Holmes found Watson, thanks to a Lakhnavi
FACT IS sometimes stranger than fiction. That’s elementary! What is not perhaps is the fact that the ubiquitous Dr Watson, who many say is the alter ego of his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, should have a Lucknow connection! But that’s true.
As the world remains greatly indebted to Sir Doyle for his creation of the numero uno among detectives, Sherlock Holmes, on his 147th birth anniversary today (May 22), let’s take a look at this little known fact about the ‘birth’ of dear Watson, all thanks to a Lakhnavi.
In fact, Dr Watson would not have appeared along side Sherlock Holmes if Conan Doyle’s close friend Dr Mohammed Ebrahim Sufi of Lucknow had not suggested it to him. After going through Conan Doyle’s manuscript, it was Ebrahim who suggested it to the Nawab of crime fiction to invent an additional character as Sherlock Holmes’ colleague and personal assistant to spice his stories up. Conan Doyle relished Dr Sufi’s idea and instantly created the character of Dr Watson.
And that’s how the Lucknow connection found its place in the Doyle-Holmes scheme of things. Some researchers even feel that Conan Doyle sent Dr Watson to serve in the Afghan war because of the influence of the East on the author. And the East in his case was Dr Sufi.
But Lucknow, much because of its historical significance in British India, recurs several times in Conan Doyle’s variety of work and goes beyond the Dr Sufi-Lucknow-Watson link. In Conan Doyle’s detective thriller ‘Sign of Four’ (1890), the name of Lucknow props up as the pipe-smoking detective Sherlock Holmes discusses a case with a few others. In the chapter titled, ‘The Strange Story of Jonathan Small,’ there are two narrations where the city of Nawabs and the famous Mutiny find a mention.
Speaking to Holmes, Small, who had served in India, says, “…Nothing but the worst news came to us from every side — which is not to be wondered at, for if you look at the map you will see that we were right in the heart of it. Lucknow is rather better than a hundred miles to the east, and Cawnpore about as far to the south. From every point on the compass there was nothing but torture and murder and outrage.” The rendezvous of Conan Doyle with Lucknow continues and later in the same chapter Small recounts, “Well, there’s no use my telling you gentlemen what came of the Indian mutiny. After Wilson took Delhi and Sir Colin relieved Lucknow the back of the business was broken”
The prolific writer that Conan Doyle was saw him writing a history of the Great Boer War. Then 40, the novelist had cherished to witness the war as a soldier, but the Victorian army balked at the idea of having a popular author wielding a pen in its ranks. However, the army did accept him as a doctor and Conan Doyle’s vivid description of the battles are probably thanks to the eye-witness accounts he got from his patients.
In his propaganda book on ‘The Great Boer War’, Lucknow finds a place of pride in Chapter VII. In the chapter ‘The Battle of Magersfontein’ writes about the action of Lord Methuen’s force. Lord Methuen was present in Lucknow during the Mutiny of 1857. So while writing about the Lord’s strategy, Conan Doyle says, “With the history of the first relief of Lucknow in his memory he (Lord Methuen) was on his guard against a repetition of such an experience.” It goes to show how deep a scar the Mutiny of 1857 had left on Britishers’ mind.
That the scar of the Mutiny never refused to leave the British is once again evident in Conan Doyle’s fictionalised autobiography ‘Stark Munro Letters’ (1895). In this semi-autobiographical novel, the Mutiny in Awadh finds mention. Stark Munro writes to his friend Hebert Swansborough, “In the morning I went round to Mrs La Force and gave her a bulletin. Her brother had recovered his serenity now that the patient had left. He had the Victoria Cross it seems, and was one of the desperate little garrison who held Lucknow in that hell-whirl of a mutiny.”