Mason’s last novel The Fever Tree (1962) is set a decade after India won its independence. The changes are reflected in the restaurant that the novel’s hero finds himself in the opening chapter of the book:
Birkett sipped the small whisky. His gaze fell on the mahogany honour-board behind the bar, listing the Club presidents in letters of gold. They went back over thirty years. Fotheringay, Whittington-Smith, Sir R. Boland, Bell-Carter . . . You could see the hands holding the whisky-sodas, the moustaches bristling under sun-helmets as they set off for polo or sticking pigs. You knew from the names they had all been pig-stickers: you only wondered that there had been enough pigs to go round. Smedley-Cox, Athelston . . . And so on until, with Sir Joshua Hindcliffe, 1947, the pig-sticking names came to a resounding end. And then: Sen, Desani, Muckerjee, Singh . . .
Yes, a decade ago, Birkett thought, the only Indians you’d have seen in this place were the waiters in compulsory white gloves to conceal the grey hands. And now the few British who came here fell over themselves to behave like Indians while the Indians behaved more like the British than the British themselves.
But it is not to reflect on the changes that has brought Major Ronald Birkett to India. Member of a shady organisation called the PACSAG , Birkett is on a secret mission which takes him to a minister in Prime Minister Nehru’s cabinet, P.N. Gupta. Gupta tells him the work that he has to do involves the assassination of the young, newly-crowned king of Nepal, India’s neighbouring country. The actual assassination would be carried out by a lowly officer in the Indian embassy in Nepal, Krishan Mathai, but Birkett has to provide him with a weapon and a plan.
As also persuasion, as Birkett discovers, once he arrives in Nepal and meets Mathai for the latter is not interested in killing the king, who he feels is leading his country well. A family man, brow-beaten by his wife and attached to his two sons, Mathai’s interest have turned to literary accomplishments rather than actions ‘for the greater common good’. But the party has not chosen Birkett for nothing and in a couple of superb passages, Birkett shows his Mephistophelian skills, manipulating Mathai in such a way that he becomes not only willing to pull the trigger but also to die a martyr for their cause…. But then, Birkett himself starts having doubts.
A loner all his life, a person who uses other people and then simply shuns them, Birkett finds himself getting emotionally entangled with Lakshmi Kapoor, an Indian woman whom he had met in Delhi and later called to Nepal. Unhappily married and having lost her child, Lakshmi is looking for fulfillment in her life which she thinks she would find with Birkett. More astute than Birkett assumed in their early meetings, Lakshmi is soon tearing down the defences that Birkett has spent a life-time constructing. If his interior life is changing, it also seems as though his mission is not as secret as he had assumed. Another British called ‘Pilot’ Potter seems to be spying on him.
What is Birkett to do? Does he surrender to Lakshmi and let go off his defences? Does he ask Mathai to drop the plan and if so would Mathai listen? Would the king get assassinated? What role does Potter play in this? Does Birkett, after a lifetime of intrigue and blood-shed, have a right to love and happiness? Well, you have to read the last pages, with their last twisty reveal:)
Reading this book was stepping into another world. A time when tongas plyed and jackals roamed freely on the roads of Delhi, and a time when (believe it or not) you could easily carry a firearm with you in a plane. Forget about metal detectors, body scanners, X-Ray machines, there was not even frisking. It made me aware of how much of an innocent world it must have been.
Despite one of the most pathetic preparations for the assassination of a head of a state (come on , Mathai doesn’t even know how to handle a revolver properly!!!), the book still held my interest because of its old-world Cloak-and-Dagger charm: Nightly assignations, Codes and Passwords, Disguises, Mysterious phone calls with muffled voices…to that final reveal. Worth a one-time read.
The book has been reprinted by Bello and is easily available. I received a copy in exchange for a fair review.
First Line: Birkett had forty-five minutes before his appointment at the tomb.
Author: Richard Mason
Publication Details: London: Bello, 2017.
First Published: 1962
Submitted for FFB @ Pattinase.