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Clues to a qila

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

Madhulika Liddle liked historical detective fiction so much that she created an amateur sleuth for Mughal Delhi. She tells Rrishi Raote how she did it.

In Muzaffar Jang, first-time novelist (but award-winning short-story writer) Madhulika Liddle has invented a new kind of character for Indian historical fiction — the amateur detective. Muzaffar follows in an old tradition, as Liddle reveals when she describes her reading tastes. He is a maverick in Shahjahan’s capital: an aristocrat with friends in low places. When one lowly friend is wrongly accused of the murder of a wealthy tax inspector in the Lal Qila, Muzaffar swings into action and puts himself in harm’s way.

What did you have to read in order to write this story?
Lots and lots of historical detective fiction. There’s this series on a [medieval] Irish nun called Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne. She’s a princess, a lawyer and a nun — it’s quite interesting. Then there is Judge Dee, set in medieval China [by Robert van Gulik]. Brother Cadfael of course [by Ellis Peters], who’s the historical detective. Another nun is a Russian called Sister Pelagia, by Boris Akunin. He had another detective [set in late Tsarist Russia] who’s a statesman and official called Erast Fandorin. There’s Falco in ancient Rome [by Lindsey Davis]. Quite a lot of — in fact, that was one of the reasons why I wanted to create a Mughal detective. There are detectives from all over the world but no Mughal detectives.

Why, in an imperial city, does your story stay away from the court?
I chose somebody outside of that because I think the court has been a little done to death in popular culture at least — Mughal-e-Azam! Everybody is clued in to the emperor and the wives and so on. I wanted to explore for myself what lay outside the court. I wanted to go into what the city was like.

How well is the 17th-century city known to us?

You can’t really see very much of it now. What remains are the major monuments, the Jama Masjid, Fatehpuri Masjid. The houses where lived, the katras and kuchas and galis, that has changed a lot. In Shahjahan’s time the material used to construct houses was actually very fragile — they used bricks and mud. It doesn’t last. So what we see today is more 18th-century and 19th-century. A lot of the buildings are post-1857. It’s interesting to try and find out how it was.

There are some accounts of European travellers who came to Delhi at that time... Even though they concentrate mainly on the court, describing and sometimes inventing what was happening, they did go into the city and talk a little bit about that, so you do get an idea.

What was your process in writing this mystery novel?
I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, so I just went on writing and the plot developed along the way — which meant that I had to keep going back and saying “This doesn’t fit,” or that I needed to insert a clue over here. Now I’m writing a series of Muzaffar Jang short stories. For those I first create an outline of what was the crime, who are the characters involved, what are the clues, so I have that sorted out in my mind. I use this software called Free Mind — you can create your bubbles of characters and who’s connected to whom and stuff like that.

What was the first plot element?
The fact that all these [provincial] princelings were part of this empire, yet not. They were sending monies to the Treasury and also trying to emulate what they saw in Delhi. But they didn’t have the money to do that, so they basically bled their tenants dry. All the money from the tenants was not sent on to the Treasury. So they were having to bribe officials at the centre to keep that hidden. That struck me as an idea, why can’t we use this as a pivot for a story?

We don’t learn much about Muzaffar himself. Tell us something about him known only to you.
He has this thing for independent women, for women who use their heads. It’s going to be there in the next novel. And he’s very fond of birds, because I am. There’s one story in which one of the important clues is related to birds.

What else do you do?
I write travel stuff, I blog about old cinema, and I do my research because there’s lots out there about Mughal India. I keep sifting through stuff in the hope that something might spark off an idea.

Madhulika Liddle
Publisher: Hachette India
Pages: 300
Price: Rs 295

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First Published: Sat, October 24 2009. 00:44 IST