I’ve recently started reading up on my Indian history to fill the immense, gaping holes in my knowledge. Most notably, I’ve read India: A History by John Keay. I am also listening intently to Kit Patrick’s History of India podcast, each of which have helped me learn the broad strokes of the subcontinent’s past.
It’s been a journey and a process. I may be slowly beginning to recognize names and references to Indian history, but I’m a long way from knowing it as well as European history.
The process of acquiring this knowledge has been challenging. While my stereotypes of European history make the general course of European history easier to remember, I only have a few points of reference for Indian history. For example, I have a stereotypical image of what Venice might have been like in the Renaissance, or Paris in the nineteenth century. But I can’t say the same for ancient Pataliputra or Taxila. The closest I get is Delhi and Agra under the Mughals.
While my unfamiliarity with Indian history has begun to change as my knowledge increases, sometimes I still feel like a clueless tourist, even though I’ve come to recognize names like Chandragupta Maurya and Muhammad of Ghor.
I’m still oblivious to the unspoken associations between events, the episodes that give colour to dry historical chronicles. I feel as if I’m missing out on some crucial context. But, knowing that I’m a visitor to these lands, I try to take it all in stride.
City of the Shrieking Tomb by Patrick Rogers provides a bit of colour—even if those colours are dark, crimson, and rotten. This horror tale takes the reader to a tiny pocket of India that has generally not made it into the history books. Reading it made me feel as if I was seeing something that, as a tourist, I was not meant to see. In fact, it was as if I’d been expressly forbidden from seeing it.
There is a dearth of information on the internet about the village of Humayunpur in Karnataka, the setting of this atmospheric horror novel. Google searches for Humayanpur do not turn it up (at least not that I could find), although there is a Humayunpur in the Safdarjung Enclave in New Delhi. There is no Wikipedia page for Sultan Humayun Karabakh either, the tyrant of the village whose tomb at night shrieks with the cries of the doomed.
However, this lack of knowledge may not be surprising, considering the exceptionally forbidding atmosphere that clouds the village, and the villagers’ suspicion towards outsiders who might spread knowledge of the curse to the outside world.
City of the Shrieking Tomb follows the footsteps of Rick, a clumsy, dense westerner with a camera. He is, in fact, a professional photographer who finds himself stranded one day at a bus depot in Karnataka. Rick feels like the only foreigner in all the city of Gulbarga. Exhausted from the heat, desperate for a bus to Bihar, and wanting nothing more than to watch Hindi-dubbed SpongeBob SquarePants at his air conditioned hotel in Hyderabad, he is frustrated and tired, ready to give up his quest to take pictures of Islamic architecture for a photography book.
There’s a certain bewildered clumsiness to the photographer that is both endearing and relatable to anyone who has ever been a tourist. Although I’m only an armchair tourist in India, I imagine, based on my experiences of travel in other countries, that I would have shared something of his bewilderment and exhaustion. Being immersed in a country with a culture and language that is not your own can be a struggle.
Fortunately—or unfortunately—Rick soon meets Awaz, a doctor who takes pity on him. He tells him he can reach Bihar if he takes a rickety bus towards his village of Humayunpur. There, the bus breaks down, and Awaz decides to host the photographer in his own home, to the mild protests of his wife.
Humayunpur turns out to be a village situated in the midst of an ancient fort. Spectacular Mughal-era tombs and mosques mark the village as a picturesque destination—everything the photographer ever dreamed of. This includes the immense tomb of the sultan, the dome of which is broken in half, a casualty of a tumultuous battle.
That night, Rick first hears the shrieks coming from the tomb. He slowly realizes—very, very slowly, I might add—that there is more to Humayunpur than meets the eye. Determined to put Humayunpur on the map, Rick resists Awaz’s repeated demands not to take any pictures of the ruins. Little does Rick know that he is walking into a story more ancient and terrible than he can conceive.
Rick’s stubbornness seems typical of western tourists, or at least typical of certain stereotypes. He is repeatedly described as “dense” by Narcissus, the village historian who never misses an opportunity to tease him about it. As the story develops, Rick’s greed for photographs brings him into conflict with the villagers, who resent his invasive presence. However, this does not stop Rick from wanting to visit the tomb of Sultan Humayun Karabakh himself—a decision that determines his ultimate, grizzly fate.
This novel’s strength is in how it shines light on a little-known aspect of Indian history: the rebellion of Yusuf Karabakh against Sultan Humayun Karabakh at the bequest of the Sultan’s wife. It builds suspense and, although it can be difficult to judge these things, it seems to me as if the author has had first-hand experience of India.
It was also enjoyable, for me at least, to watch Rick fumble like an (albeit sympathetic) idiot, right into the death trap that we expect him to stumble into all along. Horror readers who read horror for the joy of it will find nothing amiss. I wanted to yell at Rick to “get outta Dodge,” as Narcissus puts it, even though I knew full well he wouldn’t.
The novel’s main weakness is that the characters are rather one-note. Rick is always the stubborn, foreign photographer; Awaz is the helpful but worried local whose refrain is “No photos!”; Narcissus dumps information about the historical backstory of Sultan Humayun and the Black Flower Goddess and keeps reminding Rick just how “dense” he really is.
It would have been nice to see these characters adopting different roles in the story and expressing themselves in different ways. As a result, the story tends to drag on at times, even though it is quite short at only 120 pages. That being said, if you are willing to put up with the one-notedness of the characters, you will be satisfied by the knockout ending.