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With Holmes in Tibet

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Having recently listened to the complete Sherlock Holmes stories on audiotape (they improved the school run no end), I was bound to be curious when The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes first appeared. It takes as its point of departure Holmes’s explanation for his absence after the struggle with his arch-enemy Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls:

I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head Lama. You may have read of the remarkable exploration of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend.

The account of Sherlock Holmes’s years in Tibet which follows would, were it available as an audiotape, entrance a whole carload of fractious schoolchildren. It is a gripping adventure, with all the hallmarks that have made Conan Doyle’s own stories so enduringly popular – impenetrable disguises, cunning counter-plots, vicious villains, confusion over identities and baffling deaths. Indeed one death in particular is spectacularly baffling, though you will have to read the book yourself to find out what happens.

In the absence of Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes travels in the company of Huree Chunder Mookerjee, Fellow of the Royal Society, London, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London, and recipient of the Founder’s Medal, Corresponding Member of the Imperial Archaeological Society of St Petersburg, Associate Member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, and Life Member of Brahmo Somaj, Calcutta.

Mookerjee tells the story so there is no objective description of him but he seems to be a rather overweight and earnest Bengali. In his youth he was a pundit, one of the unsung heroes of the Great Game who mapped out the borders of the Raj and beyond by travelling in disguise, carrying theodolites concealed in Buddhist prayer-wheels and Buddhist rosaries with 100 beads to

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Having recently listened to the complete Sherlock Holmes stories on audiotape (they improved the school run no end), I was bound to be curious when The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes first appeared. It takes as its point of departure Holmes’s explanation for his absence after the struggle with his arch-enemy Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls:

I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head Lama. You may have read of the remarkable exploration of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend.
The account of Sherlock Holmes’s years in Tibet which follows would, were it available as an audiotape, entrance a whole carload of fractious schoolchildren. It is a gripping adventure, with all the hallmarks that have made Conan Doyle’s own stories so enduringly popular – impenetrable disguises, cunning counter-plots, vicious villains, confusion over identities and baffling deaths. Indeed one death in particular is spectacularly baffling, though you will have to read the book yourself to find out what happens. In the absence of Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes travels in the company of Huree Chunder Mookerjee, Fellow of the Royal Society, London, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London, and recipient of the Founder’s Medal, Corresponding Member of the Imperial Archaeological Society of St Petersburg, Associate Member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, and Life Member of Brahmo Somaj, Calcutta. Mookerjee tells the story so there is no objective description of him but he seems to be a rather overweight and earnest Bengali. In his youth he was a pundit, one of the unsung heroes of the Great Game who mapped out the borders of the Raj and beyond by travelling in disguise, carrying theodolites concealed in Buddhist prayer-wheels and Buddhist rosaries with 100 beads to count their paces. To readers of Kipling’s Kim, he may seem familiar, but he is at pains to distance himself from the exploits of the Great Game:
Good Heavens! Could anyone think of a more infelicitous and beastly awful expression to describe the vital diplomatic activities of the Ethnological Survey – that important but little-known department of the Government of India which in my very humble capacity, I have had the honour to serve for the past thirty-five years. This excretious appellation is the creation of one Mr Rudyard Kipling, late of the Allahabad Pioneer, who with deplorable journalistic flippancy, managed, in one fell stroke, to debase the very important activities of our department to the level of one of those cricket matches, so eloquently described in the poems of Sir Henry Newbolt.
Mookerjee’s use of English is a joy, for he speaks not Indian English but Victorian Indian English, adapting idioms as it suits (he is forever getting ‘caught with my dhoti down’) and scattering Latin quotations. It is a brilliant pastiche, maintained with skill throughout the book, which is often very funny. Though a very different foil to Holmes from Dr Watson, like Watson Mookerjee is bumbling and earnest, but he is also inclined to be distracted from the matter in hand by higher thoughts (the philosophy of Herbert Spencer is a favourite). He is also a devotee of the umbrella, which he is prone to open in the most inappropriate circumstances, to the exasperation of the Great Detective. It is, however, the umbrella which eventually saves the lives of them both. As pure entertainment, The Mandala of Sherlock Homes is hard to match, but it is also a book with a political message. The villain is in cahoots with the Chinese, who are trying to strengthen their position in Tibet, in the face of the interest in the area from British India. Though in the book their plot fails, we all know what happened to Tibet in 1959.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Frances Wood 2004


About the contributor

Frances Wood read Chinese at Cambridge and spent a year at Peking University in a class of worker-peasant-soldier students under the great and wise leadership of Chairman Ma o. She has since written on the vexed question of whether Marco Polo ever went to China, on the Treaty Ports and on the Silk Road.

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