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Michael Flannigan - a life of invention

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Flannigan:
A Life of Invention

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The Road to Heidelberg

Part 5: The Nehal Renunciation

After spending the summer of 1843 recuperating from their respective injuries, Michael Flannigan and Desmond "Curry" Riffles were once again in fine fettle, despite their advancing years. [1] Their general good health, notwithstanding, a letter from their housekeeper and kitchener, [2] Miss Kapila Patel to Dear Gajagamini, [3] the advice columnist in the Bengal Hurkaru, suggests that the two adventurers may have been suffering from a severe case of "bungalow fever" after spending the entire monsoon season indoors:

"Oh my Dear Gajagamini, I do not know where I am beginning. My two gentlemen are no longer gentlemen, and everyday I am cleaning a madhouse. Mr. Flannigan, he lights a match and waits in the darkness. Then he lights another one and shouts ‘Where the devil are you, Curry?’ Eventually, Mr. Riffles comes rushing in, drops his capacious trousers, and – dare I say it – breaks wind on the head of the burning match, causing a large blue flame to thrust its fiery tongue from the depths of his bottom. Then, in jubilant chorus they shout ‘Better flatulate than never, old boy!’ and open yet another bottle of sherry. They also leave their cricket bat in the strangest places. Please tell me… what should I do?"

Dear Gajagamini’s response is moot, as Flannigan and Riffles were gone from Pondicherry – and Miss Patel’s fretful domain – within the week. In anticipation of celebrating Flannigan’s 60 th birthday in style, Riffles had picked up the Bengal Hurkaru looking for a decent restaurant review. Incredulously, he read the headline: "Restaurant reviewer strangled with yellow silk scarf. Resurgence of Thuggees?" A passage from the article, dated November 14 th, 1843, elucidates:

" … Could the Thuggee cult, long thought extinguished, be responsible for this horrific crime? Or is this simply a case of retribution on the part of a bitter chef? The brutal strangulation of this newspaper’s own Wallace Blount comes only days after the publication of Blount’s scathing review of a Kashmiri restaurant on the Tellicherry waterfront, run by a chef described by our man as ‘a skeletal dwarf-chappie with a tendency towards toxicity’…"

Veins popping from his forehead, Riffles did not need to read any further. Thrusting the journal into Flannigan’s outstretched hands, he grabbed his elephant gun, and set out for Tellicherry on horseback. Flannigan was right behind him, armed only with a cricket bat. [4]

The Tellicherry Police Detachment
The Tellicherry Policy Detachment

It was a 600 mile ride due west to Tellicherry, on the Indian Ocean. Flannigan and Riffles covered the ground in record time, eager to confront Riffles’ nefarious former batman. The dockside restaurant "Nehal’s Nautical Nosh & Nibbles" was easily identifiable for two reasons: the aimless milling of the single constable who comprised the entire Tellicherry police detachment, and the mindless swarming of a multitude of flies circling a huge pile of steaming cow dung. Unsurprisingly, Nehal the homicidal chef was not immediately in evidence.

Undeterred, Desmond "Curry" Riffles slowly surveyed the waterfront landscape. After more than 40 years of service to the crown on the Indian subcontinent, the aging assassin had the sharp eye of a hunter, and the keen nose of a tracker. He could distinguish between a vegetable jalfrazi and a lamb balti at two thousand yards, and he could unerringly discern the faintest whiff of fear… even when camouflaged by the powerful stench of sacred manure. With a wink to Flannigan, Riffles thrust his elephant gun deeply into the steaming mound.

To the inventor’s surprise, the outstretched weapon struck something solid, and the dung heap writhed like a den of slithering brown asps. From its pungent interior leapt a wizened and furious Indian – the much sought after Nehal. Sputtering and cursing, and looking over his shoulder with a look of shocked recognition, Nehal scurried away along the dock. The fleeing madman was pursued by Flannigan, Riffles, the constable, a reporter from the Bengal Hurkaru and most of the flies.

The dock was a dead-end, and Nehal was cornered like a manure-encrusted rat in a trap. With nowhere to run, and no dung heap to hide in, the murderous restaurateur turned his back to the sparkling Indian Ocean and faced his pursuers with a defiant sneer. Riffles stepped forward, shaking his finger at his glowering former batman.

The lead story of the next day’s Bengal Hurkaru tells the rest of the story:

"… the ruddy gentleman with the elephant gun – one Desmond Riffles – tore a strip off the malodorous midget, and said he was ‘going to give him a bloody good hiding’, but the little man – known only as Nehal – fought back with a vengeance. Striking like a viper, Nehal snatched a cricket bat from the hands of another man in the crowd. To the shock and horror of all, the cornered man swung the bat like a County captain and walloped Riffles squarely in the face. Bleeding profusely from his nose, the fatally-injured man pivoted in slow motion like a wounded walrus, and went over the side of the dock, plummeting into the roiling depths of the Indian Ocean. Then, perhaps inspired by his victim’s complete disappearance, the manure-smeared assailant made his escape by diving into the ocean, displaying a disconcerting amount of rear nether cleft in the process". [5]

