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