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Sunday, June 17, 2012

A nice book to read

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]

4 comments:

Abhiroop said...

Hi Sir,

I have just finished reading this book. I Flipkart-ed it soon after reading the post (gone are those days when we could pick books up all and sundry from that little list that you had put up right beside your desk at the school library!)- it arrived yesterday afternoon and I have (with the exception of negotiating some disgusting block trade agreements) done little else since than lap it all up.

This is one of the most delightful books I have read in a long, long time. What a brilliant catch by Aakash and you, Sir. Not only is the period so vibrantly and cogently portrayed out, the characters brilliantly sculpted, but merely from a murder mystery perspective, what I loved most about the book was that there was no loose end that was not tied up in the end, no seeming red herring that did not prove to be of eventual importance- all the t's are slashed and i's dotted. One feels an almost catatonic bit of satisfaction (much after one has had a filling three course meal) when the curtain finally falls. This is one reason as to why I have always been partial to Sherlock Holmes as opposed to Agatha Christie: the dame's endless red herrings and bouts of misdirection often fall flat in the end, and the reader is left to wonder: was there really any need for the maid to have been speaking with the tall hooded man the afternoon of the murder?

A couple of other observations:

1. Some things, of course, do not change: it would seem that even in the 17th century, the meat of police work was drab, bureaucratic and paper-pushing, and not the stuff of the flamboyant and endless spate of detective sitcoms of these days!

2. Coffee, really? Do you think this is a clever interplay (of course, backed with historic authenticity) on how the 21th century coffee shop, proud insignia of all things cool, was just as much the happening place to be in the 17th century?

3. The Kotwal sahib: more Inspector Battle than Lestrade?

4. The twist in the end: inspired by Holmes' The Adventure of Abbey Grange, do you think?

At any rate, too much dissection will probably take the fun out of reading this. A really enjoyable book, and I reiterate your recommendation to everyone to read it.

Keep em' coming, Sir!

Cheers,

Abhiroop

Sayan Datta said...

I must thank both Aakash da and Suvro Sir for the post. I couldn’t find the book at the Crosswords bookstore, which is near to where I live; so I got it from flipcart, and at a hefty discount too!
When I was younger, I was in awe of Holmes and felt, as I still do, that detective fiction doesn’t get any better. His cold, calculative logic on the one hand and burning passion for his work on the other elevated him to a venerable, almost sage-like character in my mind. I remember being tremendously influenced by his (now clichéd) dictum – “When one eliminates all other possibilities, what one is left with, however improbable, must be the truth”. One can see many shades of Holmes in Muzzafar Jang, though they and their creators are vastly separated both by time and space. Jang, himself of noble blood, is an unassuming and unpretentious gentleman, who despises ostentatious noblemen and their ways and is deeply critical of their perpetual urge to splurge, blissfully oblivious of the fact that the economy is crumbling and the ground is being swept from beneath their very feet. He is a scrupulous fellow, though not to a fault and shares some of Holmes’ cheekiness.
The charm of the story also lies in it’s historical backdrop. The Emperor’s health is failing, the economy, all but shattered, is strained from fulfilling the fads and fancies of the rich, Aurangzeb is hatching plots and mulling rebellion…a perfect setting for crime fiction! There are many characters one meets along the way – Salim the boatman, Mehtab the seductress, Gulnar, her sister, Akram, unconscientious banias – all these and many more make the journey truly delightful. One can almost listen to the hoof beats of the horses and smell the roses in full bloom in the parterres and coffee in the qahwa khanas…and I had absolutely no idea that post mortem is such an old field of work! The story is intricately woven, with no flat characters or loose ends.
Thanks once again…
Sayan Datta

Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

Many thanks for lending me the book; it was really a delight to read such a murder mystery set in the backdrop of history. Although the plot is not as intricately woven as we find in novels of Jeffrey Archer, the book is definitely a page turner and holds the interest of the reader till the very last page when one realizes that the mystery is yet to be solved. We find that both homosexuality and coffee shops were prevalent in those days(it is not the in-thing of our age) and kings and omrahs drained the country's resources to maintain their lavish lifestyle while the economy was on the verge of collapse. The situation is so similiar to our present day where the actions of the wealthy few jeopardizes the whole economy.

This book is far better than the fictions churned out by the likes of Chetan Bhagat, be it the quality of language or the storyline. I will look forward to read more books by this author.

With regards,
Saikat

Ūrṇā said...

Dear Sir,

I could hardly contain my delight when I noticed that you had written a post on Madhulika Liddle's The Englishman's Cameo. I had really liked reading it and had found the book consistently paced, soundly structured and most importantly, as you have mentioned, "readable". Honestly, since I tend to read all kinds of books (even stuff that are branded as "not literary enough"), I have noticed that the number of writers who can actually hold a reader's attention to the pages of a novel without much effort on the reader's part is relatively few. And I feel Madhulika Liddle can be counted among their numbers.

Madhulika Liddle had been one of the guests and keynote speakers invited to the Crime Fiction Conference organised in my college this February. We had an extensive interactive session discussing The Englishman's Cameo and hearing the author's point of view was definitely an insightful experience. Her account of her long and difficult negotiation between the historical and the detective bits of her historical detective fiction was what I found most interesting - studying the economy, legal code and law enforcement of the times, understanding them in relation to social norms and conditions and being faithful to the historical credibility of the portrayal of the characters and events without being dull and limiting. She also talked about trying to write without (to quote her) "being overtly obvious about the gender of the writer" and the role her desire to be faithful to the context had to play in that.

As Ms. Liddle herself mentioned, India's historical past is a huge treasure trove when it comes to plots for potentially interesting novels. However, I agree with you that there aren't many really good historical fiction books written recently in India. It's nice that some writer's are trying their hands at genres which haven't yet gained much popularity in India. Is it strange that more people have read Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni's Palace of Illusions outside India (mostly NRIs though) than in India?