Marbled murder

Marbled murder

The silent monument
Shobha Nilahani
2012, pp 311

Monuments may be silent and eerie but their stones are definitely very hungry. The Taj Mahal has been the subject of history, fiction, poetry and controversy for centuries.

Shobha Nihalani’s novel concludes in Bengaluru, but not before traversing a good deal of space from Agra, spattering with blood in almost every page. The blurb speaks of an age-old scroll and a murder that have threatening possibilities for a nation’s peace, which inevitably remind us of The Da Vinci Code, but Shobha is no unflappable Dan Brown.
We sniff the plan when Parag Saxena enters an underground vault of the Taj surreptitiously. His flashlight reveals sculptures, idols, all of them ancient.

“Parag knew these ancient objects were not meant to be there. The fact that they existed inside this monument would become the biggest ‘breaking news’ of the century. It would rock the very foundations of ancient Indian history. And big news meant colossal danger. He felt stupid coming here alone in the dead of night.”

Anwar of the Khanbaba group murders him in the vault. Parallel to Khanbaba is the Deva set-up. A perfect scenario with no sides taken as thuggery is divided equally between the two major religions. There is also a ‘secular’ group, the Onyx. It is alleged that the Home Rule League of Annie Besant had been renamed the Onyx “to carry on the work of freeing India from the stranglehold of religious dogma and communal violence”.

Bharatanatyam dancer Kanya Devi of Onyx appears remotely familiar: “She is well-respected, well-known and when she holds a press conference, the publicity through her will make every single Indian sit up and listen.”

Shobha tries to make her encounters as thrilling as possible, but shoving a dead rat down the throat of a dying man is not exactly the cup of tea for a reader who wants to relax with a mystery.

All the time we seem to walk through films like Witness to Murder and Affair in Trinidad accompanied by a crowd of characters. The plot is simple enough. The journalist, Parag, is killed and his wife Manzil is hounded by various forces for getting at the scroll found in the Taj by Parag. Her marriage has estranged her from her multi-millionaire father, Zaheer Akhtar, who resides in London.

It is when Shobha brings in other sites where excavation is going on that the plot gets blurred. Scars of communal violence will not disappear easily, whether it is Mumbai, Delhi, Puducherry or Khajuraho. The people and scenes are known to us, thanks to our media reportage. Of Khanbaba: “He is a notorious extortionist, he has his fingers in every millionaire’s pot — property, hotels, travelling, jewelers, clothing, cement — you name it, and the tycoons pay a so-to-speak commission so that their family members are not abducted or slaughtered.”

Conan Doyle would choke to death if he were around to read chapter 44. Some Holmesian deduction this, attributed to poor Yadav! Everything is rotten in this state of Denmark for the scroll “might disprove the origins of the Taj, or reveal the secrets of the hidden chamber, (and) it would escalate the violence”

Meanwhile, is this scroll with Manzil genuine or fake? We get some idea when a thug refers to it as badshahnamah. Which badshah? Already Deva has conveyed a signal by giving some of the photographs of the Taj vaults to newspapers for he wants “some passion on the streets.”

His Naaga sets off a distant device to start a panic in the crowded South Delhi market. Shobha has created a monument of violence with split cheeks and broken jaws scattered everywhere. Also a fire in which the scroll and Manzil are destroyed. But they surface again in Bengaluru, and you are welcome to the last page of the novel which reveals the Urdu writing on the stone plate.

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