My literary minded old boy Aakash had not been very pleased with the blogpost I had written on the Shiva trilogy, and had promised to send me a book in broadly the same genre that would provide much better reading. So now I have just finished reading Madhulika Liddle’s debut crime novel titled The Englishman’s Cameo, and yes, Aakash has kept his promise.
It is a murder mystery with a difference – for it is set against the backdrop of Delhi at the time of the emperor Shah Jehan in his last days on the throne, 1656 to be precise. Naturally one expects careful period detailing, and Ms. Liddle has done it very well indeed, ably helped by her sister Swapna, a historian who has specialized on late medieval India. The English is just appropriate, fluent and idiomatic at the same time, marred with neither irritating pedantry nor the colloquial pidgin that so many Indlish educated contemporary Indians find oh-so-cool. The plot centres around a fictional character, a young minor aristocrat ‘with friends in low places’ called Mujaffar Jang, who acts out of noblesse oblige to get a friend out of trouble, and in the process gets entangled in deep intrigue. One meets all kinds of interesting characters, beautiful courtesans and pot-bellied banias, supercilious omrahs and dedicated bureaucrats, ardent lover, English fortune hunter, lusty but good natured boatman, spies and mercenaries and all in a pretty heady brew. The plot is not earth-shaking, but plausible enough, and the chief merit of the book, I found, is its readability: it definitely is a page-turner in the best tradition, and not too many writers can claim as much in contemporary India (it goes without saying that I do not consider readability a minus point, because where books are concerned I am anything but a snob; besides, writing racy but persuasive fiction is far harder an art than most people suppose). And – I say this as a compliment, not patronizingly – Ms. Liddle has accomplished the rare feat of not letting the reader guess that the writer is a woman if he has not noticed the name, just as you wouldn’t with J.K. Rowling or Agatha Christie or Ashapurna Devi for that matter. The book is refreshingly free of à la mode feminist touches.
A quick search through Wikipedia tells me that Madhulika Liddle has come out with another collection of Mujaffar Jang stories (she apparently regards short stories to be her forte). I shall look forward to reading it, and I wish the writer very good luck with her writing. I should also be glad if a) she places her forthcoming books in other historical eras, equally painstakingly reconstructed, and b) other writers are inspired to do the same, because it is a very interesting genre, and also because very few good books of this sort have been written in recent times in India, whether in English or the vernaculars, so far as I know.
[The Englishman’s Cameo, by Madhulika Liddle, Hachette India 2009, pp. 281, Rs. 295, ISBN 978-81-906173-3-8. Available via flipkart.com]