The best detective stories are those that also detail lifestyles. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories are interesting not only because of the mysteries themselves but because of Feluda himself, his nephew Tapash and friend Jatayu, their travels together through India and the people they meet, the details of life in Kolkata and also in the country they wander, games of chess, Feluda’s interest in science, Jatayu’s flight of imaginations and the success of the cheap detective thrillers that he writes.
The same goes for Agatha Christie’s stories, they take you through a time in Britain’s history, through the life in its cities and countryside, and echoing her own interests, Christie also takes you sometimes to Egypt and other archaeological sites, the world of shipping liners and luxury cruises, and holiday towns.
After all, human emotions remain the same, and murders or thefts are committed for the same reasons – love, betrayal, jealousy, envy, anger, resentment, revenge. It is only the quirks of individual characters and their backgrounds that make the mysteries come alive.
Madhulika Liddle brings her penchant for old films, old monuments, birds and travels into her Muzaffar Jang stories.
When I first met Muzaffar Jang in ‘The Englishman’s Cameo’, I thought he was definitely a brainwave of the best kind. A young, handsome nobleman, an amateur detective, a murder mystery and the flavor of the Mughal era, what more could one want?
The pleasure of reading ‘The Englishman’s Cameo’ is multiplied in Madhulika Liddle’s latest collection of Muzaffar Jang stories, ‘The Eighth Guest and other Muzaffar Jang mysteries’. The format of the short story allows Madhulika to explore many more facets of Mughal life through Muzaffar Jang’s adventures with criminals. We see mad elephants, water baoris, dhobhis and dancing girls, wandering royal camps, rare manuscripts and wild parties, the life of the zenana and the court, itinerant merchants and sarais, elaborate gardens and the dust of Dilli.
There are other characters who people Muzaffar’s life, his older sister Zeenat Begum, her husband Kotwal Sahib, his dandy friend Akram, and his boatman friend Salim.
Muzaffar himself is not like most noblemen, because he has friends from all walks of life. He is clever and friendly, but not too sociable in the acceptable way. His special friend is the old boatman Salim, with whom he shares an easy, bantering rapport.
By creating this persona of Muzaffar, Madhulika also lends her own voice to the iniquities of the Mughal feudal life. For instance she tells us of the ranis complaining about traveling in camps, oblivious to the hardships of the people who carry them, their vast tents and their belongings. In so many subtle ways, Madhulika brings out the class system, the value of life when it belongs to a noble person and when the life is that of a person serving the nobility in one way or the other.
She also takes certain historical figures like the court painter Bichitr, and creates stories around them.
For anyone who is fascinated by Mughal monuments, clothes, way of life, these detective stories are a pleasure to read. They take the slightly familiar, what we have known through history books, old ruins and old films (not always accurate) and makes it a little more familiar. Yet the details are not overwhelming or romanticized. They remain part of the stories, and this is where Madhulika’s success most lies. She lends a contemporary voice to an old world. You forget the 2000’s for a while and are back in 1656, the time of Shahjahan’s reign with Muzaffar Jang.
Madhulika’s blog has for a while been one of my favorites. I can only wish that she is as prolific with her Muzaffar Jang stories, because they are books which one will pick up again and again, simply, yet competently written and delightful.