Written by Tania James
Review by A. K. Kulshreshth

The word that does justice to the British Raj’s plunder in India had to be borrowed: “Loot,” as Tania James has explained in an interview, has Sanskritic origins.

Loot begins in 1794, when a precocious seventeen-year-old boy, Abbas, is summoned by the fiery Tipu Sultan, ruler of the southern Indian state of Mysore and fierce enemy of the East India Company. “All he wants is to stay out of trouble, though it is, perhaps, a little late for that.”

It turns out that Abbas’s toy-making skills have been noticed. He is to assist a Frenchman, Lucien Du Leze, in the making of an unusual automaton – a springing tiger devouring a British soldier. (The life-sized automaton is historical; the tiger was adopted as an emblem by Subhash Chandra Bose as he marshalled an army against the Raj during World War II.)

The automaton is taken as booty after the East India Company’s forces defeat and kill Tipu. Abbas journeys to France and then to England to get it back, possessed by a belief that it holds the key to his future as a craftsman. He joins hands with Jehanne, whom he had met back in Mysore.

This is a taut, entertaining period heist story full of twists and kaleidoscopic changes of point of view. A more conventional design would perhaps have given us a richer sense of Abbas’s experiences as he moves between lands. But with its careening viewpoints, Loot really soars in its depictions of people pushed into becoming outsiders. The very end is reserved for an unexpected cameo. Love features in many flavours, all of them done very well.

This is a work that deserves the success of The Moonstone (in which story the diamond was, incidentally, also looted from Tipu’s treasures).