Prime Edition

Engraved in Stone

Madhulika Liddle

Hachette India

Pages: 320 Rs. 395

Liddle’s Mughal intrigues are an addictive pleasure

Madhulika Liddle’s Muzaffar Jang stories suffer when put to the plausibility test, but they remain an example of first-rate mystery and adventure writing, writes Aadisht Khanna.

Aadisht Khanna  4th May 2013

Madhulika Liddle

alking about Madhulika Liddle's Engraved in Stone in greater detail and depth than a simple "I liked it" or "I disliked it" (just to make it clear, I liked it a lot) requires first dismantling the book into its component stories and talking about how they work or don't work.

Engraved in Stone is Liddle's third book (and second novel) in which the chief character is Muzaffar Jang, a Mughal aristocrat whose family reputation far outweighs his riches, and who ends up finding himself embroiled in murders and appointed as an external detective outside of the police force. The book has been set in a time slightly after the construction of the Taj Mahal was completed, and when Aurangzeb was trying to establish his claim to the succession.

This means that the book is a cable braided out of several strands: a murder mystery, a police procedural, a palace intrigue novel, and a historical novel. Doing all this together is extremely ambitious, but Liddle makes all these strands pull their weight, and almost all of them perfectly. The historical colour is detailed and (as far as I can tell with my amateur knowledge) accurate, the murder mystery is appropriately sinister, and the romance is quietly touching. The things that don't work quite as well are the palace intrigue, and Muzaffar Jang himself.

The ideal detective in a murder mystery is supposed to be untarnished by the meanness around him (or her, but when Raymond Chandler wrote his definitive essay on the subject, he failed to consider female detectives), but Liddle goes slightly overboard with how untarnished and out of place Jang is. The descriptions of clothing, jewellery, and palace intrigue may be accurate for the time period, but Jang's conscience and love story are anachronisms. Jang is an aristocrat who is acutely aware and angry about all the poverty around him, and his fellow aristocrats' refusal to acknowledge it. He also enters into a relationship with a similarly out-of-her-times woman – clever, willing to challenge purdah, and willing to think of herself as equal to a man and to defy existing conventions of courtesy.

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It’s the whodunit and adventure sequences that make up for the niggling irritations of the unlikelihood of someone like Muzaffar Jang actually existing, and that make Engraved in Stone such a pleasurable read.

This constant hammering in of Muzaffar Jang's social awareness and the exceptional nature of his love story with Shireen meant that I as a reader never quite managed to completely suspend my disbelief. So much so, that in passages where Liddle explicitly spells out how unique and special [Naazneen] is, and how she and Jang are the only ones who can understand each other's way of thinking in a cruel and feudal world, I found myself rolling my eyes and remembering another over the top against-all-odds love story from another genre: Wyclef Jean's song Perfect Gentleman, where the singer describes his love for a stripper with a heart of gold.

The other thing that left me a little disappointed was the palace intrigue. It forms the motive for the murder that Jang is commanded to investigate, and so you'd expect it to be elaborated upon in more detail, but the book doesn't quite put across the political desperation that would inspire somebody to commit murder. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice, meant to highlight the banality of political evil, or to acknowledge the inevitability of historical forces. But as someone who has been reading a lot of Victorian adventure novels recently, I can't help but unfavourably compare Liddle's descriptions of palace intrigue to the Victorians'.

he Victorians lived in a time of several gigantic empires that were all trying to get their hands on even more tiny principalities, which made palace intrigue a running preoccupation of the times. An adventure novel about two different factions at court, backed by different empires, was practically the Victorian equivalent of the exploitation movie: fairly awful technically, even worse in terms of motivation, and yet an invaluable chronicle of the insecurities of the time. Possibly the only genre that the Victorians did even better was the ancient-civilization horror novel, exemplified by Rider Haggard's She, but I digress. Engraved in Stone misses an opportunity to discuss the palace intrigue that motivated the murder in far greater detail, while still maintaining a moral position on its pettiness. After all, it's not as though the Victorians had a monopoly on palace intrigue: Agatha Christie too dipped into that genre with The Secret of Chimneys, which had a delightful love story accompanying it.

Where Engraved in Stone works best is the interplay of the two mysteries in the book. The first one is a murder where the obvious suspect is identified almost as soon as it happens, and which sets Jang and his flamboyant sidekick Akramon a manhunt that starts as a plodding police procedural and ends with adventurous disguises and chases. And the adventure is fantastic, all the more so for its Mughal-era setting and the possibilities that provides. Jang goes through elaborate preparation to disguise himself as an unemployed gardener, and then dives into fistfights and horseback chases.

In the course of this manhunt, Jang also stumbles upon a second mystery – the long ago disappearance of a woman, and the changes it caused in her family. The second, subsidiary mystery is where Jang actually deduces the nature of the crime and the identity of the perpetrators from the clues he has, instead of merely waiting out a manhunt, and is far more interesting than the high profile murder that kicks the book off.It occupies far less page space, but this crime sticks closer to the classical whodunit.

And it's the whodunit and adventure sequences that make up for the niggling irritations of the unlikelihood of someone like Muzaffar Jang actually existing, and that make Engraved in Stone such a pleasurable read.

 
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