Mer­ce­nary Man

India Today - - LEISURE - —G.Kr­ish­nan

THE HIS­TORY OF ROBERT CLIVE AND the dawn of the British em­pire in In­dia is a wellploughed field. We know about his lim­it­less am­bi­tion, mon­u­men­tal greed and ul­ti­mate hu­mil­i­a­tion back in Eng­land. Ev­ery bat­tle he fought has been chron­i­cled in great de­tail. And yet, Alex Ruther­ford makes him come alive in this grip­ping his­tor­i­cal novel, For­tune’s Soldier. A lucky dis­cov­ery of a metal box at an auc­tion house in Cal­cutta, con­tain­ing pa­pers dat­ing back to the 1700s about the Bal­lan­tyne fam­ily, seeded the imag­i­na­tion of Alex Ruther­ford (the nom de plume of Di­ana and Michael Pre­ston). The re­sult­ing For­tune’s Soldier is a tale of quar­rels among lo­cal rulers and the palace in­trigues and dou­ble-cross­ing that helped the East In­dia Com­pany sub­ju­gate and rule In­di­ans for more than 200 years.

The story be­gins in 1744 when a young Scots­man, Ni­cholas Bal­lan­tyne, who dreams of in­her­it­ing an es­tate, is in­stead shipped off by his un­cle to work as a lowly writer for the Com­pany in Hin­dostan. On board the Winch­ester, he meets Robert Clive, an en­ter­pris­ing char­ac­ter de­ter­mined to make vast for­tunes by any means.

Clive’s life has been ac­cu­rately re­pro­duced in the five-part novel; Ruther­ford weaves in Ni­cholas Bal­lan­tyne and sev­eral other fic­tional char­ac­ters. Soon after land­ing in Cal­cutta, Ni­cholas gets sent to Madras and Cud­dalore, where he joins Clive in van­quish­ing Tamil rulers and French colo­nial­ists one after the other in clev­erly planned bat­tles. Ni­cholas is a prin­ci­pled per­son, a pas­sion­ate lover, a dot­ing fa­ther, a fear­less soldier and an en­ter­pris­ing se­cret agent. Tuhin Singh, whom Ni­cholas saves from a tiger, be­comes his loyal as­sis­tant and true friend, who re­peat­edly risks his life to save Ni­cholas. Meena, a court dancer, bears him a son and he turns into an af­fec­tion­ate com­pan­ion and a car­ing fa­ther. The Ital­ian mer­chant Lu­cia, stranded in In­dia, cares for the child and, even­tu­ally, Ni­cholas be­comes at­tached to her. All of these char­ac­ters en­ter and exit quickly. As one ex­pects in his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, the hu­mane Ni­cholas serves to more vividly de­fine the greed and hubris of Clive.

Ruther­ford trans­ports read­ers right into bat­tles with fast­paced de­scrip­tions of gal­lop­ing horses, scream­ing ele­phants, sol­diers slic­ing off heads and gush­ing foun­tains of blood. For a change of scenery, he oc­ca­sion­ally in­tro­duces tales of cor­rup­tion, in­jus­tice and be­trayal in the courts.

Ni­cholas warns Clive that he will even­tu­ally be cor­rupted by power, and de­spite the vast for­tune Clive ac­cu­mu­lated in In­dia, he did in­deed come to a mis­er­able and ig­no­min­ious end in Eng­land.

For­tune’s Soldier by Alex Ruther­ford Ha­chette In­dia, `599; 429 pages

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