GOWANUS Autumn 2001


Two Reviews by Anjana Basu

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The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes 
Jamyang Norbu
Harper Collins India. Rs 295

Ever since Arthur Conan Doyle killed, then revived Sherlock Holmes thanks to popular outcry, Holmes fans have been wondering where their favourite detective could possibly have been during the time  when he vanished to elude Moriarty’s criminal network - when they haven’t been trying to write Holmes mysteries of their own, filling in the blanks or picking up on  references to other cases in Watson’s narrative. The most successful of those Holmes fillers-in has probably been Conan Doyles’ son, Adrian, though Nicholas Meyer’s Seven Per Cent Solution has its own advocates. Holmes has become Jack the Ripper, a vampire and many other unimaginable creatures in his long history of being analysed. And Watson has documented his adventures in many voices, some of them far from the original Watson voice that Conan Doyle invented.

Onto this scene enters Jamyang Norbu, a Tibetan expatriate whose ancestors had the foresight to move to Sikkim long before the Chinese forced the Tibetans into mass exodus. Jamyang declares that his book is an ‘overgrown schoolboy’ s tribute’ to the arch-detective and bases it on five lines from "The Empty House" where Holmes tells Watson that he amused himself by travelling through Lhasa and spending time with the lamas there under the name of Sigerson. He
acknowledges two previous attempts by writers at recreating Holmes’ period of absence, Richard Wincor in Sherlock Holmes in Tibet and Hapi’s The Adamantine Sherlock Holmes - but insists that his handling is very different.

Where other Holmes admirers have fallen down has been in the imitation of Watson’s tone of voice. Jamyang does not attempt to take on this literary convention. Instead, he brings in the amusing Babu, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee to narrate the story - the character is based on Sarat Chandra Das who was actually an expert on Tibet and whose expertise the British used to spy in Tibet. Kipling also borrowed him for Kim, which is where Norbu found him; The Babu is a far less familiar tone of voice to most readers and he has the merit of adding freshness to the Holmes convention.

The story begins with ' arrival in India, disguised as Sigerson. Huree is an agent of the Raj, playing Kim’s Great Game, and is assigned to keep an eye on the unlikely foreigner. ‘The Great Game’ spying in Tibet was being played at the behest of the British, Tibet being the moat between the territorially aggressive Chinese and the paranoid rulers of India. One of Holmes’ first lines to Huree is: “You have been in Afghanistan I perceive.”

That one familiar line pretty much defines the relationship between these two characters. Much of the next few chapters are spent in creating a bond between these two unlikely fellows and are handled rather effectively. The characterisation of Holmes is fairly authentic, even though there are too many quotations from Horace. He is also somewhat distant, and is clearly exploring, to some degree, the meaning of life. Holmes is of course on the run from the minions of the late Professor Moriarty and is besieged on all fronts, since the Napoleon of Crime has anticipated his pursuit. After a breathlessly exciting encounter with a giant red leech and a group of dacoits, or more correctly Thugs, Homes and his faithful Babu manage to
infiltrate Tibet.

The journey is a little flat in its narration without the detailing that
makes the first part of the book so entertaining. On their arrival in Tibet, we find that Holmes has been expected and is requested to help defend the life of the youthful Dalai Lama-to-be. He turns the request down, but of course ends up doing the right thing. It is on the night of the attack that brings Holmes round that the story suddenly veers from its pacey exciting narration into mysticism.

While there have been hints at Holmes’ mystic side - he fasts, he avoids society and seems to spend time  pondering the meaning of life, the second half of the book combines Sherlock Holmes emphatically with the X-Files. This is not quite what the first half of the book has led the reader to expect and might leave quite a few Holmes lovers  cold. A good deal of paranormal activity takes place, and Holmes’ analytic powers seem to desert him for powers of another level. In Tibet he confronts the mysterious ‘Dark One’ whose identity to most acute readers of the book will not be a surprise - since we left Colonel Sebastian Moran far behind us in Mumbai. Of course, to reveal who the Dark One is would spoil the whole mystery for mostreaders, so that has to stay a secret. The only thing that comes too pat is the denouement - one would have expected something more fitting and less contrived. However, the writing style is exemplary for a pastiche, as is the representation of Holmes, and what makes it all the more entertaining is the pedantic note-taking style of the Babu recorder of Holmes’ activities.

Once the book is over, apart from the entertainment you are left amazed at the amount of research that has gone into recreating the era and the language. "For example the expletives used by cavalry officers at the time were very different from the language of an ICS officer," the writer says. The texture of the writing is rich and evocative, and it is small wonder that the book swept past Amitav Ghosh and Pankaj Mishra to win India’s Poor Man’s Booker, the Crossword Prize, this year.

10 Walks in Kathmandu 
Prakash A Raj
Harper Collins India. Rs 150

A plane flies up out of the cup of the mountain and leaves the runway behind. A cicada takes over from the roar of the jet engines and chirps an insistent note. On the tarmac the shocking-pink-shirted Europeans pick up their rucksacks and head into the airport building. Indoors is warm glass lined and startlingly woodworked in shades of dark walnut. This is ‘abroad’, an international airport with signs that separate holders of Indian and Bangladeshi passports. Lines of customs inspectors are scrabbling in and out of the rucksacks. This is Kathmandu.

