Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Maharajah's General

Paul Fraser Collard’s second book, The Maharajah’s General, finds Jack Lark, the hero of The Scarlet Thief in India. He’s gone there straight after recovering from the Battle of Alma, so it must be around 1855. This means he is arriving in India at almost exactly the same time John Williamson gets there in my book, Cawnpore. This made reading The Maharajah’s General particularly interesting for me, as I could compare Jack Lark’s India with John Williamson’s and see how an author I admire had tackled a similar subject.

Williamson is a civilian, so he sees a rather different side of East India Company rule from the soldier, Lark. Even so, Lark has to grasp the political realities of life in India, just as Williamson is sucked into the military. India was a colony in the most traditional sense: it was controlled by the British by the direct exercise of military power. The military and the political were inextricably intertwined. That said, Lark (partly because he is in a very remote part of the country) does not see many of the benefits that British rule brought. Native rule was often corrupt as well as inefficient. Lark is in the fictional kingdom of Sawadh, ruled by a Maharajah whose vast wealth had to come from somewhere, and it came mainly by exploiting the poor, a point that Lark does not dwell on. The British exploited the poor too, but, at least arguably, a little less than many native rulers. The British took steps to stop some of the nastier local customs, such as sati (widow burning). The British were, in this period, building railways, which revolutionised the Indian economy. They worked on flood control and brought in medical advances too. None of these developments are making much difference in Sawadh.

Despite the benefits that British rule did bring to India, nowadays we are, quite reasonably, concerned about the morality of conquest. Both Lark and Williamson end up with enormous sympathy for the Indian people, both having spent time living at the court of the local ruler. I was interested to see how Collard and I, with very different stories and very different approaches, both felt that we had to have our protagonist ‘go native’ if we were to honestly represent the times.

I enjoyed reading about Lark’s time in the Maharajah’s palace, though I did feel I was reading about a ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasy. The descriptions appear to be based on the kind of thing that travellers wrote about at the time, and they were often dazzled by the lavish displays of wealth. Jack Lark is a simple London kid who is seeing this sort of thing for the first time and we see it through his eyes. Certainly the jewelled swords, splendid fortresses and astonishing decorations did exist and Jack’s response is credible. By contrast, John Williamson has been around the Far East for a while and he is more sceptical when he visits Nana Sahib’s Saturday House. I think the Nana’s palace does reflect the reality of many of these places, its jewels and splendour existing alongside dirt and squalor. The eccentric display of clocks, the paintings, the random crockery: all these details of life at Saturday House showed how one of the most important Indian princes lived. That said, there may have been some who lived like the Maharajah and, certainly, many European visitors came away as over-awed as Lark. (This is well reflected by some of the exhibits in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, which I discuss in a later blog.)

The Maharajah’s country is about to be taken over by the British using the Doctrine of Lapse, a particularly dishonest bit of colonial unpleasantness. Collard summarises the cruel realities of the doctrine well. His British Political Officer is a dyed-in-the-wool villain, while many such men were doing their best in difficult conditions. Even so, his naked ambition and the ruthlessness of his political dealings seemed utterly credible.

The Jack Lark books, unlike mine, are really full-on stories of military history and Collard’s descriptions of both the British and Indian forces are convincing. (I am reminded, yet again, that my dismissal of the military value of the lance is probably the biggest blooper in Cawnpore.) The battle scenes are gripping and the sheer awfulness of hand-to-hand combat is depicted with gruesome enthusiasm. The final rout of the vast Indian force by a tiny detachment of Native Cavalry (small enough to fight under the command of a lieutenant) is not convincing but, ‘Then the British were over-run and Lark died,’ would have made an unsatisfactory ending. The defeat might have been less overwhelming, though. Two years later the Mutiny was to put the future of British India at real risk. It was the decision of many local rulers like the Maharajah to throw their lot in with the mutineers that nearly brought down British rule, and I would have liked to have finished the book with the Maharajah building his forces and waiting for another opportunity to destroy the British once and for all. Perhaps the name of the Maharajah’s daughter, Lakshmi, is a nod towards the great Indian warrior princess, Rani Lakshmi Bai, who was to lead her people against the British in that revolt.

Jack Lark, for all his inner angst, is a basically more optimistic character than Williamson. He can see the things that are wrong with British rule but, like many a soldier today, he considers that worrying about them is beyond his pay grade. He will fight and kill because, as he reluctantly accepts, that is his job and he’s very good at it. He will love and lose women along the way (it’s the law in books like this: my James Burke is the same) but the end will see him moving on, bloody but unbowed, to his next adventure.

There are several Jack Lark books already available and more in the pipeline. I’m looking forward to reading them. Paul Collard writes fast-paced adventure stories that bring the reality of 19th century warfare home with brutal immediacy. At the same time, the military detail shows a love of historical tactics and weaponry while the backgrounds evidence a lot of research, without bogging down in displays of superfluous historicity. They are great reads and I wholeheartedly recommend them.

No comments:

Post a Comment