Himalayan Quartet

Bookworm Issue 170 Jan, 2016

Among the sub-plots running throughout the series are several hunting scenes. They reflect the skills of a knowledgeable writer.

Kathmandu’s Deepak S. Rana has written a set of interlinked historical novels on South Asia, but what started as a trilogy but has morphed into... a tetrology? aquadrivium? Nay, let’s call it his Himalayan Quartet. 

The four novels of the quartet are, sequentially, ‘The Bending Reed’, ‘The Silent Flute’, ‘Dakini’, and ‘Mind Warriors’. The first dates to 2004 (revised from an earlier printing). The second came out in 2013, the third was scheduled for later 2015, and the fourth in 2016. (This review is based on reading the first three.)

Among the sub-plots running throughout the series are several hunting scenes. They reflect the skills of a knowledgeable writer. Here’s a sample.

“The tiger lay full-length on its side..., seemingly asleep. The flicking of its ears when flies settled on them, coordinated with twitches from the end of its tail, said otherwise. It was a full-grown adult and in its prime. Its coat was flawless and thick, and all teeth and claws were in good condition. This adult male tiger was like any other in the jungle except for one uncanny difference—it was white... a one-in-a-thousand freak.”

Scenes like this, about tigers in the jungle and blue sheep higher up, reflect Deepak’s long experience as a shikari hunting guide. Deepak also knows well the connivery of people who grasp after power, and while they may go hunting, there’s inevitably far more happening in their lives than simply bagging trophies. The hunt is a metaphor for more sinister doings.

Much of this fast-paced epic is set in old Hindustan under the Maharajas and the Nawabs, in Nepal, under a somewhat fictionized “Maharaja Shamsher Jung,” and in Tibet, under the Dalai Lama, along with an exceptional high priestess. These stories have echoes of palace intrigue, political betrayal, assassination, rumors, and secrets, where “even the walls had ears.” If you know something about royals, and the region’s military, religious, and political history, this is familiar turf. And, while Rana states emphatically that it’s not history, it’s tantalizingly close. 

Each book can be read independently, but they are best read in sequence, for much of the action in one book comes back to play out in another. Take the opening scene from Book 2, ‘The Silent Flute’, for example. The setting is Tibet: Lhasa, the Potala. December 1948. 2:10 a.m.

“The shadow moved his palms over the rough stone surface. Feeling, searching, willing those miniscule, miraculous crevices and cracks to appear to him, as if out of nowhere. He felt a small crack no bigger than a thumbnail 2 feet above his head, and to the right. Slowly manoeuvring the fingers of his right hand to the spot, ‘Batman’ secured a good grip with the tips of the first two fingers and hoisted himself another few feet upwards. He rested, spread-eagled on the vertical walls of the towering fortress...”

Later, in Book 3, ‘Dakini’, what occurred deep within the Potala that dark winter night reappears with a strange twist of fate. Similarly, other story lines introduced early on return to haunt subsequent volumes, each wrapped in a complex web of conspiracy. 

If you like historical fiction with flashbacks reminiscent of actual events, you will enjoy the Himalayan quartet. The author has a good grip on the past, and a novelist’s talent at bringing his characters to life in compelling scenes. 

In the Dedication, Rana thanks his memorable ancestors “for those genes,” he says, that allow him to “do goodness, search for beauty, try and attain integrity, cry, be whimsical, hunt, seek the truth, fornicate, laugh, be honest, and look for adventure in this world where ‘bushido’ (or the way of the warrior) has long since flown away along with most of the other better qualities in humans...”

Add to that list Deepak Rana’s ability to write books that are deeply evocative.