Writing a story set in a time period different from one’s own is a difficult task. In The Mute Anklet written by Bangalore-based Radhika Nathan, the task is even harder because it is set in a period significant in India’s history. But the debutante writer does a commendable job, juggling all the aspects of a period drama and gives us a book that is an engaging read.
Set in the backdrop of the third Anglo-Mysore war of the 1790s, The Mute Anklet narrates the trials and travails of a young couple - Uma Brooke, an Englishman’s daughter but in the care of the Maharaja of Mysore, and Captain Ashton Trevelyan of the British army.
As the British army, having captured the Malabar Coast, lurches towards Bangalore slowly, we witness the teetering association of the two, and their reckless sparring and clashing ideologies that threaten to disrupt their relationship.
Raised in South India, Uma has a deep attachment to India and a prejudice against the invading Britons. Captain Trevelyan is a Briton through and through and feels indifferent towards Indians. But neither is left with a choice after the Maharaja insists they get married to one another for political reasons.
Initially, the author seems to fall into the trap of the typical Bollywood-ish track of boy meets girl, they get off on the wrong foot, throw verbal volleys at one another before finding out they love each other. However, she eventually manages to rise above this and makes their relationship more riveting as it is deeply influenced by their clashing ideologies in a time of war and death.
Those expecting a mere romantic story will be disappointed as the novel’s backdrop and over-arching mythology have equal, if not more, importance. Uma and Captain Trevelyan’s love story is merely a thread that links historical events, the influence of battle-strategy of the lives of the protagonists and war-time politics.
Radhika manages to balance the elements of history, romance, action and suspense well in the novel that is roughly 300 pages long.
The heart and soul of a romantic novel lies in the depth of its characters and relationships. The principal characters Uma and Captain Trevelyan click for the most part. Initially, Uma’s super-woman act tends to be giving in to the modern day one-dimensional stereotype of the ‘strong woman’. However, the author soon tones down her aggressiveness and justifies an eventual transformation. Changing one’s beliefs is often misconstrued as weakness. However, Radhika wisely understands and accepts otherwise and we witness a character transformation that truly makes Uma a much more likeable and realistic person. Captain Trevelyan is a well-etched character from the start and provides great bits of humour throughout the story. Perhaps the most compelling character is the Maharaja who loves his ward more than his own son.
But the best part of the novel is not the present-day story, rather the parallel story set in the past. Many of the chapters have been divided into two - one set during the war, the other set a few decades earlier, narrating the story of Warren and Mina.
The reader understands the relevance of the second storyline eventually, but it is not just the link between the two that makes its interesting. Warren and Mina’s story makes an engaging read by itself.
However, the sheer number of characters in the novel slightly detracts its flow. While the suspense is maintained reasonably well, the antagonists’ motives in the end are rather disappointing.
Playing with Time: One of the dangers while writing a period story is the risk of not getting the facts right. For, such stories should ideally be stories of the time period, not just the characters.
Radhika takes a few liberties in the novel and cooks up some non-existent kings and forts. In the prologues, she mentions this as artistic liberties she was compelled to take to maneuver her story.
The Mute Anklet falls well short of great literature. But for all its minor shortcomings, it is an engaging read and a fine piece of work from a first-time writer.