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  Books   14 Apr 2024  Tipu’s carpenter and his European quest

Tipu’s carpenter and his European quest

Published : Apr 14, 2024, 9:01 pm IST
Updated : Apr 14, 2024, 9:01 pm IST

The book takes reader into another era, complete with sights, sounds, smells and emotions

The cover page of Loot: A Novel
 The cover page of Loot: A Novel

After I read the first four parts of Tania James's historical novel Loot, I just sat there, shivering with delight because they had taken me wholesale into another era, complete with sights, sounds, smells and emotions. Set in Mysore during the reign of Tipu Sultan, these sections of the book introduce Abbas, the son of a master woodcarver and a young man with a penchant for making hand-cranked movable toys. The toys are so quaint that a noble lady of Tipu’s zenana orders them often, making Abbas somewhat curious about things he mustn’t be curious about, such as the lifestyles of people with power. This brings Abbas to the attention of Tipu himself (spies are everywhere in Srirangapatna and the lady of the zenana has made the dreadful mistake of backing the wrong people in politics), and changes the young man's life forever.

Tipu wants an automaton constructed, one that shows a tiger about to eat an Englishman. Du Leze, a Frenchman at Tipu’s court, can put the mechanisms together. But a wood carver is necessary and Tipu gives Abbas a choice: work with Du Leze or die. Even if Abbas wasn’t naturally inventive, wasn’t already interested in moving figures, his choice was clear.

Life in Tipu’s summer palace is fascinating. Abbas makes his first use of a chamber pot, eats well, learns from Du Leze, makes friends, acquires lovers, meets a future love interest. The tiger automaton is finished and is the talk of the territory. But then Du Leze returns to France, Tipu loses to the British, and Abbas must decide whether to follow his mentor and become someone in the world or remain unknown in his devastated country.

After I read the fifth part of Loot, I was slightly puzzled. This part shows Abbas on his way to Europe on a ship belonging to the East India Company, but the narrative is in the voice of sailor Thomas Beddeicker, which makes things slightly confusing. Thomas focuses on Abbas, but Abbas doesn’t do much to deserve this focus other than exist as a Hindustani carpenter among English sailors. In fact, the hero of this part of the book the voyage itself – the hardships of sea travel at a time when scurvy was a major risk and nations at war attacked even commercial ships belonging to the enemy. Still, I thought hopefully. Abbas is in France now. Surely there’ll be some movement in his story.

After I read the rest of Loot, I was so disappointed that I didn’t want to even acknowledge the book’s existence with a review. Abbas’ story is so slender, so slight, that it’s hardly a story at all. He grows in age but not in personality; his character simply exists to move the novel from one historical backdrop to another. Make no mistake, I love these historical backdrops. They are stunningly detailed. But with such a weak plot and even weaker characterisation, Loot left me feeling despoiled. What this book needs is a do-over.
Loot: A Novel
By Tania James
Penguin Hamish Hamilton
pp. 289; Rs 599

Tags: tipu sultan, mysuru, karnataka
Location: India, Delhi, New Delhi