Murder most Mughal and an unlikely investigator (Book Review)

Title: The Crows of Agra – A Birbal Mystery; Author: Sharath Komarraju; Publisher: Amazing Reads; Pages: 282; Price: Rs.325

He was one of the cleverest and observant Indians ever, and tales of his ready wit and repartee are well-known. But unfortunately, he has been trapped in this role for four centuries, and though part of Akbar’s glittering band of talents unsurpassed since the reign of Vikramaditya, he only served as an amusing diversion for his monarch. But supposing Birbal’s acumen was more prized by his employer, who also used him to solve a baffling crime or two?

It is a tantalising and very plausible idea but what is baffling is why it didn’t occur to anyone to utlise this matchless Indian till this author, known for his matchless ability to write across genres, took the plunge.

Sharath Komarraju, a software engineer-turned-author, debuted with classic whodunnit with a supernatural tinge “Murder in Amravati” (2012), followed it with “Banquet on the Dead” (2012), where a policeman joins up with an unlikely ally – an elderly, refined ex-thief – to solve a murder in a near-dysfunctional family, started to retell the ‘Mahabharata’ from the viewpoint of the Kuru clan’s prominent women – starting with Ganga herself and Satyavati – in “The Winds of Hastinapur” (2013) and “Nari: A Novel”, which came out earlier this year, presented the first “rape whodunnit”.

In this, Komarraju turns his gaze to the turbulent 16th century, when one of India’s longest-reigning and grandest dynasty came to power but this not at all apparent then, for after a decade and a half in power, they were supplanted for a similar period. It is in 1556, soon after the Second Battle of Panipat, when the half-dead, defeated commander is brought to the teenaged victor’s camp for disposal, that our story starts.

It begins formally in Agra in 1562, when that victorious king, Akbar, who has yet to live up to his name (which means “the Great”, therefore his making the sobriquet of the Great a redundancy!), and is far from the “Mughal-e-Azaam” he would be known later.

The 20-year-old, who has just been on the throne for six years, is beset by various factions – his mainstay, the old faithful but overbearing Bairam Khan, his foster mother Maham Anga and her son Adham Khan, his wife Ruqaiya, his wraith-like aunt Gulbadan Begum and others.

Maham Anga’s plan for Akbar to surreptitiously join loyal nobles camped outside the city, goes a little awry as the disguised emperor and his sole associate are captured by dacoits in a dense forest they have to cross. But then appears an unlikely saviour – a Brahmin by the name of Mahesh Das – who overawes their captors and helps them get away. Akbar befriends him and convinces him to accompany him.

Bairam Khan is soon defeated in battle and reconciled with the emperor, who however orders his “Khan Baba” to proceed on the Haj. A sumptuous banquet on the eve of his departure ends on a gory note with the elderly nobleman soon found stabbed to death in his room.

Mahesh Das is tasked with investigating the crime but the line up of suspects is daunting – the emperor’s foster-mother and brother, wife, aunt, the murdered man’s widow, and a trusted nobleman – and while most of them express their resentment being questioned by an upstart despite the emperor’s authority and some express their opposition in more direct ways.

But he perseveres with clinical precision that would be the envy of Sherlock Holmes and Poirot until he comes to an unpalatable solution. The question now if he will have the courage or permission to go further? And more important, is Mahesh Das really what he claims to be?

Murder mysteries in the Mughal era are not a new innovation – Madhulika Liddle’s Muzaffar Jung has been around for years – but this breaks new ground by taking the plot to up to the highest level while keeping quite close to history. It is just hoped this will not be a one-off and Birbal, as Mahesh Das becomes, will return for regale both mystery and history aficionados!

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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