I wanted to like Anita Nair's Idris: Keeper of the Light but I didn't.
Though the category of genre fiction in India continues to grow apace, there are few authors whose names are synonymous with historical fiction in the way Alexandre Dumas, Walter Scott or Rafael Sabatini are. This is surprising, because nothing gives a nation a sense of the rightness of its own nationhood than an exploration of its past via fiction. In India we have traditionally chosen the mythological over the historical. There are notable exceptions: Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy (the first two books of it), Kunal Basu’s The Opium Clerk or The Miniaturist; Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold; even Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is an account of the near-historical, all bring their chosen periods alive for the reader.
It was with a sense of anticipation, therefore, that I began to read Anita Nair’s Idris: Keeper of the Light. The story is set in the years 1659-61, and begins in Thirunavaya on the Malabar coast. Idris is a Somali traveller who discovers that a chance-met boy is his son. He finds out that his son Kandavar wants to join the Chaver, a band of warriors who have sworn to assassinate the Zamorin. To save him from certain death, Idris promises Kandavar’s uncle first to keep an eye on the boy, then later to take him on a long journey to broaden his horizons and distract him from his suicidal ambitions. They travel along the coast of southern India, via Ceylon, Thoothukudi and Paliacatta, finally to end in the diamond mines of the Golconda kingdom.
Sadly, the book fails to deliver on its promise of “adventure and passion and...fascinating insights into life in the seventeenth century.” Early on, when Idris and Kandavar visit the head of a kalari (martial arts school), the Muslim Baapa Gurukkal, we get a flashback where Baapa Gurukkal’s grandfather loses caste by learning new techniques of fighting from an untouchable and converts to Islam. The episode is curiously mythic—even derivatively cinematic in the manner of a Hong Kong martial arts film—in its descriptions. ”Who knows which year it happened?” asks Baapa Gurukkal, rhetorically.
There are other details that are carefully timeless, that could even be current: descriptions of the setting up of a kalari, or of food, clothes and the weather. When the travels begin and Idris and his entourage go to places under the control of the Dutch East India Company, we are given only the sketchiest details of what the encounter must have been like. The slave trade is mentioned in passing. We are told that Idris draws the line at trading in humans and then we never hear anything of this again. Instead, we have a ship’s doctor dreaming of returning home to Delft to his wife and home—of which we are given a short memory-tour.
Early on, Idris says, “I travel because I don’t know what else to do.” It’s something writers often say about themselves and why they write. It might help if writers—and travellers—were a little clearer not only about why they do what they do, but why they have chosen a particular journey. It’s especially hard to figure out, reading this book, what precisely attracted Nair to the period in the first place, since we know very little more than we did at the end of the book.
Idris’ travels skim the surface of 17th century southern India that we are eager to hear more about. In this, he’s like the host of a Fox Traveller show touching down upon a new place, picking one or two locations of colour to consume and then heading off somewhere else. So we get pearl fishing in Thoothukudi and diamond mining in the Krishna Basin but painted in the broadest possible strokes.
Worse, we rarely come to care for any other character because once they have played their part in the narrative, they vanish from it. Everybody thinks the same few things about Idris: how distinguished and tall he is, how reserved and how compassionate; how well he assumes any role that is required of him to fill at any given time—healer, storyteller, leader in a crisis, or shrewd businessman. Any character with a grudge is dealt with swiftly, mostly by writing them out of the narrative.
The women, Kuttimalu—Kandavar’s mother—and Thilothamma are strong and independent; but these qualities mean little when, like other characters, they exist to explicate something about Idris or Kandavar and then fade into the background once they have finished being strong women for that particular moment.
The book ends with a comfortable opening for a sequel. Historical fiction needs proper world-building, with enough fact to buttress the imagination. I can only hope that Nair delves more deeply into the period to bring it truly alive. Until then, it’s back to Ghosh.