A Mughal Disneyland and a ripping yarn

The Smoke is Rising, by Mahesh Rao, and The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter. A funny, angry view of contemporary India, and a Boy's Own picture of one of its past tipping points

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

The Smoke is Rising Mahesh Rao

Daunt Books, pp.299, £14.99, ISBN: 9781444777604

The Strangler Vine M.J. Carter

Fig Tree, pp.311, £12.99, ISBN: 9780241146231

Mysore, once the capital of a princely kingdom in South India, has lost its lustre. In Mahesh Rao’s darkly comic novel, grandiose futuristic visions are being floated: in a city desperate to reinvent itself for today’s brave new world, ancient temples and palaces are no longer enough. With India’s space programme about to send a man to the moon, Mysore must make its own giant leap. All hopes are pinned on what is destined to be a global tourist attraction: HeritageLand, planned as Asia’s largest theme park (think Mughal Waterworld — the Disneyland of south India!) And Mysore needs a new marketing slogan — ‘The Geneva of the East?’  suggests a desperate PR person. Well, at least there’s a lake.

While local government officials pull strings, line pockets and bully those they can in the cause of the great transformation, everyday life goes on. The city itself is a leading character: security-protected enclave and suede-panelled restaurant for the affluent; nightspots for cool youth; down-market coffee houses for office workers, slums clinging like barnacles to the respectable rim of town. Further out are the fields where farmers scrape a living off land about to be snatched away from them in the name of progress. Opulence and quiet desperation in tandem.

The Smoke is Rising scrutinises some of those lives: the elderly widow grown invisible, as elderly widows do, until she glimpses a chance of new happiness… the servant with a past she is trying to escape, drawn into a scandal with disastrous consequences… and — in the novel’s most powerful and unsettling thread — a young wife trapped in a life of domestic sadism.

Glancingly we encounter others — ambitious bureaucrats, social climbers, unscrupulous entrepreneurs, no-hopers — all struggling in the urban jungle where the modern world rides roughshod over tradition in a bitter clash between consumerism and old India. The rich get richer and the poor stay where they always were — bottom of the pile, like those cheated farmers. Driven by despair they plan a violent revenge.

Rao, who grew up in Kenya, took degrees at Bristol, Cambridge and LSE, now lives in Mysore. This is his first novel and he veers between sharp, economic dialogue that can be both hilarious and disquieting, and set-piece extravaganzas crammed with colour, festooned with adverbs. He can achieve savage humour without losing a tender touch and has a powerful way of letting a detail suggest a bigger picture, the force of a blow indicated by a loosened tooth. A scene at table with a plate of steaming rice and a silent, traumatised wife moves from creepy to shocking. Throughout, Rao uses humour to sharpen his anger, balancing despair with hope: there are winners and losers but no rose-tinted spectacles.

From 21st-century Mysore, a spin back to 19th-century Calcutta. M.J. Carter is the prize-winning biographer of Anthony Blunt, and The Strangler Vine is her first novel. Marketed by its publishers as a ripping yarn, a Boy’s Own adventure, it is something less straightforward: a meticulously researched historical novel with a subversive and startling sting in its tail.

It begins as a quest, a somewhat leisurely progress through the rich exotica of India, with the narrator, William Avery, a wide-eyed junior officer, a hapless Watson trying to keep up with his infuriating and arrogant Holmes-like partner Jeremiah Blake, when the East India Company sends them off on what seems a hopeless search for Xavier Mountstuart, raffish poet, novelist and India expert who has disappeared in troubling circumstances, possibly killed by the Thugs he has been studying — he may even have joined the murderous sect himself.

Historical figures come and go: the traveller Fanny Parkes; William Henry Sleeman, who found fame with his ground-breaking work on the Thugs of India. Mountstuart himself is based on Philip Meadows Taylor, who wrote Confessions of a Thug. Various old India hands feature, and assorted rajahs. There are jungle ambushes and chases; daring escapes, but also lengthy descriptions of flora and fauna, clothes, palaces and food, and rather a lot of conversation. The search builds slowly, but in its final section the book takes off into suspense and urgency.

Research is used to good effect; there are vivid evocations of place: Calcutta’s Park Street cemetery,

a perfect little city of well-swept paths and small palaces and temples to those gone…the grass a vivid green, and one could hear the cries of the peacocks and crows that made their homes between the elaborate tombs and monuments.

That was 1837. It hadn’t changed much when I played among the gravestones aged eight. One century gives way to another; the bust outlasts the throne, the coin, Tiberius. The monuments, when left in place, live on.

Carter has caught the sub-continent at a tipping point: is that monsoon thunder we hear in the background, or a foreshadowing of mutinous gunfire?

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Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.99 / £11.69. Tel: 08430 600033. Lee Langley was born in Calcutta and is the author of A House in Pondicherry.

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