The only final sin is stupidity
Review of ‘Crimson City’ by Madhulika Liddle
Where there is crime there is bound to be stupidity. One slip. One error. One blunder to make a detective work on until he finds or stumbles upon the next. For the writer of crime fiction, the passage from one stumble to another is where characters and periods come in. Madhulika Liddle goes back in time almost three hundred and fifty years back to reconstruct fascinating tales of crime and how Muzaffar Jang, the period detective she has created, solves them.
No, there were no complex cyber codes to decipher then, no emails to interpret or misinterpret, no state-of-the-art forensic labs to delve into micro details, no DNA analysis to lean on, and not even smartphones to record video and audio. The only thing common between then and now is crime. And people who excel in finding motives for these crimes. Even in the past ‘an answer often led to a question that had not even been envisaged till that very moment.’ Even then, motives had to be established before a criminal was indicted.
Crimson City is a historical crime fiction written by Madhulika Liddle and takes us back to the spring of 1657. Delhi was Dilli and the city with its ‘many tiny lanes and alleys that criss-crossed’ was as treacherous as it is now, if I am permitted to say… and was even then ‘a maze into which a man on foot – or a woman, if she were resourceful and unafraid – could easily vanish’. The blurb of the book says that we will go back in time when ‘the Mughal armies under Aurangzeb and Mir Jumla are besieging the Fort of Bidar, and Dilli is full of rumours of what’s happening down in the Deccan.’ And I must admit that as I read the pages I was literally transported into Dilli of the Mughals so effectively that I began to have visions of goblets made of ‘rock crystal, enamelled in red, green, and gold’, Persian carpets, and pearl necklaces around me and almost wished I were Muzaffar Jang who was once gifted ‘a finely painted copy of Razmnama, a Persian translation of the epic Mahabharat, originally commissioned by the Emperor Akbar’ by a wealthy nobleman whom he had helped in finding the killer of his father.
It is terribly difficult not to admire the calm deductive powers of Muzaffar despite his reluctance to cross the line and interfere with the official duties of Khan Sahib, his brother-in-law and the only real father he had ever known but also the Kotwal of Dilli and though he fears being declared a vigilante or clapped into prison or fined, he cannot stay away from following the trails that killing and kidnappings leave behind. The book dives straight into a killing that doesn’t seem to be tagged with a plausible motive… and then come the kidnapping and the murder that is made to look like it is a suicide.
The thing that I like best about crime fiction is that it allows the reader to flow with what is happening and nod his or her head in agreement or disagreement when the protagonist on the pages seems to be deducting or debating. If this happens, the book has charmed its way into a reader’s heart… and I must admit that I was a bit like Shireen, Muzaffar’s wife, making my own conclusions and waiting for the right clues to be revealed by the author. And the author does that without unnecessarily camouflaging or delaying their appearance which gives acceleration to the already fluently flowing narrative.
The book, I have already mentioned, effectively creates the correct period ambience. Even Madhulika has said in an interview given to Fehmida Zakeer in The Hindu, ‘I look through accounts dating back to the period I’m writing about — for instance, Shah Jahan’s time — and keep an eye out for names; those, often, become the names I give to characters in the stories. So, characters are often named after some obscure courtier, soldier, one of the salatin (the Emperor’s relatives), etc., mentioned somewhere in some historical account.’ It is meticulous research that does need to be mentioned… and more because it isn’t limited to clothes, architecture and the description of lifestyle but delves confidently into the social matrix as well. Even more than three hundred years back, the Kotwal then remarked: ‘When two different streams of thought – two different beliefs, and that too so diametrically different – are forced to live in close contact, their differences are bound to be accentuated.’ Now overlay the social commentary made by the Kolwal with his notion of Dilli: ‘She is like a child, this city. A spoilt child, unruly and obstreperous. So terribly difficult to control.’ There is no reason why a reader who has known the modern-day Delhi will not bond with the Dilli of Mazaffar’s times.
It was fun walking down the streets of Dilli with an investigator of crimes as he did it all three hundred and fifty years ago, almost akin to sitting ‘under the banyan tree, watching the colours of the sky fade and darken into a uniform blue-black.’ One feels quite comfortable to be in an imagined world where ‘lamps and torches come alight, twinkling in the shops and houses around’ and doesn’t really feel alienated or detached to ‘the smells of the bazaar: of kababs cooking at a little eatery; of cheap perfume wafting from a palanquin headed towards Chawri Bazaar, where all the brothels were; of horse manure, from the nearby stables.’ Frankly I wouldn’t want to be transported back into times where the pollution indices are creating headlines, doctors are issuing warnings, and the world is embroiled in a rage that is all about virtual space.
To tell you the truth I felt sad that a set of crimes were finally solved and that Muzaffar Jang was asking me to forget him and read the other books piled high on my desk. I did want this visit to Aurangzeb’s Dilli to go on and on… but my rough guess is that the books to follow might just have Shireen evolving into a sleuth with perceptive and deductive skills as charmingly correct as those seen in her husband.
The book and the historical crime adventure is over for now… but I know that I’ll be dipping into this off and on whenever I wish to step out of Delhi and walk into Dilli.
Title: Crimson City
Author: Madhulika Liddle
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 395/- (in 2015)
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12 October 2015