Kathmandu has given rise to many legends in the Bengali ethos, from the time of the Buddha to Satyajit Ray. Or perhaps it might be better to call them myths. For example, anyone who lives in Kathmandu is called ‘Bahadur’. Or, the name 'Kathmandu' originated from the number of executions in the city and the fact that the thoroughfares were lined with severed heads. But then, the legends in the international context are equally numerous, misting into a collage of sadhus among icy mountain streams, the world’s highest mountain...and the Beatles.

At one point it was said that there were more temples than houses in Kathmandu. In fact, it was these temples in intricately carved wood that gave the city its name. There are still small pointed structures with a smear of sindoor at the four corners of every block in the old city. Nepal is the only Hindu kingdom in the world, despite being the birthplace of the Buddha. The bathing tanks in Kathmandu are wom- shaped with stone apsaras, reincarnations of Vishnu and guardian gods decorating the sides of the older ones.

There is a lot to see in the legendary Kathmandu valley. The ideal package-tour guide says that Kathmandu can be ‘done’ in three days or so. Most foreign tourists disappear out of the place with their rucksacks bound for the Himalayas. Indian travellers have one aim in mind – the casino. They count their money and sit and plan gambling coups for the night, working out combinations of cards. In between, some of them find time to take in the local sites.

Prakash A Raj’s book is an attempt to offer an alternative to these canned tours. Walking and cycling were popular ways of exploring the place in the 1970’s, and now certain areas have been designated pedestrian zones. Raj takes the tourist down these walks with snippets of useful information designed to make the experience both easier and more enjoyable. The book sets out ten of the most historic walks, with one walk each dedicated to the seven UNESCO world heritage sites that the valley houses.  Until 1769, there were 20 kings in Nepal. Each one with a capital and each one battling for a larger piece of the valley. All these kings built palaces, which were like miniature temples with a yoni-shaped pool in the forecourt. 

Sometimes the palace and the temple confronted each other across the main square with the temple gaining predominance. With the various influences of Nepalese life, three types of temples came into being. The shikhara with its distinctively pyramidal shape, the brass sheathed pagoda and the inverse cone of the Buddhist stupa. These three types of temple recur again and again in various parts of the valley….  According to the legends, the five Pandavas were searching for the god Shiva after Kurukshetra. However, Mahadeva disapproved of the fratricidal war and decided to elude the Pandavas by shape- shifting. He took on the form of a huge black bull and burrowed underground. But his horns stuck out at Hardwar and his body at what became Pashupatinath.

Pashupatinath lies within easy earshot of the planes that land and take off at Tribhuvan Airport. Sightseers and devotees pick their way down a descending road to stop at the entrance to the temple in a courtyard of hibiscus-sellers, prasad sellers and footwear minders. Nothing leather goes past the main gate, an edict that includes wallets and camera bags. ‘You can leave your slippers with the flower sellers in the square,’ advises Raj, though there are more organised slipper racks at hand. However, non-Hindus are not allowed within the main gate of the temple. Pashupatinath is Kathmandu’s cremation ground, with a quiet sweep of river, an authentic arm of the Ganges. On the side facing the temple are laid out gleaming brass game sets, bones, skulls, white metal dragons, Buddhas and puppets designed to tempt passersby into parting with some Nepalese rupees.  On Durbar Marg the same vendors are to be found though again with wares carefully edited. On an early morning walk you might be accosted by a ‘gem’ seller who unwinds strings of  beads at you, by a wave of peacock feather fans or a gum seller who hisses at you in French. There are five-star shops on Durbar Marg too with credit-card signs in the windows and five-figure items on display inside. Everything is made out of pure silver, or pure something. Even the brass statuettes are gilded and enamelled.  Boudhinath is the oldest stupa in Kathmandu. The Buddha’s eyes look pervadingly out at the world from every brochure on Kathmandu. The stupa is ringed round with brick, with 108 prayer wheels set into the base. It is said that this place is the centre of all psychic energy in the valley, a natural mandala.

10 Walks in Kathmandu abounds with pieces of information like this. The book, in fact, is designed to replace the ever-present tourist guide and let you go on your walking way with as few interruptions as possible. The only ones allowed are peacock feather vendors or a trip over an old stone.  Otherwise there is nothing to interrupt your concentration on the old buildings or even the new ones.

The thing to do, say jaded regular travellers to Kathmandu, is visit the supermarket. There under one roof you can buy all the latest smuggled goods. ‘You can get an eight-band transistor radio here for just five dollars. A similar set with a Japanese brand name would probably cost five times as much in another part of the world.’
The book takes you through Bhaktapur and Patan, the ancient capitals of the kings of Nepal. The whole of the valley is based on a plan of palaces facing temples with narrow roads meant for foot traffic leading to them. The one thing it does not do, perhaps unhappily for Indian travellers, is take you on a tour of the famous casinos. But then, Raj’s Kathmandu is the Kathmandu of myth and legend, not the place where fortunes are lost on a whim during a rushed three-day hover. This is a book for a week of walking – a week that, to most outsiders’ dismay, begins on a Sunday and ends on Friday afternoon, with a holiday on Saturday. It takes a little getting used to, like the city itself. However, your chances of finding yourself again, with this book in hand, are excellent.

(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)