In writing a historical novel the writer needs to be very cautious in maintaining a judicious balance between history and fiction. if historical facts overtake fictional imagination the story turns out to be a dry information fact book, and if imagination bypasses facts it no, longer can be categorised as history. From this perspective, Doctor Margaret’s Sea chest by Waheed Rabban is a successful venture where history and imagination are both friends, not foes. The time frame of the
Azadi Series, (to which our present book is the first volume) is also vast dating back to the 1850’s to the Indian independence.
the first thing that will catch your attention is the effortless ease at which the story line makes a frequent journey from the past to the present and back to the past-as if done by a time machine. But a reader will never find himself clueless about what is happening-always discovering amid new happenings that doesn’t only include Indian history but also contemporary world history.
Sepoy mutiny may have been dubbed in history as a failed ploy to reinstate the lost glory of the great Mughals, but there is no denying the fact that the sheer zeal of getting freed from the colonial rule was the root cause of the great mutiny. Themed on the rebellion, this novel is an absorbing tale that correlates the past with the present.
The story unfolds in a dramatic manner-the narrator of the story visualizing some pictures from the past, in his dreams- he is in a role to save the Queen of Jhansi from the British chasing her. Is it a premonition? Or is it simply a coincidence?
Let me share a few lines from the story that will give some insight to the reader about the capability of the writer in creating a mystic environment with words alone-
“I stared up at the sky again, and it was then I perceived the strange formation of the planets and the stars. The outer planets, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and others had formed themselves around the moon into a yod-a major configuration-also referred to as an Eye of the God or the Finger of fate. I also heard that this configuration of planets in the form of sextiles and quincunxes was extremely rare. The formation occurred only once a millennium or so, and thought to have major dynamic influences on the person they shone on. These people then became the chosen ones, who would go on to perform miraculous deeds.”
so words alone are sufficient to present this magical ,mystical environment of light and shadow-no dark landscape is necessary!
Doctor Walliadad- the narrator, and a visiting doctor to India from John Hopkins Hospital U.S.A was entrusted to return an old sea chest, more than 100 years old –belonging to doctor Margaret- one of the first North American doctors, lying long in the possession of the hospital, to her acquiesces. Like searching a needle in pile of hay-he had to locate and trace down the relative of the doctor! From that moment strange things started to happen- somebody was after the sea chest. Not some hooligans they were, but some international power was after it. Why one country will be interested in such an old box, lying unclaimed in a dark hospital room for centuries!
So, it was not just one junk old sea chest after all-far more valuable than it. What was inside it?
Mystery thickens page after page,chapter after chapter…….
The grandfather of the narrator was among the rank and files of the last of the great Mughals-Bahadur Shah Zafar. What wonder can his memoir behold to the protagonist? Are there any invisible connection between the lady doctor and the grandfather?
In a quest of tracing down the relatives of the doctor, he finally succeeds after a gap of two years from the time the duty was first entrusted to him! The trunk was finally opened, and what was inside it?
A piece of history and a memoir of the lady doctor-that takes us to a fascinating journey of love, conflict, conspiracy – taking us down back memory lane, revealing before us many shades of human emotions!
True, the writer has assimilated tons of information into this wonderfully crafted novel that is a mirror reflection of the 1850’s –but it is not just dry history. Reader can well visualize the war cries of soldiers, the humiliation of the last Mughal Empire, the treachery of Begum Zenat, the shooting of helpless Mughal princes-like the decade coming alive. Suspense and twist at every corner of the story makes it really palatable.
Let me take you to a very short journey in this ocean of time, dating back to 1857. In the words of the writer
“No, he suspected a trap. He didn’t believe that after the killings of the Europeans, the British would let him go so easily, and advised the king against accepting the deal. He told me that he was ready with his musket, several revolvers and talwar. If Zafar would have listened to him, he was prepared to fight off the few British soldiers himself and putting the King on a fast horse, make another escape. Although they would have had to leave the Begum and the Princes behind. Alas it didn’t happen that way.”
Contemporary matters like Crimean war, to the publication of origin of species-all found their way in this period piece, which is a neat depiction of the Victorian era.
A Russian connection has added up spice to the flavour of the story.
What I also do like is a beautiful picturisation of Delhi-with its past glory and the present aroma!
If we do only pinpoint our attention to the historical aspect of the story then we will do no justice to the novel-it is surprisingly rich in all shades of human emotion. how our little Margaret turned out to be a young lady from a little girl and how the young lady turned out to be a lady doctor and how a young handsome military officer from British Canada discovered his lady love in this lady doctor-all have been penned down with the skill of an artist by the writer.
I am confused whether it is more crispy to me as a historical novel or as a thriller-but one thing is clear, if you start it ,you have to finish it in one go, otherwise tension may kill you.
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