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A murder in Dilli

“That is where the murder would have occurred.” We are at the Hayat Baksh Bagh inside the Red Fort,now a shrunken memory of the beautiful imperial garden it once was.

Written by Amrita Dutta |
November 1, 2009 4:11:07 am

In her whodunnit The Englishman’s Cameo,Madhulika Liddle summons the past with ease.
* Amrita Dutta accompanies her as she goes about recreating 17th-century Shahjahanabad

“That is where the murder would have occurred.” We are at the Hayat Baksh Bagh inside the Red Fort,now a shrunken memory of the beautiful imperial garden it once was. Eyes follow author Madhulika Liddle’s finger beyond the fringe of the garden to a spot about a hundred metres away. We hungrily imagined the thrust of the dagger,the muffled cry,the body soaked in blood. We are near the scene of the first murder in the 37-year-old author’s debut novel,The Englishman’s Cameo,a whodunnit set in 17th-century Shahjahanabad.

The delicious chill of a murder mystery settles on this October morning as she shows us around her novel’s landscape of intrigue. It’s a leap of imagination across centuries. The Red Fort is no longer the seat of power,its gardens are dry and hammams locked up,the Bazaar-e-Musaqqaf is quiet,lined with shops selling tawdry bric-a-brac. Not much of 17th century Dilli has survived. But Liddle summons the past with ease,gasping at the beauty of the Sawan-Bhadon pavilions as she imagines their niches aglow with golden flowers by the day and candles by the night. Or chuckles at the ribald parties thrown by noblemen at havelis in the city.

“The Lal Qila was a populous settlement in itself. Inside it were palaces,gardens,busy markets and the homes of the salatein,the many members of the royal family. And the noblemen were quite a promiscuous lot,” she says.

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At Chandni Chowk,she points to the shabby shops selling electrical goods and clothes and tell us: “These were the qahwa khanas.” The coffee houses that served the bitter,new-fangled brew her hero,Muzaffar Jang,sips to clear his mind.

Liddle’s Shahjahanabad is not the exotic city of courtly rituals and etiquette. She writes about the city with an insider’s knowledge-the life around the Yamuna,the mohallas of Chandni Chowk,the routine violence of a kotwali. “The court has been done to death in popular culture. I was more interested in the life of ordinary people of the time.”

Jang is a hero after her heart. “He loves birds,like I do,and is a modern man in a medieval setting,” she says. He is a non-conformist among omrahs,uninterested in clothes,jewels or “slim,beautiful boys” and scandalously wont to befriend people outside his class-sharp-tongued boatmen and gentle hakeems. When his friend is falsely accused of murder,Jang’s steps in to clear the mystery. His investigation takes him on a trail of the city’s havelis and ghats and on a trip halfway across the kingdom.

Liddle finished writing The Englisman’s Cameo two years ago but had to wait to find a publisher. In some ways,she has been researching her novel for a long while. “In the mid-1990s,I was working for the India Habitat Centre and was asked to do some research on heritage walks,” she says. With a friend in tow,she started ambling in the Walled City,discovering many stories in its maze of galis and kuchas. She hasn’t stopped walking since.

How would have a murder investigation proceeded in Shah Jahan’s Dilli? “There would have been none,” she says with a laugh. “If ten witnesses vouched they saw a man commit a murder,it would be enough to sentence him to death. An amateur detective in 17th century Delhi is quite an anachronism.” Liddle had read enough of historical detective fiction to transpose this genre to the unlikely setting of medieval India. Her favourite detectives from the long,gone past being Marcus Dideus Falco,a sleuth in ancient Rome,Judge Dee from medieval China and Sister Fidelma,a medieval Irish nun.

Liddle’s next is going to be a collection of short stories which test Jang’s detective skills. “Most of the stories will involve murders. I think he’s growing as a detective. He was quite naïve about people to start with,” she says. “And yes,I’m going to clear up the mystery about his love life too.”

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