Tania James
Knopf ($28)

by Mukund Belliappa

Tania James’s third novel Loot recalls historian Marc Bloch’s observation that it is impossible to understand the past without being interested in the present. However, in the case of Tipu Sultan—the 18th-century Anglophobic South Indian ruler of the kingdom of Mysore whose reign is the setting for much of Loot—the past seems self-explanatory: It is laid out in propagandist colonial-era English tomes and in treasures carted away by the victorious British, some of which are still on display behind plexiglass. To evaluate that history through the lens of the present, though, one has to wade through a variety of opinions. Was Tipu an early “freedom-fighter,” as held by many postcolonial liberal and secular thinkers? Was he a modernizer because he developed rocket technology that would inspire William Congreve, started a silk industry, and embraced trade? Or was he just a garden-variety Islamist despot, as some contemporary Hindus think, if only because he is a hero to the Muslims of South Asia?

In the Western world, Tipu’s reputation as the latter (based mainly on his harsh treatment of British prisoners) had been well established long before his end. As the kind of bloodthirsty figure the British needed to depict their colonial expansion as a heroic endeavor, Tipu (aka Teepoo, Tipoo, Tippoo Sahib, Tipu Saeb, etc.) appeared as a bogeyman for a century and a half in English fiction, plays, travelogues, and tales of colonial derring-do. Loot, a thoughtful and obviously well-researched historical novel, offers a corrective of sorts.

James threads her narrative around the fictional life of a real toy. Known as “Tipu’s tiger,” this life-sized, crudely built, automaton depicting a tiger devouring a red-uniformed English soldier was discovered in Tipu’s palace—the perfect loot to showcase his hatred of the English. European technicians in India, to flatter their royal employers, tended to showcase their virtuosity by putting together eccentric and eye-catching doodads rather than useful machinery. The protagonist of Loot is a young Muslim man named Abbas, a talented toymaker apprenticed to the French clockmaker named Lucien, who has been commissioned by Tipu to produce the mechanical wonder.

The first half of Loot, set in Tipu’s capital fortress of Srirangapatna in the 1790s, sympathetically shows a beleaguered ruler in the waning years of his reign. Dealing with both the unreasonable demands of Governor-General Richard Wellesley (the architect of British expansion Tipu calls a “walking hemorrhoid”) and with spies deployed by a rival chieftain, the Maratha Nana Phadnavis (aka the “termite”), Tipu seems resigned to a final showdown. Under the flimsiest of pretexts—two centuries later, historians would compare them to those under which the U.S. invaded Iraq—Wellesley launches a massive British attack against Mysore, and among the spoils of eventual victory for the British is Tipu’s tiger; it is chosen by Colonel Horace Selwyn, but he soon dies of dysentery, so his aide, a sepoy named Rangappa Rao, carries the Colonel’s remains and his possessions, including the life-sized toy, to the Colonel’s widow in England.

Four characters make it out of the carnage of Tipu’s capital to Europe and to the second phase of Loot. Lucien simply returns to Rouen to run his watch and clock repair shop. Abbas escapes India as an assistant to a ship’s carpenter and eventually makes his way to Lucien’s shop, which is being run by a half-Indian girl named Jehane—the third person to survive the razing of Tipu’s capital—after Lucien’s death. Abbas and Jehane hatch a plan to travel to Mrs. Selwyn’s castle in England, hoping to exchange some assorted memorabilia for Tipu’s tiger; the high-society widow has meanwhile been garnering attention by showing off the automaton. In England, Abbas and Jehane immediately run afoul of Rum, who is Mrs. Selwyn’s “personal secretary and land agent,” as well as her controlling lover and the fourth person to have escaped Srirangapatna—though unlike the other three, he takes great joy in Tipu’s demise.

It turns out we have met Rum before, briefly, at the “prize” ceremony after Tipu’s defeat, when he was introduced as a “sepoy with the Madras Infantry.” Rum is the nickname of Rangappa Rao. He is a central figure in the final sections of the novel set at Cloverpoint Castle, Mrs. Selwyn’s sprawling country home (which of course, because she is a collector, has a museum-like vastness, with “no humble rooms”). To find the former lowly sepoy as the virtual Lord of the Manor is puzzling, though James hurriedly fills in how Rum ended up as a sepoy: His parents, officials of a minor kingdom that was brutally subdued by Tipu’s father Haider Ali, were killed during the purge after the subjugation, forcing him to seek employment with the East India Company. Still, a reader might find his current station implausible.

It does not take much to realize that Rum is a surrogate for a constituency of Tipu’s legacy that Loot, until this point, has largely ignored: the mainly Hindu and Christian peoples of South India who bore the brunt (and who, if one reads the screeds of present-day right-wing Hindus, still bear scars) of Tipu’s self-aggrandizement. Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan were ferocious conquerors; many of the regions they conquered had grown increasingly fragmented under effete rulers; and the English were sneaking around everywhere, playing one against the other. The balance James is able to strike with her characterization of Tipu and his era in the first part of Loot proves elusive in the novel’s post-Tipu world. Rum is an attempt to restore that balance, but he seems like an afterthought, a band-aid.

Though set in an entirely different context, James’s previous novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage (Knopf, 2015), tackled a parallel predicament with greater success. The central themes of Tusk are elephant poaching and conservation, and one of its principal narrators is a tribal member from whose ranks most elephant poachers come. For centuries, those poachers derived their livelihoods from a forest which is now a “Wildlife Park,” where picking up a “finger length of firewood” is suddenly a serious offense; an equally crucial second narrator is a filmmaker who is sympathetic to conservation. Loot, however, has a single narrator, and its post-Tipu pages are devoted only to the perspectives of Tipu loyalists, an imbalance in the world James has created.

Unfortunately, Loot does not recover from Rum’s unconvincing rise to prominence, although it does hint at the possibility of happy endings. Mrs. Selwyn, who has artistic aspirations of her own, has written a romantic novel and by showing sympathy for it, Jehane is able to win the widow’s confidence; although she and Abbas return to Rouen without Tipu’s tiger, they start an aspirational boutique in a Brooklynesque setting, and even hire Rum as their bookkeeper. “People are so opinionated about endings,” Mrs. Selwyn had worried after giving Jehane her manuscript. In this ending to Loot, in the rapprochement between Rum and the Tipu loyalists, there is perhaps the wishful and wistful hope of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation in a foreign land.

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