The Eighth Guest & other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries by Madhulika Liddle
The Eighth Guest & other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries is about 10 mysteries. Which the young, handsome and rich Amir from the times of Shahajahan solves in Dilli & around, form this collection of stories. The character of Muzaffar Jang was introduced in Author’s first book The Englishman’s Cameo. And the same character this time solves many murder and theft mysteries. But the less complicated ones.
Madhulika’s forte lies in recreating the Shahjahanabad for the reader. She is brilliant and flawless there. Her description of Dilli, its Galiyan, its bazaars with coffee houses, its Haveli’s with their sprawling lawns and Dalan’s, the muslins and silks intricately embellished with embroideries, its animals, its stables, its dancing girls, its nobles with their army of servants, the Qutb khanas, the zenanas, its slow paced. But vibrant life, its rituals, its artisans, its fragrance makers, its hakims and men and women as they lived then. In her two books, I have never seen any tinge of any modern jargon or metaphor used to describe the bygone era. The atmosphere is always in 16-17th century. And the language even though English still carries the Nazakat and Tehzeeb of the times.
The stories of The Eighth Guest & other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries, are average though. For crime fiction, the plots are too simple. And often predictable. May be those times were simpler. And so were the crime scenes. But to a current day reader, it would be a weak link of the book. Sometimes the stories are confusing too e.g. in a story where the father leaves the clues for the son to decipher, you can see poetry and romance but no plot at all. In others again, you see the delicate weave of the city of Dilli. And the stories take a back seat.
I liked the fact that author has picked up some element of the time and woven the story around it. A couple of stories have been woven around the lesser known but real characters from the time like Mahaura Khan, the chief Mahout of Shahjahan. And Bichitr the master painter in the court who was involved in creating the manuscript of Padshahnama. There is one story woven around Golestan, a famous work of poet Saadi. Another story revolves around Bhela nut that is used by washer men for marking clothes but then there are other possible uses of it. There is a story that happens in Begumki Sarai, the Sarai that belonged to Shahjahan’s favorite daughter Jahanara. And was used by the wealthy merchants to stay.
This small nitty-gritty makes the stories interesting to read. Giving readers a feel of being in the real environment. And not just in the figment of author’s imagination.