During the last couple of years, Sherlock Holmes’ adventures have received several fascinating Indian postscripts, despite the fact that the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle contain only some 10 references to our part of the world.
Among such references are, for instance, Holmes’ famous words to Watson at their first meeting, cementing the partnership between a brilliant detective and a slow-thinking observer, “You have been to Afghanistan, I perceive.” The explanation for how he deduced this is, of course, legend.
Reinvented: In Basu’s book, Watson reveals some ‘real’ facts. Universal/The Kobal Collection
There’s the Indian snake which is used as a murder weapon (but I’m not naming the story) and in The Adventure of the Three Students, one suspect is an Indian, “a quiet, inscrutable fellow; as most of those Indians are”. Then there are the “missing years” after Holmes fell off a Swiss mountain. Upon returning to London, he shrugs off his absence by referring to two years spent in Tibet.
Doyle never came to India himself and so never set any adventure here, but the omission has been rectified. First of all, the Tibetan reference inspired Jamyang Norbu to write The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (1999), which contains some wonderful episodes set in Mumbai a hundred years ago, and the author justly won the Crossword fiction award.
More recently, Hyderabad-based Vithal Rajan published a collection of stories, Holmes of the Raj (2006), spoofing the “Orientalist fiction genre”. Here Sherlock Holmes is dispatched on a confidential mission to India, and makes the acquaintance of a virtual who’s who of colonial days—including Motilal Nehru, Tagore, Aurobindo, Kipling, Ronald Ross and Madame Blavatsky.
Not long ago I heard that in Ooty tourists can check into a Sherlock Holmes-themed hotel (which I hope to be able to review soon), and then only last month I received, fresh from the press, Partha Basu’s The Curious Case of 221B: The Secret Note books of John H Watson, MD, which is a delightful attempt at looking at Holmes from a subaltern perspective. In these notes, Watson provides us with the real facts behind the published cases, for Holmes had requested that “some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them”.
This means that earlier we were reading “doctored” versions, but now the good doctor wishes to come out of the closet—posthumously, however, and via a Bengali intermediary. The famous verbal exchange regarding Afghanistan is debunked, for although Holmes perceived that Watson had done a stint overseas, he would have thought it was Africa because “our involvement in the Second Afghan War was relatively brief and centred around the mountainous regions of Candahar, whereas the South African and Transvaal campaigns were long-drawn-out affairs that were fought in the searing African veldt; the latter being more likely to darken the pigmentation of your epidermal layers...”
Despite its drawbacks, such as dull episodes set in the present, and bizarre typography, the book is fabulously funny and filled with clever intertextual puns. I even get the feeling that Basu nudges and spoofs Julian Barnes’ Booker-shortlisted Arthur & George (2005), another must-read. That novel is centred around an Indian-origin solicitor in Birmingham who was jailed on trumped-up racist charges, and whose reputation and name Sir Arthur Doyle tried to clear in real life.
George Edalji, the solicitor, is accused of running around during rainy nights, slashing and killing livestock. But how could he? He is blinder than a bat and in the dark he couldn’t see a horse even if it stood inches away. Sir Arthur, who actually was trained as an ophthalmologist, is “confident in his diagnosis. Myopia, possibly of quite a high degree. And who knows, perhaps a touch of astigmatism too.”
He makes a qualified guess of six or seven dioptres. No way could this man be guilty. Now another doctor, namely Watson in Basu’s novel, says of Edalji, “My dear Holmes, this man has severe astigmatism and it doesn’t require an ophthalmologist to certify that there is also myopia present, how severe I can’t tell.”
Obviously there is a lot left to be written about Sherlock Holmes, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if a large portion of his adventures in the 21st century turn out to be oriented towards Asia, as detective writers dig deeper into the colonial past.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based Swedish writer of crime fiction.
Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org