Book Review: Mr A’s Indian Gentlemen

A remarkable novel with its subtle balancing of humour and gravitas

The year is 1943. The Great Western Railway in Swindon has just hired the services of three Indians for special covert operations. The Indians include railwaymen Vincent Rosario, Imtiaz ‘Billy’ Khan, and mathematician Akaash Ray. Their work is imperative to push the war effort in Britain and to free Europe of the scourge of Nazism. While the three debate who’s the most English of them all, their fates are intertwined through a series of extraordinary events including romantic entanglements, espionage, murder, and a broken-down toilet.

McCallum’s finest hour is his characters; he creates simmering tension and passive aggression simply by layering them with opposing cultural and political values. His study of people pays off in the fine details he flourishes them with. The competitiveness of Indians is captured in the heated exchange between Akaash and Vincent about Akaash’s Ph.D. and Vincent’s derisive remark about Akaash not being a real doctor. One of the longest-running gags in the novel is the ironic representation of culture, say, in the way Akaash slurps his tea or Billy’s dress uniform.

This same attention to detail is evident in the descriptions of locomotive engines, local flora and fauna. One forgets that the past is a different place; McCallum evokes it with such completeness.

The trope of using cultural differences to elicit laughter is often laden with stale clichés such as accent jokes, unintentional double entendres and clumsy gaffes related to cultural ritual. This is where McCallum’s treatment shines. He turns a simple domestic meal into an occasion for hilarity through the divvying up of pork chops and chicken soup among a by-choice-protesting-vegetarian Akaash, a devout Billy, and an opportunistic Vincent.

Mrs. A’s Indian Gentlemen is a remarkable novel for how McCallum manages a subtle balancing act between humour and gravitas by portraying a working class that tries to make the best of what it has. McCallum reminds us of the truth that despite cultural differences, what binds us is kindness, and that, surprisingly, people are capable of it.

Book review: The Final Charge

In 2013, the British Government agreed to compensate Mau Mau victims of atrocities perpetrated in colonial Kenya in the 1950s to 1960s. The case received a wave of publicity at the time and Dawood Ali McCallum’s fascinating novel brings the issues back into the spotlight, though from a different angle. It focuses on the fictional trial in Nairobi, in the early years of this century, of a British doctor for war crimes. Part courtroom drama, part political thriller, the book presents a vivid and detailed picture of Kenya in the mid-1950s, when the alleged crime is said to have taken place.

The Final Charge is essentially plot driven, full of surprising twists and with a satisfying conclusion that nonetheless raises some difficult and unanswered ethical questions. The story is told through the minds of several deftly drawn characters, linked by an overarching and omniscient narrator and punctuated by flashbacks from the doctor’s prison diary. This somewhat old fashioned literary device is nonetheless effective in that the highly visual nature of the drama means that the reader becomes a spectator, panning inwards to the hearts and minds of characters and pulling out for the wider panorama.

I particularly enjoyed the shenanigans around the British High Commission, the cheerfully corrupt business interests and the highly theatrical court scenes, replete with last minute disclosures and dubious methods of witness preparation. No one is quite what they seem and there is no space for traditional categories of good and bad.

The Final Charge of the title relates both to the indictment and to the “Charge”, a car race which provokes the setting for further plot twists and arresting descriptions of the Kenyan landscape. Racial identity is treated with delicate humour, particularly in the sparky relationship between the protagonist, a white Kenyan lawyer, and his Asian assistant, a purported war crimes expert from Britain whose birth in Kenya entitles her, against her better judgment, to be described as “African”. Yet the prevailing lightness never belies the serious undercurrents of the political struggle to create a nation state out of a colonial past.

The blurb states that McCallum has been “leading justice and human rights projects across Africa for the past 20 years”, and his experience and extensive research gives the book a ring of authenticity. The Final Charge provides insight, entertainment and a powerful desire to learn more.

Reviewer: Ros Carne, Barrister, Deputy Chief Examiner, Professional Ethics, Central Exam Board

Tight with intrigue, this novel melds storylines from the past and the present… This is a complex story of 21st century diplomacy, and a story about manhood, as well as a gripping historical thriller.

Booktrust

McCallum’s in-depth knowledge of Kenyan society provides a rich backdrop for an intriguing legal drama with twists and turns aplenty, while pertinent themes on political corruption, being a minority and the question of what separates a terrorist from a freedom fighter will be sure to resonate with the 21st century reader.

Publisher’s Association

The Final Charge is a gripping study of power and corruption and a mediation on the cope and limitations of a legal system when considering war crimes.

New Internationalist

In a novel that is reminiscent of Kipling’s masterly fiction about the Great Game, Dawood Ali McCallum tells an electrifying story about intelligence and counter-espionage in nineteenth century India.

Viking, India

Dawood Ali McCallum could just as well have been a poet. The Lords of Alijah, his 400-page novel, is structured like a giant sonnet. The architectural perfection of his novel on the many facets of the princely state of Gwalior, is a reflection of his own experiences and therefore it comes through as spontaneous, not contrived.

Business India

Bravo! Taz transcends the stereotype and has dimension and integrity as a character. The prose is lively and unpretentious. The characters are sound, and even the minor characters are believable and engaging. Well worth a read.

Dawn, Karachi

McCallum writes well. He knowshow to tell a story and he knows how to flesh out characters.

Sahara Times

Taz: A political thriller for the post 9/11 era

McCallum has a superb eye for picking up sub-texts and metaphors of various cultures in a globalised era.

McCallum uses his knowledge to portray Addis Ababa, Accra and Gambia with a visceral intensity.

McCallum’s book is a scathing indictment of the powers of the state in all continents and the way in which ordinary poor people get caught up in sinister machinations and games.

Daily News and Analysis