Author : Madhulika Liddle Genre : Historical Fiction No. of Pages : 281 Publisher : Hachette India
Synopsis : Muzaffar Jang is that rare creature in Mughal Emperor Shahjahan’s Dilli – an aristocrat with friends in low places. One of whom, Faisal, stands accused of murder.
When the body of Mirza Murad Begh is found stabbed in the chest, lying in a water channel in the Qila, poor Faisal is the only one around. But what of the fact that, right before his demise, the victim had stepped out of the haveli of Shahjahanabad’s most ravishing courtesan? Could not the sultry Mehtab Banu, and her pale, delicate sister Gulnar have something to do with the murder?
Determined to save his friend, Muzaffar decides to investigate, with only a cup now and then of that new-fangled brew – Allah, so bitter – called coffee to help him….
Set in 17th century Shahjahanabad (Delhi or Dilli under Mughal Emperor Shahjahan’s rule), this book follows Muzaffar Jang who is an aristocratic young man, but unlike his counterparts who only mingle with upper-class folks and like to amass and display their wealth, Muzaffar isn’t a classist snob – he likes to hang out with all kinds of people, appreciates a quiet life with good books, good food, and less extravagance (wait that sounds wrong – is there a nice, intellectual-sounding word for less extravagance?)
Basically, Muzaffar Jang is a man after my own heart.
The setting is gorgeous! Madhulika’s writing unravelled the 17th century Dilli alive in front of my eyes. I didn’t pay enough attention in history class to know if the book was historically accurate, but it read like the author has done her research. Be it the picturesque’s havelis, or Mehtab Banu, the courtesan, folding paan with her henna-clad hands or the boat rides on the river yamuna – I could picture it clearly, hell, I could practically feel the dust as if I were on the shores of river yamuna myself. Full points for the evocative writing. This was my first proper historical fiction read and I’m glad I picked this one.
Muzaffar is a smart and likable (and handsome, like the other characters never stop telling you) protagonist with scope for solid development. I see that this book is the first in a series so I think his character would get better as the series goes on.
I felt like the pace of the book was very slow. 50 pages into the book, you still haven’t learned much other than what the blurb tells you. Then there was the info-dumping. The author took her time with Muzaffar’s background but then all of a sudden you get his whole childhood and family details in a matter of two pages.
Despite being the brother-in-law of the town’s police inspector, when his friend gets arrested on suspicion for murder, Muzaffar decides to do his own investigation privately. Smart and well-read as he is, Muzaffar is not a detective. He is only an inquisitive, young man with friends in many places so as you can imagine, his investigation was slow. He asks questions, tries to put two and two together, tries to break into places and sometimes get caught, sometimes finds a small piece of evidence – you get the gist. I’m not saying every protagonist in a detective/mystery novel should be like Sherlock Holmes and make deductions in a matter of seconds – in fact I liked Muzaffar’s style. The problem was, the whole book is from his perspective and so we get to the bottom of everything only when he does.
The titular Englishman and his cameo (which is apparently the name for an oval pendant – I didn’t know this) didn’t turn out to be as ominous as I’d expected but I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing.
Oh, and I really felt like they should have included a glossary for all the urdu words used in the book. The whole book is peppered with them which really adds to the feel of it, sure. but even in India, not all of us know hindi or urdu, so a key would have been really helpful.
My Rating : ★★★ out of 5.
Don’t be put off by how I’ve written more for what I didn’t like. I would recommend this book for its setting, the language, and the feel of it more than for its mystery.