Imagine the lives of people in the times of Shahjahan. When the city of Shahjahanabad had just been set up. And the court moved here from Agra. The crimes that happened then, the motivations that led people in the small settlement to murder, the relationship between government officials and the powerful people, the delicate yet strong and cunning courtesans. Then there was the culture of the times. The bustling bazaars, the world of women behind the palanquins. The poetic evenings and the namaz at the various mosques.
This The Englishman’s Cameo debut novel by Madhulika Liddle starts a genre which has so far been ignored by the Indian writers. It is a crime/detective novel set in a historical era. And the author has skillfully combined the two worlds. The setting of the story is interesting and the characters are well defined. It is a story that starts with a mystery that deepens as the story moves on. There is a detailed and vivid description of the hay days of Shahjahanabad. And a peep into the lifestyle of people both inside the Qila and outside it, the Yamuna as it was a part of everyday life for people. There is a fluid description of smaller things like a lost pendant, the exquisite paandaan and its contents, the dresses worn by the characters etc.
The story begins with a murder. And then the whole story and its characters unfold around this murder. A friend turns detective to save a murder accused. And in turn, ends up solving multiple murder mysteries and frauds. Towards the end, the story gets a bit confused, away from the initial mystery that was to be solved. And introducing a whole lot of other characters and complications.
Muzaffar Jang, the central character of the story is a typical detective character. A man with high moral values. Having friends in all sections of the society giving him good access to information. Not easily influenced especially by the irresistible woman while being human. Has well-placed relatives and an advantage of age and good physique. He holds the story together which has many characters and mysteries to unravel. The role of police or the Kotwali as it was then known is underplayed, much like Hindi movies. And the detective is able to solve the case faster than the police.
I thought somewhere the title of the book The Englishman’s Cameo betrayed the book. As it gives away the fact that there is an Englishman involved somewhere and for more than half the book no Englishman is ever mentioned, not even while describing Shahjahanabad and its Kahva Khanas, the new age coffee shops. Author has kept the sex off the novel, though there are courtesans and the Omrahs in the story. This is something that I appreciate as most authors add this element just to increase the selling quotient of the book. Language though English, still conveys the nuances of Persian or Hindustani spoken at that point in time with references to poets and their poetry here and there.
As a first novel, The Englishman’s Cameo is a very good beginning, look forward to more in the series and the genre. A quick and interesting read as it takes you to a different world which exists more in your imagination.
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