Princely intrigue

Princely intrigue

The secret of Sirikot
Shivani Singh
2011, pp 308
Rs. 250

With your very own retinue of ‘cooks, khansamas, dhais and servant girls’. You step down. Before you is arrayed a dazzling collection of characters. Yuvraj, Kumar, Kumud, Baby Uncle, Brit Governesses, patedars, vasgharanis. Enough to make your head spin. But do not worry, dear reader, for Leela, the young granddaughter of Raja Nana Sahib, will escort you through the confusing maze of the durbar.

The Royal King, of course, does not come to the station, he awaits you, ensconced in Chandra Mahal. His reputation precedes him. You are informed that he is also known by the title, Mardand Sand, or the breeding bull. Yes, dear reader, the King has his hands full with the great art of governance and dispensing blessings to his subjects.

You receive a welcome suited precisely to your estate. Wondrous to the exalted.

Dignified to the patedar. The vasgharanis have a servant’s entrance. Oh, you are a mehtar? Shit carrier? You too are welcome, only your entrance is a trifle more humble.

The lattice of Princely India is captured in the colourful prose of Shivani Singh. The panoply finely caught, the shit carriers glimpsed. Running through, however, is doom. The eye of the sutradhar, the granddaughter, is abrim with tears. For this wonderland is gone, to ruin given.

Murder hides in the shadows… The death of a patedar foretells the end. And rumours shake the kingdom. Er… why should the death of a mere patedar foretell anything? Aah… for they say, he died not here where his body was discarded, but in the palace… By royal hand. Rumours, plots, prophecies convulse the kingdom. And fear… for the bloodthirst has not been slaked.

No one sleeps safe in their beds. Not the patedar. Not the mehtar. Not even Nana Sahib. “Time follows a different pace in a house of death.”

Leela, the granddaughter, investigates. “Really Leela,” my mother’s older sister chided, “I always thought you intelligent, such an observant 13-year-old.” Leela sifts through clues…One death involves torture. In another, a dying man’s stumbling words indicate poison: “‘Black’, I caught a distinct word, then, ‘blood’ — the rest was lost in flapping insects drowning in saliva.”

There are many suspects. Phulawati, the concubine. A yuvraj in haste. Or perhaps the reason is ‘a taste for boy flesh.’ Political assassination cannot be ruled out. And how are the murders committed? The glass of milk is innocent. Snakebite marks are not seen.Contact poison’s timing is off.

In her sleuthing, terrible secrets are revealed. Murders of a ‘Black Brahmin’. Torture and death of political prisoners. Illicit affairs.

Leela takes desperate risks. Rides to the untouchable’s village chasing a clue. She even walks the dark doorways behind the toilets where only the shit carriers go. Why, Leela even suspects her mother. Closer and closer, Leela arrives at the sordid truth. But the last piece of mystery remains unsolved even as the child princess grows up, gets married... Then one day, a chance encounter, and the terrible truth dawns on her.

The Secret of Sirikot, Shivani Singh’s first novel, is beautifully crafted. It is a murder mystery, a historical romance, and a denouement of princes, all in one. The only critique — sometimes her prose, like a royal feast, is a trifle too rich, especially in the prologue. If we were casual browsers, we may have put it back on the shelf. Also, her title is a tad disappointing. That said, for a first novel and for its genre, it deserves applause. “When the first lick of flame lit up the tiny dot on the horizon...”

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