Review of “Loot” by Tania James – the unbelievable story of a tiger made by a toy maker.
The issues of decolonization, returning cultural objects, and repatriation have become highly debated subjects that divide the realms of culture and politics. Works like Dan Hicks’s The Brutish Museums and Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland have examined the impact of extractive colonialism and raised concerns about how cultural artifacts have been acquired and displayed in western museums. These items are often accompanied by misrepresented histories or lack proper acknowledgement of their origins.
Tania James, an American writer, presents a thought-provoking and knowledgeable novel, Loot, which explores the origins and travels of the automaton Tipu’s Tiger. This object is known for causing controversy as it is displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The novel delves into the personal narratives and voyages of both people and objects that are often overlooked in the grand scheme of imperial history.
Taking place in the late 1700s, the story begins in Mysore, India and then moves to a small French town and a large English estate. It is a well-researched and detailed tale that follows a destitute woodcarver and toy maker named Abbas. After getting caught up in a scheme against Tipu, the Sultan of Mysore, Abbas catches the eye of a clockmaker from France named Lucien Du Leze who recognizes his talent. Abbas is given a chance at life and becomes Du Leze’s apprentice, working together to build a mechanical tiger in only six weeks.
Tipu has mainly introduced other advancements in the areas of military, technology, and education. According to Tipu, this new innovation pushes the boundaries of imagination. It depicts a tiger, representative of the sultan’s rule, relentlessly attacking an English soldier. Similarly, Loot delves into the complicated effects and histories of colonialism. James recreates the encounter between Tipu’s Tiger and the West by challenging the Western perspective and prompting new inquiries about ancient objects, shedding light on their creators.
Abbas has exceeded his role by constructing the automaton, astonishing not only the royal court but also himself. There has been a change within him, as if a new potential has emerged, leading to the potential for creating more than just playthings and sculptures. Is this transformation a result of living in the Summer Palace and contemplating the unknown beyond the horizon?
Abbas’s aspirations are cut short when Srirangapatna falls to British forces in 1799. This event changes his fate, as Tipu’s Tiger is taken away and transported across the seas as part of colonial plunder. Abbas manages to survive and eventually seeks refuge in France, where he is reunited with Du Leze. A chance encounter with Du Leze’s goddaughter Jehanne leads Abbas to realize that he must retrieve his elusive creation and reclaim his true identity as an artist. He is determined not to waste his God-given talent, despite living in a world where race determines one’s worth.
Using his intuition and instincts, he collaborates with Jehanne to devise a scheme to reclaim Tipu’s Tiger from the wealthy widow of the soldier. The remaining part of the book tells a captivating tale of romance, adventure, and thievery. In the western world, Abbas is believed to be a fraud; his background and ethnicity are deemed too common and inferior to have come up with something as remarkable as Tipu’s Tiger. Through eloquent writing and clever humor, Loot poses the question of who is excluded from history and the reasons behind it.
At the start of the book, the author informs us that Tipu’s kingdom has recently endured a war with the English and the possibility of another conflict looms. The constant changes in power leave the people uncertain and unable to leave a lasting impact. In a society where being remembered is a challenge, Abbas clings to the idea of creating something indestructible in order to have control over his legacy. Is this act of defiance a form of rightful retribution and reclaiming of one’s dignity?