may make of it,Comes from a play-thing of the Emperor’s choice,From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys.”

Portrait of Tipu Sultan by an anonymous Indian artist in Mysore, ca. 1790–1800. (Fowler&fowler/ Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of Tipu Sultan by an anonymous Indian artist in Mysore, ca. 1790–1800. (Fowler&fowler/ Wikimedia Commons)

— John Keats, The Cap And Bells; Or, The Jealousies: A Faery Tale

Long before Keats saw Tipu’s Tiger and before it had arrived in Regency England, the Man-Tiger-Organ was already widely popular. Partly the whimsical ingenuity of the life-size mechanical device depicting a tiger mauling a redcoat engendered this fascination and partly the mystique around Tipu Sultan. His tiger cult, sketched by artists, written about in penny broadsides and in poems, became an even greater phenomenon posthumously. With Tipu’s defeat in 1799, and the discovery of the wooden semi-automaton in his Rangmahal (music room), the British proclivity for spectacle got new blood. The sound of a growling tiger and a squeaking Brit and its uncanny resemblance to the real-life tragedy of Hector Sutherland Munro’s fatal encounter with a tiger, did not prevent its display at the Tower of London, and later at the East India House where it captivated the likes of Keats, William Blake and Gustave Flaubert. It has since continued to inspire artists like Marianne Moore, MF Husain, and now, Tania James, who hinges her brilliant novel on this mechanical marvel.

304pp, ₹1210; Penguin
304pp, ₹1210; Penguin

The novel begins in the late 18th century in Srirangapatna of Tipu Sultan; a time so rich in intrigue that it echoes in works as diverse as Wilkie Collins’ pioneering detective novel, The Moonstone, which opens with the fall of Tipu, and Allama Iqbal’s poem, Javednama, which explores the role of a traitor in his downfall. Tipu’s kingdom, according to contemporary sources is, at this time, “well-cultivated, populous with industrious inhabitants, cities newly founded and commerce extending”. For James — whose chief character Abbas, a young migrant toymaker and woodcarver — the city is always in a flux. It has barely survived Cornwallis and people can only submit to power, as “with every alteration… the ground unfirms itself beneath their feet, making it nearly impossible for anyone to leave a mark.” Abbas’ intention is to ‘make the wood lose its anonymity’. But before that he unwittingly finds himself caught in a court plot against the Tiger of Mysore. Luckily, his art saves him.

Abbas lands a job with a French horologist, Monsieur (Musa) Lucien Du Leze. Musa has been sent by Louis XVI, along with a porcelain hookah, in lieu of “artisans, engineers, and a political alliance” that Tipu had requested. As the Frenchman and the toy maker embark on making the fantastical curiosity, their relationship evolves into that of mentor and apprentice. Abbas attempts to learn French under Musa’s tutelage, wondering how a language could have ‘only one word for rain’. Yet, neither of them has a choice. Musa, away from his country and lover, is displaced by the French Revolution. Returning carries the threat of perdition.

While the novel astutely deals with revolutions and war, colonisation and cultural restitution, James writes with delicacy about relationships, incisively about personal journeys and eruditely about multicultural exchange. The characters embody the complexities of a world shaped by colonial interaction. While men like Du Leze demonstrate a complex mix—he’s a skilled teacher and mentor but also struggles with alcoholism – the women are portrayed with unyielding determination and unsparing resourcefulness.  Even within Tipu’s zenana, the women are not passive victims but fallen warriors.

Tipu Sultan’s Man-Tiger organ (By Victoria and Albert Museum/Wikimedia Commons)
Tipu Sultan’s Man-Tiger organ (By Victoria and Albert Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

“Loot” is masterfully plotted, plunging us into the heart of Tipu’s desperate last stand, then hurtles us through the British conquest and beyond. Abbas’s dreams of establishing himself as an artist, to wield that ‘small power over the grave’, are thwarted though he manages to escape the mayhem and eventually seeks refuge in France. We follow Abbas on treacherous voyages across continents, from disease-ridden trade ships plagued by pirates to the shores of France and England. In Rouen, Abbas discovers Musa’s goddaughter Jehanne, born of French father and Mysorean Muslim mother, running a clock shop. This serendipitous encounter reignites his passion and fuels a desire to reclaim Tipu’s Tiger and his rightful place as an artist. Together, they embark on a quest which leads them to the grand Cloverpoint Castle. There, Lady Selwyn, a 72-year-old widow with a passion for gewgaws, carries on a clandestine two-nights-a-week affair with Rum, her Tamil Brahmin ex-aide-de-camp from her late husband’s time in Mysore. Lady Selwyn is perhaps modelled on Henrietta, Robert Clive’s daughter-in-law who bought much of the Srirangapatna loot that came to be housed in the Powis Castle.

“Loot” signifies a world of relentless taking; everyone takes in this novel, but do not receive. What is sought is seldom had, and that which is occasionally had is temporary. Escape, when it exists, is often a sardonic reconciliation rather than a path to liberation. Journeys, though vested with possibilities and patinas of novelty, become exercises in endurance. A pervasive sense of loss colours even the act of creation. As a character says, “even its birth, like all births, was a violence.” The pursuit of lasting beauty and progress is constantly shadowed by an internal darkness. Characters grapple with the limitations: reality rarely aligns with imagination, and dreams remain just that - dreams. They are perpetually sailing the inland sea like the narrator of Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival who observed, “To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation; it was my temperament.” The loot and loss and its inherent violence is present within the narrative, yet the act of writing itself transforms the horror into a strange kind of beauty.

Author Tania James (Elliott O’Donovan/
Author Tania James (Elliott O’Donovan/

The Englishman trapped beneath the tiger embodies the duality of colonialism. He represents the colonizer, yet his position also evokes the anguish of the colonized, caught between “death and life, betwixt platform and predator, a predator that was both frightening and alluring.” For Tipu, the automaton tiger was more than just an amusing antic. In its piercing of the infidel Brit, and the ghastly aurality of its cry, caught in its wooden form, between un-being and being, Tipu was retaining for the future a perpetual possibility.  For him it was a potent symbol of defiance different from all his other innovations, as it ‘extended the imagination’.

James’ prose is of lapidary beauty; each neat sentence pounces on the next and each paragraph progresses with elan. There is no flab, no descent into the demotic or daring display; words are sinewy and phrases uncliched. The only grouse I have is with the characterisation of Tipu Sultan as a 18th century Putin. In the novel, he uses an army of Jacobins “culled from the pits of prison” a la Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner ragtag band of prisoners. Though seen only in the first quarter of the novel, Tipu is made to be a vigilante, distrusting despot, who hardly smiles, almost never with all his teeth, neither in person, nor in paintings. But by most untainted, dispassionate, and politically-free historical accounts, Tipu is known to have been a “humane and civilised character” (in comparison to his father) and one Englishman is known to have compared him with Achilles. The only tyrannical characteristic I have gathered in him is his hard work: “He worked hard for sixteen hours a day, occupying himself with the minutest details of administration and leaving very little time for pastimes”. And one more: his “light” breakfast consisted of cooked brains of male sparrows.

Nikhil Kumar works in climate policy and is an independent writer.

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