In 'Loot,' Tipu's Tiger tells a story of war, art and love
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the late 1700s, an Indian ruler commissioned an incredible work of art. It's carved out of wood - a tiger attacking a man. And inside the tiger is a musical instrument similar to a pipe organ.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUTOMATON PLAYING)
SHAPIRO: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London posted this video showing how the automaton makes music with the turn of a crank. This real creation is at the center of a new novel, "Loot." The plot travels from India to Europe, touching on war, immigration, love and art. Tania James is the author. Welcome.
TANIA JAMES: Hi, Ari. Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: Will you describe the first time you saw the wooden tiger that is at the center of this novel?
JAMES: Yes, I first encountered "Tipu's Tiger" in a book and...
SHAPIRO: "Tipu's Tiger" - Tipu is the ruler who commissioned it?
JAMES: Yes. It's a giant mechanical tiger, as you described, and I just was so enchanted by it. Because I'd seen British propaganda - you know, cartoons and ethnographic representations of Indians - but I'd never seen Indian art depicting the colonizer or the English. And it was just so darkly irreverent and kind of absurd and kind of funny, almost, in a gruesome way. And I just...
SHAPIRO: It almost feels like an embodiment of a political cartoon, where the tiger representing India is destroying the Englishman...
JAMES: Oh, totally.
SHAPIRO: ...The invader.
JAMES: Yeah. And I think Tipu Sultan, who commissioned it - he just - he was so contemptuous of the British and so determined to drive them out of India. And this was actually - I think I'd read somewhere that this was a gift to his sons, who had been taken hostage by the British. So, you know, he was just as much interested in, you know, presenting a certain idea of nationhood as we are today.
SHAPIRO: And did you immediately start to wonder about the artisan who carved it?
JAMES: Oh, yeah. I was really attracted to the object, and I couldn't find out anything other than it was a collaboration between a local Mysorean artisan and a French engineer. And at first, I found that lack of information to be really limiting. But then it became a kind of invitation for me to kind of bring my imagination to bear on these real-life objects and events. And I remember, early on when I was writing, this phrase kept popping up, which was leave your mark. And this character kept thinking to himself that he wanted to leave a mark on history or leave a mark on the world or have some power beyond the grave. And now I think I probably - those - that phrase was probably a product of me thinking about erasure and about how so many artists and engineers have been, you know, erased from history, and we will only know them through the work that has survived them.
SHAPIRO: But is it also a personal desire to leave your mark with the literature that you create?
JAMES: You know, I've never thought about - I guess I'm sort of more of a pragmatist than Abbas.
JAMES: I noticed that, you know, books that...
SHAPIRO: You say more of a pragmatist than Abbas, but you haven't said yet - the character - the local Mysorean artist...
SHAPIRO: ...Is named Abbas.
SHAPIRO: He's a teenager when we meet him, and it is his wish to leave a mark on the world.
JAMES: Yes. Yes. And he has this very idealistic idea and this very romantic idea about his destiny as an artist. And I've never...
SHAPIRO: And that's not you (laughter)?
JAMES: No. I've never really thought about my destiny beyond the end of the day - just try to get through the next chapter or, you know, try to get to the end of the book. But he's also the kind of guy who is a product of his times. These are very brutal times. And so perhaps the extremity of his situation leads him to have a kind of extreme romantic view about what life could be for himself.
SHAPIRO: This is a great place for you to read a paragraph where you describe the art of woodworking. Abbas is a teenager in the workshop. Will you read this from page 85?
(Reading) Abbas doesn't mind the silence. In fact, he prefers the sole company of carving, the sanctity of it, the way the wood almost displays a wit of its own - how it makes and unmakes its own rules; that a cut cannot be undone; that the grain may change depending on the cut; that you might expect a line to go one way, only for it to swerve; that total control will never be yours.
SHAPIRO: Does that share something with the experience of writing a novel - where the plot may go in a direction you weren't expecting, and you need to follow it?
JAMES: Yeah, I think that's actually the most ideal situation when I'm writing - is when the writing feels like it's running just past my fingertips. And I feel like it doesn't happen often, but it's exhilarating when it does happen. And, you know, it often happens on the sentence level, where I think I know where the sentence is going, and then it turns on me. Or then it leaps into the mind of someone who seemed peripheral and unimportant but shows me something about the story I didn't see initially.
SHAPIRO: And rather than fight that or being scared by that, you are delighted by it - that's something that you aspire to?
JAMES: Oh, yeah. I think it's really - I think when the writing is only telling me what I already know, it feels sort of dead in the water and kind of flat. But when it has a life of its own, the work is kind of alive, and it's sort of a dance between me and the material.
SHAPIRO: The plot of the story unfolds - it's almost like a heist caper. So colonial British powers take the tiger. A boss wants it back. And it raises a question that many museums are wrestling with today, including the Victoria and Albert, where this real tiger is kept. And the question is - who should own a thing? And your book doesn't offer a simple answer. Did writing it give you any insights?
JAMES: You know, I am - I have been following the restitution movement with interest, and I think every object has its own context. I personally am interested in confrontations with history - the ways in which, you know, museums are trying to address the fact that they're actually politicized places. And, you know, imagining an alternate history for this object was just one way for me to do that.
SHAPIRO: Can you tell me about the title, "Loot"? L-O-O-T - it's not the musical instrument L-U-T-E. But it doesn't really dance around the idea that this object is perhaps not the rightful possession of the people who have it in their custody.
JAMES: Yeah. Loot is a word that entered the English language around, I think, the turn of the 18th century. And I really liked it because its origins are Sanskritic. And it means to plunder - to thieve. And I think that there wasn't a word in the English language that could encapsulate the level of state-sanctioned theft that was going on.
JAMES: And so I just - I love that the word captured this moment in time so specifically. And I've never written a novel where I knew the title from early on in the conception, but this was one where, the moment I heard it, I just knew. And it was sort of a talisman as I was continuing on and trying to go from draft to draft. You know, it was such a word with such authority. So that...
SHAPIRO: Yeah. And how did you learn that it had Sanskrit roots? That's fascinating.
JAMES: I - you know, in all those phases of research, as much as I complained about them, you know, that was...
JAMES: There are these...
SHAPIRO: It works.
JAMES: ...You know, really amazing finds. Yeah.
SHAPIRO: Tania James - her new novel is "Loot." Thank you for talking with us about it.
JAMES: Thank you so much, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF CURREN$Y & STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "GRAN TURISMO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.