BESIEGED by Mahmood Farooqui

Does a reviewer have a moral obligation to finish a book ?

If so, then this review must carry a caveat.  Half way through, mired down by too much information, and  too heavy a writing style, this reviewer abandoned “Besieged”.

The writer has done a hugely impressive job of tracking down and translating hitherto unseen papers from the First Indian War of Independence/Indian Mutiny of 1857.  He has read, translated, catalogued and shared with his reader thousands of letters and fragments of correspondence written by the many people caught up on the side-lines of the epic struggle of the colonial British for domination in India.

There are requests for money for troops, complaints from the very same troops about unpaid wages.  There are requistion orders, legal hassles, reports of blocked drains – no detail of the minutiae of Delhi life in the turbulent days of 1857 is too small to be excluded.

Wherein lies one of the flaws of this impressive scholarly work.  There is almost too much information, and since it is arranged by theme, after a while it gets – sad to say – a wee bit “same -y”.

It is all to easy to be an armchair expert, but this body of material is just crying out to be a novel.

The clichéd “cast of thousands” is already assembled here – administrators, prostitutes, coolies, butchers, the King, beggars, and the delightfully monnikered “loiterers”.  British, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim – all these voices are present, clamouring for attention.

Free all these grumbling, loud, confrontational voices from their strict thematically arranged categories. Jumble them all up. And let the noisy, chaotic story of life in Delhi, on the sidelines of history, emerge.  That, in this reviewer’s opinion, will make a truly marvellous book.

Besieged Voices from Delhi 1857 by Mahmood Farooqui is published by Penguin Viking.  Published in 2010.

The hardback sells in India for Rs 699.