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I first saw B.M.Croker’s ‘In Old Madras at a friend’s place, years back. It looked like a colonial era novel set in my city. I had never read a colonial era novel set in my city. So I was curious. Then, after a while, I saw it at the bookshop. I thought I will get it. Since then it has been lying in my bookshelf. Last week an impulse seized me to get the book out and read it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

In Old Madras By BM Crocker

The story told in ‘In Old Madras is set in the early years of the twentieth century. Geoffrey Mallender comes from England to India in search of his uncle who used to work in the army in India and disappeared one day thirty years back. The odd thing is that the army assumed that he was killed in an accident. But Mallender’s father received a letter from his uncle a year after his supposed ‘death’, stating that he was still alive and was living in India and no attempt should be made to trace him. In return, Mallender’s uncle promised to send a considerable amount of money every year to take care of his brother and later his brother’s son. Mallender’s uncle also says that if they come in search of him at any later time, he will stop the allowance that he is giving them. Mallender’s father is depressed at hearing this news but decides to follow his brother’s wishes. But years later, when he is on his deathbead, he tells Mallender that he should go to India and search for his uncle and find out why he disappeared. Mallender goes to India, makes enquiries around but he reaches a dead end. The company which handles his uncle’s affairs refuses to entertain any queries and warn him that his allowance will be stopped. Other people around have heard of his uncle, but they think he is dead. Mallender stays with his cousin Freddy, who is in an important position in the army, and his cousin’s wife Fanny. Though Freddy is his cousin he is quite older to him and Freddy and Fanny treat Geoffrey like their own son. He also meets a distant cousin Nancy who also treats him like a son and friend. Freddy and Fanny feel that the endeavour that Mallender has embarked on is dangerous and so they try to distract him by inviting him to dances, getting him to join the polo team and asking their friends to keep him company and distract him. Especially, Fanny recruits her friend Lena Villars to keep Geoffrey occupied and distracted from his quest. Fanny also hopes that she can get him married to one of the eligible women in the local British community so that Geoffrey will drop his quest. Mallender meets a young, beautiful woman, Barbara Miller, and he is attracted towards her. She shows equal interest in him too, but after a while she gives him the cold shoulder. Though Mallender enjoys the fun activities he refuses to give up on his quest. One day he gets information from his agent (who he has hired to find out information about his uncle) that his uncle has been discovered. So he leaves his cousin and his friends, much to their dismay, to find his uncle. One adventure leads to another. On his travels and adventures he meets a fascinating cast of characters and becomes part of their lives and influences them and helps them in pleasant ways. But his uncle is nowhere in sight. Will Mallender find his uncle? What is his uncle’s secret? Will Mallender declare his love for Barbara? Will she accept him? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

 

The description of the story on the back cover reads like this :

 

Captain Mallender comes to old Madras in search of his uncle, once a reputable officer in the Blue Hussars, who disappeared mysteriously about thirty years ago. The blood-curdling reality that awaits Mallender at the end of his hazardous mission is beyond human imagination.

 

The words ‘disappeared mysteriously’, ‘blood-curdling reality’, ‘hazardous mission’ and ‘beyond human imagination’ were what pulled me into the story initially. I was hoping to read a fast-paced adventure mystery with one clue leading to another and a terrifying secret being revealed at the end. But ‘In Old Madras didn’t turn out to be like that. Though the book has a gripping start, interesting adventures and a happy ending, it is more of a gentle mystery. It book is more about the India of that time, the way the British expats of that time lived their lives, the complexities and eccentricities and beauty of the India of that era, the different people that Mallender meets and the secrets they harbour and the conversations and gentle adventures that he has with them. It was a pleasant book to read and it read more like a memoir or a travelogue than a novel (Croker must have used her own experiences to write the novel – she lived in Madras for many years). I liked most of the characters – they all had a likeable side, though some were more likeable than others – but my favourites were Fanny, Nancy, Mrs.Bourne (who runs her own estate and helps Mallender for a while when he is not well), General Beamish (he is in his nineties and the correct word to describe him is ‘living history’), Lena Villars (Fanny’s friend who becomes close friends with Mallender for a while) and of course Mallender and his sweetheart Barbara.

 

I enjoyed reading this gentle book – gentle inspite of the ‘blood-curdling reality’ it purports to reveal. This was probably the kind of book that India fans of that era would have read and would have enjoyed reading. I did some research and discovered that Croker has written more novels set in her favourite Madras and other parts of India and one set in Burma. I hope they are in print. I would love to read them.

 

Have you read B.M.Croker’s ‘In Old Madras or other books by her? What do you think about her books?

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