Engraved in Stone is Madhulika Liddle’s third book, set in the 17th Century, which features the suave Delhi nobleman Muzaffar Jang, who is an ace at solving crimes. I was reminded of Laura Joh Rowland’s historical mystery novels, which have Sano Ichiro, a Samurai, as the main protagonist.
Madhulika transports the reader to a bygone era, merely two years after the Taj Mahal was built. In fact there’s a section where Muzaffar talks about seeing the Taj being constructed and it’s fascinating. “ I saw the Taj Mahal rise, but in occasional glimpses……………… What I liked best was when Khan Sahib took me to see the stone cutters at work. I’d seen tulips and daffodils in Kashmir, but never in Agra – and these men were creating them, slicing the gemstones and carving the marble, inlaying flowers.” I had goosebumps while reading this, thinking of that grand edifice gradually taking shape, a testament to the exquisite talent of hundreds of workmen. The writing is descriptive yet crisp and within the first few pages we are firmly entrenched in Muzaffar’s world, where languid, pleasure-seeking noblemen exist along with wily courtiers plotting wars, where women in zenanas remain away from the eyes of men yet do not hesitate to state their opinions, and the gulf between the rich and the poor is vast.
Muzaffar Jang is in Agra as a favour to his sister Zeenat who is more a mother than a sister to him. In fact Muzaffar’s parents had died while he was still a child and his sister and husband had brought him up. While in Agra, he meets his friend Akram whose uncle Mumtaz Hassan is a very rich and important nobleman. The major players are introduced to us at the dinner hosted by Mumtaz Hassan in honour of Muzaffar. When Mumtaz is murdered in his bed the same night, the Diwan-i-Kul, who is the advisor to the emperor commands Muzaffar to solve the crime.
With the help of his friend Akram, Muzaffar then has to use all his skill and ingenuity to find the culprit. In the process of investigating this crime, Muzaffar stumbles upon another mystery that has remained unsolved for years. These two tracks move forward in tandem taking Muzaffar into the bylanes and gullies of Agra and even to the site of the Taj Mahal. The young nobleman also gets to know his sister’s young friend Shireen, who impresses him with her tact and intelligence. So Muzaffar has a lot happening, both on the personal and professional front.
Engraved in Stone is a good read, not only as crime fiction but also because it throws more light on life in those times and the social and religious influences on the daily life of people. The author has very skillfully incorporated elements of crime fiction as well as lessons in history in the narrative.
In fact I found the historical aspects more fascinating than the murder investigation. Since I haven’t read much fiction set in the times of the construction of the Taj Mahal, this was an engrossing aspect of the novel. The author has written with remarkable clarity on the people associated with the actual construction of that beautiful mausoleum. Even though, I haven’t read the earlier two books in the Muzaffar Jang series, I didn’t have any trouble in comprehending the back-stories of the main characters. This can easily be read as a stand-alone book. But this book has whetted my appetite for more from this author and now I aim to catch hold of The Englishman’s Cameo, the first Muzaffar Jang novel.