At a time when taking any kind of creative liberty with historical narratives in more popular art forms such as cinema is fraught with risk, perhaps it is a good thing that the novel, being a marginal art form, can usually manage to escape dogmatic scrutiny that stifles creativity. The Untitled is Gayathri Prabhu's latest magnum opus which resurrects many characters from the past and renders them alive all over again.
The Untitled is set in the twilight of Tipu Sultan's reign during the late 18th century. It opens with a disenchanted yet talented English painter, Richard Dawson, setting foot on Indian soil. His hope is to make some money as an artist in India. Eventually, he finds his way to the court of Srirangapatna where he is commissioned to paint the Sultan's pastimes. Accompanying him in his adventure are two other characters: a Brahmin boy, Mukunda, and Francis, a man of mixed racial heritage, who works as the interface between the natives and Richard Dawson. The lives of these three men take a perilous turn when a woman called Suhasini walks into their lives. She is the daughter of a priest from Kashi and is a loyal agent of the Queen Lakshmi Wodeyar who is a captive of Tipu Sultan. Suhasini is one of the most enigmatic characters of the book. She withdraws from the narrative as mysteriously as she enters it. Despite featuring sparingly in the narrative, she plays the most instrumental role, ultimately proving to be the nemesis of the Sultan. She is stunning, brown as rain-soaked earth. Her tongue is as sharp as her wits.
'The Untitled' can also be seen as an allegory of how art and politics cannot remain insulated from one and other, especially in the times of socio-political tumult.
Gayathri Prabhu carves out all her characters deftly and makes you care for them. But the author's genius lies in her handling of a character as polarising as Tipu Sultan. Never for a moment does she try to colour your opinion of the Sultan. She herself is detached from her characters yet compels you to feel attached to them. There comes a moment during the climax when even the most ardent adversary of Tipu cannot resist the pathos of seeing the mighty Sultan bite the dust, betrayed by the people he trusted.
The Untitled can also be seen as an allegory of how art and politics cannot remain insulated from one and other, especially in the times of socio-political tumult. Suhasini is the enigmatic link: the object of artistry and the agent of politicking. Richard and Mukunda represent two contrarian impulses of art: one methodical and objective, the other freewheeling and emotional. While making a portrait of Suhasini, Richard chooses to paint her in the blue sari that she had actually worn (remaining true to the trend of realism that had engulfed the West by the late 18th century), whereas Mukunda decides to paint her sari in a blazing red using his imagination (his master had told him nothing is real—everything is but maya!).
Gayathri Prabhu's prose is supple and sublime. Her excellent command over the language and thorough research shine through the book. She evokes the details of the past with such brilliance that the era comes alive in your imagination. By the time you reach the end of the book the apparently odd title begins to make sense to you. The author shows us how personal narratives collide and collude with grander social and political narratives to create what we call history; and how, often, these personal narratives get lost in the flux of time. History, however, is made as much by the title holders as by the untitled. The Untitled manages to do what a good work of historical fiction must do: compelling the reader to believe all that is said in the story as long as they reading it, but then also piquing their curiosity enough for them to explore the era in further reading. The only complaint I had with the book was that I wanted it to last longer.