I love Madhulika Liddle’s writings that brings alive the Medieval Delhi or Shahjahanabad. Her books reviewed on my blog are The Eighth Guest and Other Muzaffar Jang and The Englishman’s Cameo. Here she gets candid about her growing up, her journey as a writer and her future plans:
Madhulika Liddle Interview
Tell us about your self, where did you grow up, what did you study and your journey to being a writer.
Madhulika Liddle: I grew up in north and central India. Because my father was in the IPS and got transferred frequently. Much of my childhood was spent in towns like Bhopal, Gwalior, and Srinagar. When I was 13, my father got posted to Delhi. And I’ve lived here ever since.
After school, I did a three-year course in hotel management. And subsequently worked in the hospitality industry for several years. Before switching to advertising, then content writing, and finally, instructional design. I quit the corporate world in 2008. And have been focussing on my writing since then.
As far as my journey to being a writer is concerned… I began writing almost as soon as I could. I used to write short stories and travelogues on every place my family visited on vacations – all for family consumption only. In my mid-20s, I began to focus on trying to write for an audience other than family. I entered a number of short story competitions (and was lucky enough to win most of the ones I entered, including the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association’s Short Story Competition in 2003). Around the same time, I began toying with writing longer fiction – the novel I began writing back then is still on the back burner, though. Because I lost interest in it after a while.
Tell us about your relationship with the city of Delhi, specially Shahjahanabad.
I’ve lived in Delhi for almost 27 years now. But I’ll confess my knowledge of this city was pretty limited until about 1994. Around that time, Habitat World (where I was working) began organizing heritage walks. And I began to discover the depth and scope of Delhi’s history. Over the years, my sister Swapna (who is a historian) has helped, with her enthusiasm, in getting me much better acquainted with Delhi. I’ve been on dozens of walks with her through some of Delhi’s lesser-known monuments and neighborhoods. I find Shahjahanabad fascinating because it holds within it not just remnants of the city Shahjahan built, but also the cultural and architectural heritage of later years – the later Mughals, for instance, as well as colonial Delhi.
Given a choice would you like to go back in time and live in the times of Mughal Empire. If yes, what character would you choose for yourself?
An interesting question. My answer is yes because I’d love to experience, for myself, living in that era. But, since life in Mughal India was tough for the common people, I’d like to go back as someone fairly wealthy – not royalty or too high up in the aristocracy. Because I wouldn’t want to be a possible victim of power politics. And not as a woman, because the idea of being mostly confined to the Mahal Sara (the women’s quarters) throughout one’s life doesn’t appeal to me. Muzaffar Jang, perhaps? That’s whom I’d like to be.
How did you come to define your genre historical crime fiction – a genre that is more or less non-existent in India?
I was introduced to historical detective fiction through Robert van Gulik’s book The Chinese Maze Murders (featuring the medieval Chinese magistrate, Judge Dee) when I was a teenager. I was so fascinated by the combination of mystery and history that I later began reading more historical detective fiction. And I realized that this was a distinct subgenre of crime fiction. And there was an impressive array of detectives, across time and space. A Welsh monk, an Irish nun, a Czarist statesman, an ancient Egyptian bureaucrat, Roman investigators… but no Indians. That’s why I decided it was time to invent an Indian historical detective.
How do you re-create the Delhi of 17-18th CE so vividly through your writing? Did you read Golestan before you wove a story around it Madhulika Liddle?
It takes a lot of research to get the details right. I read a lot of books on Mughal India (especially during Shahjahan’s reign). And even books on specialized fields – clothing, gardens, food, society, and so on. I also often visit many of the existing Shahjahan-era buildings in Delhi. Another thing that helps me is to look at the paintings of that period. For instance, the Mughal miniatures of Shahjahan’s reign don’t just celebrate court life, but also depict other subjects. I find them useful in understanding, visually, how different life was back then.
And yes, I did read Golestan before deciding to use it as the basis for a story.
Did you study the language of the era? I notice you never let the modern language come in way of your descriptions. And you very effectively use a non-native language to convey the local ethos?
