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Gargi Gupta, Hindustan Times
December 04, 2009
The English Man’s Cameo
Madhulika Liddle
Hachette * Rs. 295  * pp 281
The historical murder mystery has been quite a hot-seller in recent times. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code between them plumb the intellectual and sensational possibilities of the genre, with writers like Steven Saylor (the Gordanius mysteries set in ancient Rome), Jason Goodwin (The Janissary Tree, etc set in 1830s Istanbul featuring Yashim, an eunuch), Lindsay Davis (Falco), etc making up a large body of pop-lit.

Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo: A Mughal Murder Mystery, is probably the first Indian addition to the genre. Liddle sets her debut novel in the 1680s, with the Mughal court — recently relocated from Agra to the splendid new fort in the spanking new city of Shahjahanabad — at the peak of its influence and grandeur and, conversely, also showing signs of the rot within. But the machinations of the court don’t make up the plot; the people — cutting across class — do.

Liddle’s protagonist is the dashing, young aristocrat Muzaffar Jang, who has “friends in low places”, a convenient stratagem which gives her the licence to range through the majestic havelis of Shahjahan’s courtiers, including that of the reigning courtesan Mehtab Banu, the hustle-bustle of Chandni Chowk and Bazaar-e-Musaqqat; the newly-opened qahwa khanas (coffee was then coming into fashion), and even the poor quarters where the oil-extractors and washermen lived.

One of Jang’s commoner friends, the jeweller’s apprentice Faisal, is accused of killing a minor nawab, Mirza Murad Begh. Jang, whose brother-in-law Farid Khan is the Kotwal, steps in to defend him. The unravelling of the mystery leads Jang to the court, where unscrupulous nobles are diverting funds from the state coffers, taking advantage of the monarch’s age and illness, the portents of a bitter succession battle between Princes Aurangzeb and Dara Shukoh, a corrupt administration and a crumbling economy.

The Englishman’s Cameo is a fast-paced yarn written in snappy prose. It also succeeds in evoking the Mughal era through its manners, fashions, jewels and architecture. There’s blood, dead bodies every 50 pages or so, and even a love interest to keep readers hooked.

But I wonder if the rough-and-ready Mughal kotwals would have deigned to investigate murders with as much care as they do in this novel. Farid Khan is, if not quite Adam Dalgliesh, less cavalier in his investigations than Lestrade. I wonder how much of historical basis there is for that. But then, in between the covers of fiction, does it really matter?