Aghast, Michael Flannigan stared impotently at the rough waters below. Riffles’ lifeless body had sunk beneath the waves without a trace. Nehal’s scrawny arms had proven sufficient to power his aquatic getaway, and the blood-stained cricket bat was bobbing almost smugly as it drifted away. The inventor was devastated by yet another tragic loss: first Impetigo Trundle’s brutal de-cranialization, and now Desmond "Curry" Riffles knocked for six! [6] Swooning in a very manly way, as only an Irishman can, Flannigan fell face first, insensate upon the Tellicherry docks.

nehal's unexpected jump
Nehal’s unexpected escape into the India Ocean

Michael Flannigan awoke to the guttural sound of German being spoken, and his heart leapt. For a few fleeting moments, Flannigan imagined he was back at St. Pity’s Sake Convent in Pondicherry, with Riffles surreptitiously eyeing the ample nuns from across the room. It was not to be. A smiling woman sitting at his bedside introduced herself as Frau Julie Gundert, wife of the missionary Dr. Hermann Gundert. She explained that Flannigan had fainted with Celtic vigour, giving himself a nasty cranial injury in the process, and that he had been recovering for some days in the Gundert Bungalow at Illikkunnu, near Tellicherry.

Flannigan was physically and emotionally incapacitated, but mentally alert. During the next few months, which Flannigan spent in what his heavenly hosts cheerily termed "the missionary position" – flat on his back – the Gundert family was tireless in caring for the recuperating inventor. In addition to fresh bandages and warm sponge baths, the well-educated and intellectually dynamic Gunderts gave Flannigan something more important: stimulating conversation to engage and heal his wounded mind.

Conversation in the Gundert Bungalow ranged from philosophical discourse about the "Principles of War" espoused by Von Clausewitz, to the more arcane principles of philology, [7] as well as geography, history, science and, of course, religion. Flannigan even spent time chatting with the Gunderts’ precocious one-year old daughter Marie who supposedly called the recovering Irishman "Onkel Michael" [8] long before she called Hermann Gundert "Papa".

hermann hesse
Marie Gundert’s son, Hermann Hesse, looking and acting remarkably like the "great-uncle" he never knew

All too soon, it was time for Michael Flannigan to leave the sheltered surroundings of Gundert Bungalow and return to the outside world. During the months of his recovery, Flannigan had found himself increasingly preoccupied with the mechanics of the human body, in particular the growing of hair. [9] A recent article in the Heidelberger Tagesblätter [10] had drawn his attention specifically to the anatomist Friedrich Henle’s pioneering work at the University of Heidelberg, and a reference from the highly-regarded Dr. Gundert had secured Flannigan an opportunity to study with the prominent academic. A letter from the Irish inventor to his sisters in Ennis, County Clare, conveys Flannigan’s enthusiasm:

My wonderful Molly, Mary, Catherine, Chelsea and Hope,

Can you imagine my excitement? T he distribution of epithelium in the human body… the structure and development of the hair… the formation of mucus and pus … what could be better? I shall tell you all the details as soon as I have them!

Your constant brother, Michael

Within weeks, Flannigan was on his way to Heidelberg. The clipper ship Sutlej, operated by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, left Bombay bound for Port Suez on February 15th, 1844. From Port Suez, the route was overland by mule-drawn carriage to Cairo, by canal to Alexandria, and thence by the paddle steamer Royal Tar through the Mediterranean to Brindisi. The highlight of the final leg of Flannigan’s journey – by stagecoach and a patchwork of early railway lines – was during Holy Week in Rome where, to his great surprise and delight, Flannigan ran into the author Charles Dickens. [11]

After an unexplained delay of six days, the revitalized Irish inventor pressed on, arriving at the railway station in Heidelberg in the Grand Duchy of Baden with a devilish grin on his bearded face. At age 60, Michael Flannigan was going back to school!

--"Scholarship" by The Flyboy

Next:
Part 6: The Heidelberg Disaster

Notes:

1. Flannigan would shortly turn 60, although he looked far younger as a result of the “freakish Flannigan genome”. No date of birth is recorded for Riffles, but Chesleyan scholars have done the math: as Riffles was “an old India hand" when he first met Flannigan in 1812, he was likely between 60 and 65 in 1843. [back]

2. A kitchen servant, a cook. [back]

3. “Kapila" means “Name of the celestial cow”. “Gajagamini" means “ Majestic, like an elephant's walk." Despite a nominal commitment to global cultural diversity, Chesleyan scholars are gob-smacked. [back]

4. Flannigan was literally right behind Riffles; as one of their horses dropped dead from fright at the time of the “boating incident”, they had to share a saddle. [back]

5. Colonial euphemism for “butt crack”.[back]

6. Fathoms, that is. [back]

7. The study of language, especially in a philosophical manner and as a science. Gundert later published a Malayalam-English Dictionary and a Malayalam grammar text that continue to be in print today. [back]

8. In German, “onkel" means “uncle”. Much later, Marie Gundert gave birth to the novelist Hermann Hesse. Curiously, like his “great-uncle" Michael Flannigan, Hesse worked at a variety of odd jobs, including as an apprenticeship to a mechanic, and in a bookshop. He joined a literary circle called Le Petit Cénacle, wrote a few best-sellers, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. [back]

9. This fascination, which his niece Emily Chesley would come to share, led to some of Flannigan’s most intriguing inventions. [back]

10. The Heidelberg “Daily Sheets”. [back]

11. The details of this chance encounter are not recorded in Flannigan’s journal, but Chesleyan suspect that Dickens may have found the meeting memorable. [back]

 

     

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