Book Review | The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey

Book Review | The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey

Here, Perveen Mistry’s scope of investigation expands as the ‘maharaja’ comes under the threat that has befallen his father and grandfather

Writing a period novel is perhaps the most fraught exercise. To make the writing authentic, much of the focus is on inessentials. And so the reader is bogged down in minutiae, waiting for the plot to get with the program.

In The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey’s descriptions are sweet, well researched, yet 100 pages in and there’s still no whiff of the mystery. There is no menace and no scattering of clues that add up to one humdinger of an investigation. There is a surprisingly attractive hero figure though. The descriptions of clothes are interminable. Secondary cast figures are written off in such detail that you can guess the colour of their underwear by now. And, all that further aggravates the readers’ expectations set up by the legend ‘Perveen Mistry investigates’ on the cover.

By page 201, it is clear no thriller genre investigations are within Perveen Mistry’s ambit. The descriptions of saris are going strong and the next 175 pages will not be easy for one uninterested in crisply described rooms and gardens, mentions of kanda pohe and mutton curry.

Make no mistake, Massey writes with a deft touch from decent amounts of research. The writer is a natural storyteller and the sequences flow as a nimble stream via her pen. If a book may be rated on atmospherics alone, this is a winner.

The fundamental issue is with the central character, Perveen Mistry. A lady separated from her abusive husband and a solicitor at her father’s law firm, Mistry has the right credentials for a cerebral gutsy woman much ahead of her times. However, the burden of taking the narrative ahead is on her frail shoulders, and she chooses to notice instead excruciating details of every bit of ornament on a person or furniture in a room.

Yet, none of these are with a detective’s eye that may bring us to the brink of denouement through her brilliant deduction. The details are merely exhausting and they detract from firmly outlining Mistry’s persona or her purpose.

Signed on to represent the British Raj via the Kolhapur Agency (an arm that oversaw 25 princely and feudal states around the Kolhapur region), Mistry travels to the princely kingdom of Satapur to adjudicate on the dispute over the education of 10-year-old Maharaja Jiva Rao between the dowager Rajmata Putlabai and her daughter-in-law, Maharani Mirabai.

The palace is not only rife with intrigue, there is the real threat that the current maharaja will meet the same gory fate as his father and older brother.

Unwittingly, the scope of her engagement expands to now ensure the continued well-being of the young ruler. With too many diverse stakeholders and bound by the diktat of the palace zenana, the task is nigh impossible.

The novel is crammed with characters that colour the tale, but don’t advance either the plot or the excitement.

The Rajmata seems both imperious and evil. Forced into purdah, Maharani Mirabai exhibits symptoms of deep depression, which is to be expected given her recent bereavements. The late maharaja’s younger brother Prince Swaroop functions as the kingdom’s prime minister and there is something both unlikeable and sinister in the man.

The dark belly of the zenana with its many strictures does not seem like the ideal home for the young maharaja and his younger sister Rajkumari Padmabai. The palace buffoon Aditya roams the palaces of the estranged maharanis at will. And the British political agent of Satapur, the mild and genial Colin Sandringham, sits at odds with the immense power of the British Raj he represents. However, there is always recourse in a unhinged, emotionally overwrought villain who can be counted upon to both speed up the slow pace of the narrative in the penultimate chapter and unmask himself. He even has the good sense to poison in a wild rampage of villainy an unbending character to smooth out the happily ever after scenario with no glitches.

The moonstone bit is so fleeting, the book could have been called The Satapur Rajapalayam Hounds after the hounds Desi and Ganesan, who play rather large roles in the narrative. Geographically, Mudhol Hounds seem more plausible in Maharashtra though.

Readers who crave a sweeping gaze over archetypal imaginary kingdoms would find their fix here. Most of the book is in a reading format that is delightful and delicate. Those seeking an edgy historical thriller will find what they seek only in rare patches. As a slow tale of princely intrigue which magnifies elements of corruption or lifestyles of British agents, this is an indulgent read.

Here, both electricity and the railways are not yet in place. Cholera rears its ugly head. Rubies and sapphires seem to float everywhere. The writing also harks back to when a writer could meander in and out of substance at will.

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