Human life was likely to be “nasty, brutish, and short”, said 17th century
English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in the absence of a political community, but his words might have well described conditions for the less fortunate in the contemporary Mughal world. There, rank conferred privilege, and power, even of life and death, over lesser men and there was no definite system of redress, let alone investigation, until any crime became serious enough to excite discontent and strife.
It is this colourful but chaotically unpredictable world that a young aristocrat forsakes the life of relaxed indolence he may be expected to lead and nor evinces any interest in a career of a glory in the imperial army but charts out his own new course – trying to solve crimes he encounters, draw in someone he knows or is ordered to probe. But then Muzaffar Jung with his sense of justice and obligation towards his fellow men and a yen for perseverance is scarcely the average Mughal noble. It is Shahjahanabad of 1657. Mughal armies are fighting in the Deccan but under the ostensible calm, there is a certain restiveness. Our newly-married hero, trying to adjust to his new life and finding presence in the imperial court not to his liking, gets drawn into investigating the inexplicable murder of an ordinary merchant, when he accompanies his brother-in-law, Farid Khan, the city Kotwal, to the scene.
Soon, Muzaffar has another case on his hands: a local moneylender is threatened that his infant son will be kidnapped unless a ransom is paid – and the child is soon spirited away. It doesn’t take much time for our detective to understand what had happened and rescue the child. But his success has an unexpected outcome – his brother-in-law’s angry admonition to stay out of the way of the official machinery.
But crime seems to have an affinity for Muzaffar – he is at a hamam with his friend Akram when the owner, a rich, influential nobleman, is found dead in his private bath, purportedly having committed suicide.
But it doesn’t take much to discover it is murder. Then, a merchant living next door to the earlier victim is found murdered in yet another senseless crime, and his brother beseeches Muzaffar's help – before he himself becomes a victim.
And Muzaffar, despite all the warnings by his brother-in-law, cannot refrain from investigating – in any case, his help is sought by the local thanedars – while he finds out an unexpected ally to help him in his endeavours – his wife Shireen, who can help approach and question women in purdah.
But can he overcome the official opposition to his intervention, are the murders connected and will he be able to identify and apprehend the perpetrator causing panic in the neighbourhood? The author keeps you guessing till quite the very last.
Historical crime fiction has not managed to entrench itself among Indian literary landscape despite its rich potential, but Madhulika Liddle has been among the few who have taken to it with elan and success. This is her fourth Muzaffar Jang’s book – after The Englishman's Cameo (2009), The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries (2011) and Engraved in Stone (2012) – and the series have well got into their stride.
All books bear hallmarks of detailed research – not only the apparel, living conditions and food, but also the city’s layout and its problems – readers will be interested to know traffic jams were common then too! – and other nuances such as communal relations and the ticklish issue of inter-community meals.
So far, the series has stayed conventional whodunnits but given the timeframe and the appearance of a controversial mystic of the day at the end, it seems certain that things are going to heat up subsequently. Hope we don't have to wait long to find out.