While I am fairly conversant with Urdu (which was one of the main languages in Delhi during the era), I don’t claim to be fluent in it. And I certainly don’t know Persian. Which was the ‘link language’, or the official court language at the time? I make a conscious effort to ensure that I when I write, I steer clear of language that would be relatively modern. I also try to bring in some Persian/Urdu words here and there to lend a flavor of the period my characters lived in.
Madhulika Liddle your second book has been carved out of the small characters or characteristics of that era. Tell us about the sources of that information and how those nuances intrigued you.
I referred to a number of books by various authors to do the research for both my books. Among my main sources are books and articles by Bamber Gascoigne, Annemarie Schimmel, Ebba Koch, Abraham Eraly, H K Kaul, Soma Mukherjee, and C M Villiers-Stuart. Except for Gascoigne’s The Great Moghuls (which is largely a political history of the dynasty’s first six rulers), the books by the other authors focus on cultural and social aspects of life in Mughal times. For example, Annemarie Schimmel’s The Empire of the Great Mughals has wonderful details about court life, literature, festivals, and so on. These details – not the political, but the everyday life of the people of that age – are what help build the atmosphere while setting a tale in the 17th century.
How was Muzaffar Jang born? How did you carve out that character? Madhulika Liddle, Is he going to be the central character in your future works?
As I mentioned earlier, I’d read a lot of historical detective fiction. Featuring detectives from all across the world and across different periods. And I thought it was time someone invented an Indian detective. A 17th-century Mughal detective was my automatic choice for several reasons:
- Shahjahan’s reign fascinates me, both from a cultural as well as a political point of view.
- There’s a lot of material easily available on Mughal India. So researching that period wouldn’t be difficult.
- The city I am most familiar with is Delhi and Shahjahanabad. The Delhi that Shahjahan built – was for me the easiest place to set my stories in.
I gave Muzaffar Jang some of my own characteristics (a love for reading and coffee, for example). And decided to make him a more ‘modern’ character – as far as his outlook on life is concerned. That would have been usual in the 17th century because I wanted him to appeal to a 21st-century reader. So Muzaffar is a maverick, a man who makes friends outside his ranks. And a man who isn’t fashionable and power-hungry (unlike much of Mughal nobility, back then).
There are more Muzaffar Jang books in the offing. The next in the series is due to be released this winter. But I do write other works as well. So he won’t be the only central character in all my future works.
What would you like to tell the young aspiring writers who aspire to write with history as a backdrop?
Do a lot of research, and that too research from reliable sources. Read books by scholars, academicians, people who know what they’re talking about. No, Wikipedia is not an option.
Secondly, cross-check every little detail. Because one tiny slip up can be caught by a reader with an eye for detail (I remember reading a book set in ancient India, in which the writer mentioned a grove of custard apple trees… And my immediate response was, “Custard apples are native to the Americas”. “They didn’t arrive in India till after Columbus’s voyage!”)
Tell about what you like to read and your books and authors.
I am a voracious reader. And read a very wide range of books. A lot of these tend to be historical detective fiction. In particular, the books of Ellis Peters, Peter Tremayne, Steven Saylor, Lindsay Davis, Robert van Gulik, and PC Doherty. Among the other fiction writers whose work I enjoy are Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle (and not just his Holmes stories), Georgette Heyer, Jeffrey Archer, Roald Dahl, Saki, Ruskin Bond, R K Narayan, and Alexander McCall-Smith. When it comes to non-fiction, I love reading travel writing (Bill Bryson and Peter Mayle are my favorites). As well as writings on history – for example, the books like Roy Moxham’s The Great Hedge of India, or Raymond Sokolov’s Why We Eat What We Eat.
What is the next book you are working on Madhulika Liddle?
Madhulika Liddle: Right now, I’m working on a set of short stories. Which will form the fourth book of the Muzaffar Jang series? I’m also expecting my publishers to send me the edited manuscripts of two other books. The third Muzaffar Jang book, and a collection of contemporary black humor short stories – in the near future, so I’m gearing up to finish those as well.