History-mystery cocktail

History-mystery cocktail

The Englishman’s Cameo: A Mughal Murder Mystery
Madhulika Liddle
pp 282, Rs 295

Some readers may recall having first crossed paths with Muzaffar Jang, the young nobleman who solves mysteries in 17th century Shahjahanabad (to laypeople like you and me: Old Delhi), in the anthology 21 Under 40 (Zubaan, 2006) in which Madhulika Liddle’s short story, ‘The Murk of Art’, appeared. That rare and evocative short story of murder and intrigue in Mughal Dilli left me eager to read more.

This Diwali there was reason to burst additional crackers, because Liddle’s first full-length novel starring Muzaffar Jang and his brother-in-law Kotwal Sahib (the chief of police in Shahjahanabad) was published and it will, hopefully, be followed by a collection of short stories next year.

It is possibly — even probably — the first ever historical mystery novel set in Old Delhi. ‘Historical mysteries’ — that is, detective novels set in pre-modern milieus such as ancient Rome or medieval China — fill the bookshops but until now they’ve all been imported. The genre has for some curious reason remained under-explored in India, despite the fact that our country boasts of such a rich heritage and so many historical places that could lend themselves to thrilling story telling. So one can only say, to begin with, that it was about time somebody did something about it.

Madhulika Liddle obviously loves history as much as she is passionate about crime fiction, which is always a good thing if you intend to write historical mysteries. Here we encounter a vividly described Old Delhi, with its bustling bazaars and colourful inhabitants, and it is actually unexpectedly much like present-day Delhi on one level — for there are the qahwa khanas that herald a new-fangled beverage, namely coffee, which is gaining popularity despite its bitterness. One can even spot gawky youngsters “walking swiftly but sure-footedly along the street, carrying a small earthenware cup full of what was presumably coffee. A fashionable master, thought Muzaffar: perhaps drinking down the bitter beverage in an attempt to show his noble clientele that he was as progressive as them.” Now doesn’t that sound very much like our current Coffee Day outlets and the American-inspired yuppie habit of buying coffee-to-go in disposable cups?

Although readers like me are hooked by such fascinating details, initially the mystery story itself unfortunately moves somewhat jerkily, which may be because the author — who until now has specialised in short stories — isn’t yet entirely confident with the format of the full-length crime novel. Slowly we meander deeper and deeper into the galis of Shajahanabad and gradually the plot gets more and more thrilling, as the author’s grasp turns firmer.

We learn that Old Delhi was an amazingly happening place with a cosmopolitan population that included Europeans who’d settled there and become part of the fabric of the town. And like any big metropolis, it had its share of crime. One of Muzaffar Jang’s friends from the bazaars has been wrongly accused of murder and arrested, just because the poor guy happened to be at the crime scene — wrong place, wrong time. And yes, maybe he had a motive too.

While the police rely on the age-old method of torture, Muzaffar, to save his friend’s life, decides to apply his mind to solving the case. The investigation leads him to many daunting places, the houses of courtesans, the burning ghats, a dank dungeon, and so on. In the process somebody tries to assassinate him — which in turn suggests that he isn’t on a wild goose chase (as his brother-in-law Kotwal Sahib had thought). Obviously Muzaffar is getting closer and closer to a dangerous truth, and somebody is very keen on stopping him from snooping — for good.

The Englishman’s Cameo is a genuinely promising debut. Its originality and freshness is its strongest point, and — after the dramatic resolution — one shuts the book hoping that Madhulika Liddle will continue with her literary project and act as a path-breaker for other history-mystery writers in order to build this fabulous genre’s South Asian avatar.