Krishnan Srinivasan’s Ambassador Marco returns in another thrilling novel, Ambassador Marco’s Indian Instincts, which successfully combines an espionage plot with elements of crime fiction.
Krishnan Srinivasan’s Ambassador Marco’s Indian Instincts is the second in a series featuring the Somali diplomat Michael Marco. As with his first novel – The Invisible African – I was struck by his adroit domiciling of the international espionage narrative (as derived from John Le Carré rather than from Ian Fleming) in an entirely believable Kolkata setting, complete with a social sciences research institute, academic rivalries, student agitators, leftist insurgents and surprisingly wealthy bourgeois families. Above all, Ambassador Marco was an appealing protagonist, an observer of human nature with a sharp eye for pretension and deceit, a gentle, humane African in a society predisposed to cultural and racist prejudice. The course of recent global events suggests that Somalis – very much on Donald Trump’s list of undesirable aliens – will soon face much higher levels of hostility abroad. Perhaps this is a good reason to follow Michael Marco’s fortunes, especially in India, the country where Somalia’s greatest modern writer, Nuruddin Farah, spent some years as a university student and where his novels are prescribed reading in university courses. Certainly, it is a necessary to transcend thinking of that ancient and complex – though war-torn – country as simply the haunt of gun-toting rebels and pirates, a site for the West’s disposal of its toxic nuclear waste.
The presence of the somewhat old-fashioned figure of Michael Marco at the centre of Srinivasan’s narrative requires that the espionage thriller undergo a stylistic adaptation. This book, like its predecessor, is characterised by a slightly formal, courteous mode of exchange and narration that reflects the civilised, wise forbearance of its unlikely hero. Ambassador Marco’s Indian Instincts shows the titular protagonist much in demand, both by the Indian government and by the Swedish police force, to negotiate sensitive bilateral issues on the one hand and to advise on a murder case on the other. Against his will, Marco is compelled to engage with these crises as a kind of roving ambassador. The narrative moves from Kolkata to Delhi, from Stockholm to Uppsala and Srinivasan successfully combines an espionage plot with elements of crime fiction. Despite the Swedish connection, however, he steers well clear of Scandinavian noir.
In fact, the novel picks up some threads from Marco’s earlier appearance in The Invisible African, showing the characters of that novel attempting to carry on with their lives after the trauma of violence and loss, but also trying to resolve residual, unexplained mysteries. Marco too becomes more human, as the tragedies in his own past are revealed. But despite the pressure upon him to act decisively and provide instant solutions, Marco seems to be holding back – much of the novel is taken up by characteristically diplomatic manoeuvres of listening, waiting, and watching. Urged by the Indian government to suggest ways by which to tackle a spate of terror attacks and increased tension on the Pakistan border, consulted by the Swedish police about the deaths of an elderly academic couple from the US, Marco says little and reserves his judgment.
This diplomatic ploy allows Srinivasan to devote attention to his cast of characters – sly, oily and self-serving members of the Indian Foreign Service, pushy ambassadors, able foreign secretaries, loud-mouthed generals and an attractive young heroine who has lost both her lover and her father. The worlds of bureaucracy and political negotiation are treated with aplomb. Clearly, Srinivasan has an infinite resource of experience and a considerable gift for satire. One could wish that more of this satire had been directed towards the wealthy bourgeois household of the heroine, with her Old Etonian parent and his loyal retainers who are uniformly addressed as ‘Thapa’. This household, a typical bastion of social and economic privilege, gestures towards an entrenched class hierarchy as immovable as anything in Le Carré. Perhaps Srinivasan’s treatment of this familiar social phenomenon might have been more sharply ironic, especially since such wealth and privilege are inevitably contrasted with harrowing poverty and suffering. Mercifully, though, Marco is an outsider to all this – despite the bonds of friendship that bind him to his wealthy friends – so that his character provides a welcome point of reference for the reader.
But in the end Srinivasan’s plot does not spare the establishment and justice is therefore served, as is the way with popular fiction. Accustomed in his own professional experience to more messy and unfair endings, Srinivasan must be glad that fiction allows him to apportion blame, get rid of troublemakers and suggest solutions. Still, the Indian situation – with its crushing burden of social inequality, deprivation and suffering – does not favour the black-and-white, punitive resolutions of popular crime writing. Srinivasan is aware of this, directing his readers towards a more open, thoughtful ending focusing on his surviving characters’ ability to engage with the world as it is. And Marco appears set to return to his beloved Somalia – unless, of course, another adventure calls him back.
Supriya Chaudhuri is professor (emerita) at the department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.