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THE RIVER TURNED RED by Nirmala Moorthy. PublishAmerica Book Publishers, Baltimore. 2003. Paperback. 312 pages. $24.95. www.publishamerica.com. www.nirmalamoorthy.com.
Lies, deception, trust, and hope; courte-sans, royalty, thugs, and villagers; soldiers, informants, spies, and servants; intrigue, mutiny, sacrifice, and survival: fold them all together gently and what results is Nirmala Moorthy’s third book, The River Turned Red. Universal in representing the struggles, annihilations, oppression, and uprising of peoples all over the world at any time in history, Moorthy’s title is a sad reminder that blood in the water is too often an ingredient when dignity and independence are at stake. In this case, the historic event tackled is the touchy and significant relationship between the conquered and their conquerors: India’s Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.
The story revolves around three distinct and well-drawn characters whose lives represent the people of India. Lila, the young princess of a financially-shaky kingdom, promises her dying father that she will keep Paramgar safe from falling into the hands of the British while she also protests his choice of husband for her. Ram Daulat, one of the few Brahmin sepoys in the 3rd Light Cavalry under the command of a respectful and respected British captain, is the first to lay down arms and reject the newest British-made weapon, thereby stripping him of his rank, pension, and standing. His brother, Kamal, the youngest of five brothers, is the one their father left in charge of the family as the others followed in his military footsteps, but it is Kamal who receives a cryptic message of two chapatis and the directive of “be ready … the time has come.”
“There are six Indian soldiers to every Englishman in India, about 45,000 British troops to over 230,000 sepoys,” Major Wheeler tells an out-of-purdah and assumed-to-be-Eurasian Lila. “Luckily for us their loyalties are divided. The Infantry regiments are predominantly Hindu, and the Cavalry is Muslim. And even a Christian like you must know that Hindus and Muslims can never agree upon anything.”
“Never?” asked Lila.
“Never before,” he conceded, “until the arrival of the Enfield rifle.”
When the British East India Company introduced the Enfield rifle—light in weight, long in range, and heavy in implications regarding the British hold over their Hindu and Muslim sepoys—little was imagined of the vast repercussions that would ensue. Because of its sleekness, the weapon required grease cartridges to assist in sliding the bullets into the barrels. The grease was the point of revulsion for both Hindus and Muslims: the cartridges needed to be ripped open with the soldier’s teeth. Despite the British assurance that the grease was mutton-based, everyone knew it was a byproduct of cows and pigs. Vegetarian, non-vegetarian, the reaction was the same: it was an affront to the deep-seated religious beliefs of the sepoys.
Slowly, Moorthy lays the story’s foundation, and all of this groundwork of the first one-third of the book carefully leads to the point where the country bursts into flames and blood is shed. The reader is then thrust deeper into the mutiny and the after-effects, including twists and turns and revelations that hold attentions fast and sharp. Lila, Dalaut Ram, and Kamal cross paths and souls with and without the aid of others who impact each central character’s next move in this chess game of history. At the end, we wait as the players think through their next—if not final—moves.
|Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.|