A slow beginning, a champagne summation

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 13, 2018
Royal rumble: The bumbling British constables very grudgingly accept Sikander’s assistance when he gets to the crime scene—and only because he is the maharaja.

Royal rumble: The bumbling British constables very grudgingly accept Sikander’s assistance when he gets to the crime scene—and only because he is the maharaja.   -  Shutterstock

A Very Pukka Murder; Arjun Raj Gaind; Harper Black; Fiction; ₹299

A Very Pukka Murder; Arjun Raj Gaind; Harper Black; Fiction; ₹299

Arjun Raj Gaind’s maharaja detective is an interesting protagonist. Far too little action mars the first half of his novel, however, before a satisfyingly grim conclusion pulls things back

The year couldn’t have begun any worse for His Highness Farzand-i-Khas-i-Daulat-i-Inglishia Mansur-i-Zaman maharaja Sikander Singh, the ruler of Rajpore, a tiny princely state somewhere near Jammu. As he wakes up on the first morning of 1909, the maharaja’s hangover is so terrible that he can’t even drink his customary breakfast — a champagne cocktail. But things get better as soon as he is informed that the British resident, Major William Russell, a rigid personality of clockwork habits, “cut from starched Victorian cloth” and “a rigorous pain in Sikander’s regal behind” and, as it turns out, an “immoral degenerate” with a cupboard full of skeletons, has died under mystifying circumstances. In fact, murdered inside his locked bedroom.

While the sudden demise does admittedly improve the quality of life in Rajpore, it is a crime that must be solved. But luckily Sikander is the right man in the right place. His mother, the late maharani, was an avid fan of French pulp and macabre feuilleton authors such as Paul Féval and Émile Gaboriau, who wrote “convoluted adventures of deception and discovery”. That brand of fiction shaped Sikander’s mind to such a degree that he subsequently enrolled for courses in criminology, phrenology and forensic psychology at cutting-edge institutes in France and Italy, even interning with a screwsman in Paris to master the art of lock-picking.

Being from a royal family, he unfortunately had to take over the throne after his father and make do with whatever chances for amateur sleuthing came his way. Over the years he has solved cases involving the maharani of Jodhpur’s stolen jewels and the nawab of Palanpur’s missing racehorse. Quite the Sherlock and yet, despite his logical approach to detection, the bumbling British constables very grudgingly accept his assistance when he gets to the crime scene — and only because he is the maharaja.

Racism is at play in this narrative where even an Indian royal can be the target of slurs and, of course, there’s racism between locals too — the usual stereotypical prejudices about Marwaris or Balochis are mouthed. Social protocol is strictly adhered to and yet there’s much cuckoldry that produces plenty of illegitimate offspring of native bibis and British upper-class gentlemen, unless the latter turn out to be mollies or, in plainspeak, sodomites ‘indulging in the sin of the Greeks’ which, as far as the maharaja has heard, is ‘common amongst the English’.

For a debut novel, A Very Pukka Murder is ambitiously conceived and at times enjoyable. The setting in a vividly depicted princely state under British domination is its strength, providing readers with amusing references to colonial-era habits such as pig-sticking, kedgeree-eating and afternoons in the gymkhana — a nomenclature that combines “the Hindustani word gend or ‘ball’, and khana, Persian for ‘house,’ hence, a ball-house (...), a private sanctuary to which the Sahibs could retreat for a few hours each evening to partake of a burra peg or two while sitting on moldy wicker furniture and reminiscing about all they had left behind in jolly old England.” Meanwhile, for their “memsahibs, there were two halfway decent restaurants, a well-cared for library which stocked the latest periodicals from Calcutta, a theatre where the Rajpore Dramatic Circle regularly mangled Shakespeare’s tragedies (…)” Such hilarious lampoonery appears to be based on credible research, but this alone will not produce thrills or chills.

It is a genuine pity that this detective novel has so little of plot and action. First of all, the murder mystery is not particularly racy or engaging, especially since the victim is loved or missed by nobody. Secondly, the characters come across as generic stereotypes and are not only way too talkative, but go on remonstrating in that peculiarly pompous manner that seems to have been customary in the olden days, at least according to popular cinema, making for a tediously slow-paced book.

There’s no hint of Féval or Gaboriau’s adventure story-telling prowess and even as far as Chapter Eight, the maharaja is still at the crime scene to which we were introduced way back in Chapter One, poking around and nothing much has happened in terms of story development. Each item the maharaja touches is thoroughly described — at times with inadequate similes and pathetic fallacies (‘the flimsy book fell to the floor at his feet, its pages flapping loosely like an angry bird’s wings’) that merely serve to further slow down the novel’s pace.

Yet, despite these shortcomings, I must say that the ending is surprisingly satisfactory — both delightful and grim — or as the maharaja himself puts it, his favourite part of any mystery is “the summation, the denouement, the consummation. Why, in some ways, it was even more satisfying than sex.” But be warned, we readers must suffer through a very long foreplay before we reach that point.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist based in Bengaluru

Published on February 17, 2017

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