“The Kidnapping of Mark Twain” by Anuradha Kumar

from Following the Equator from Following the Equator

Art imitating life, or is it the other way around? Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character so popular and ubiquitous in popular culture that he almost seems real; many, indeed, have thought him so. Samuel L Clements, by contrast, was a real man so flamboyant, omnipresent and iconic that he can seem almost fictional, a character far better known, of course, by an entirely fictional name: Mark Twain. Anuradha Kumar’s interleaving of fact and fiction in her recent “Bombay mystery”, The Kidnapping of Mark Twain, seems somehow fitting.

Mark Twain did indeed visit Bombay in early 1896. He had made some very poor investments and was traveling around the world giving readings and lectures to help pay off his debts. And he did indeed stay where Kumar places him at the oh so very grand Watson’s Hotel (an edifice which still exists, albeit in a much reduced state). He was not, however, kidnapped. But neither is there any record of the lecture he gave in Bombay, so Kumar might be forgiven for imagining a different trajectory for his time in India.


The Kidnapping of Mark Twain, Anuradha Kumar (Speaking Tiger, December 2023)
The Kidnapping of Mark Twain, Anuradha Kumar (Speaking Tiger, December 2023)

The Kidnapping of Mark Twain is a delightful and well-written bagatelle which unrolls with the pace and style of a British television mini-series. The great writer himself appears in only a few passages, short enough that they might uncharitably be called cameos; perhaps he was charging too much for his time. The protagonist is the American Consul Henry Baker, a Tom Hanks sort of character, open and well-meaning. He’s very taken with American electric fans, which he is certain will transform both the Indian economy and society.

Henry ends up a sleuth by circumstance rather than design and is something of a Dr Watson to the real star of the book, the lovely and mysterious Maya:


A breeze lifted the thin gauze curtain, and a tendril of hair danced fitfully across Maya’s forehead, distracting Henry for some moments. Then a vendor’s voice floated in from outside, he was selling fresh coconuts. Henry looked down at the paper, and thought of that errant strand of hair. Every time the curtain moved, the light shifted too, and her hair flashed a burnished gold, and seconds later, turned a warm honey colour.


Maya, a modern young woman of indeterminate ethnicity, is however a social activist who rides bicycles and dresses like a man when she deems it necessary. She drives poor Henry mad.


The story opens with the murder of a young Indian woman, the newly-married second wife of a labor boss. “The stars ruling the houses of romance and murder were never aligned sympathetically,” Henry notes with chagrin as Maya takes a personal interest in the case: she knew the woman and is certain the husband did it. But Mark Twain’s disappearance within a day of his arrival ends up throwing the two of them together.

There is a wide range of supporting characters: an American magician called Freddie Bancroft who had taken to walking around Bombay on stilts, Clemens’s wife Olivia and daughter Clara, a pedantic English anti-opium campaigner, a few supercilious and officious colonial officials, an extremely rich Indian merchant, a loyal Pathan servant: just the sort of people one would expect to populate a novel of this kind.

There are nods to Mark Twain’s writings about India in following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, the book that resulted from the trip, even to his interest in Indian crows and complaints about the noisiness of the hotel.


Despite the heat, some opium, a few dead bodies, a riot or two, it’s all very genteel. And stylish. The kidnapping itself is a complicated affair that (perhaps appropriately) seems more like something Mark Twain himself would have thought up rather than events that might really have played out as depicted. The loose ends are all tied up, but the pleasure in the novel comes from the journey more than the destination.

But there’s a bit more going on here than just a pleasant West-meets-East, period what-if counterfactual. In Henry Baker and his electric fans and in the deliberate contrast between Mark Twain’s homespun popularity and Oscar Wilde’s effete notoriety (Wilde’s legal travails being much in the news), Kumar is drawing attention to a young, practical America that was beginning to find its place in the world. Britain was still at the top of its game in 1896, but the next century, electric fans and all, would belong to the Americans.

The mini-series, if one were made, should appeal equally well to audiences on at least three continents. Until then, there’s the book.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.