Books

Review: For All Its Flaws, Arjun Raj Gaind’s Latest Whodunit Is a Surprising Riot

Death at the Durbar is the second book in a crime series set during the British Raj starring wannabe Holmesian maharaja-turned-detective Sikander Singh.

The Delhi Durbar of 1911, with King George V and Queen Mary seated upon the dais. Credit: Wikipedia

As far as I am concerned, there are two mysteries involved in Arjun Raj Gaind’s Death at the Durbar, the second book in the crime series set during the British Raj starring Sikander Singh, the Maharaja of Rajpore and amateur detective.

The first mystery is, of course, Sikander’s to solve. Who killed Zahra, a Kashmiri nautch girl, who was deposited in the King’s Camp at the 1911 durbar in Delhi as a present to his majesty, George V, from the Maharaja of Kapurthala? And why was the 19-year-old killed at all? Was it part of a Russian plot to derail the durbar? After all, the Great Game was still being played. Or was it another kind of plot, one intended to dethrone a member of the Indian royalty?

On the other hand, it could have been the first salvo in the rising Indian nationalism movement. After all, Mr Gandhi, a lawyer from South Africa, had been making a lot of noise about the rights of the native people of India, fuelling the impassioned speeches of Bahadur Rao, a nationalist connected with Zahra.

Death at the Durbar
Arjun Raj Gaind
Harper Black, an imprint of HarperCollins India (2017)

Perhaps it was simply a crime of passion. Zahra was a beautiful girl, and she’d had several maharajas attempting to outbid each other for her contract, each one with an inherent sense of entitlement expressing itself in petty pride, but some of whom, such as Jey Singh of Alwar, with a history of very disturbing reactions to the word ‘no’.

Maybe it wasn’t an Indian who killed Zahra. The group of British men known as the Guppies because they were the dissolute sons of the British Empire’s big fish, certainly had as strong a sense of entitlement as the maharajas, and an even greater belief in their ability to get away with murder. They’d paid Zahra a visit at the King’s Camp, expecting the nautch girl to also be a prostitute. Could one of them have done it?

Sikander’s field of suspects is wide, and of the lot of them, only one – Bahadur Rao – can be bullied into an interrogation. The others are way above Sikander in the hierarchy of gun salutes and/or colour of complexion. It doesn’t help that Viceroy Lord Hardinge, with the usual British doubt in the competence of natives, has supplied Sikander with a sidekick, Captain Campbell of the Coldstream Guards. Campbell may or may not be a royal bastard, but he is definitely a thorn in Sikander’s side in more ways than the obvious.

As Sikander worked out the mystery of Zahra’s murder, I pondered a different enigma: why did I like this book? Why did I enjoy reading it even though the inconsistencies in Sikander’s and Campbell’s characters irritated me beyond measure? Why was I always happy to pick it up where I’d left off when the holes in the plot, the way the suspects were cleared, and the way the mystery was finally solved made me want to hurl the book against a wall? Why was I delighted to read about the stock characters of every novel set in the British Raj when I wanted to fact-check every page of the book?

Arjun Raj Gaind. Credit: Twitter

More important, how could my inner sub-editor cope with the outrage of public school educated characters from 1911 using American phrases like ‘suss out’ and ‘snuck out’ that I’m not sure were used even by Americans in 1911?

The answer is simpler than the one Sikander had to seek: for all its flaws, the book is surprisingly engaging. For one thing, unlike most murder stories by Indian authors, Death at the Durbar begins with the murder, so the whole novel is about solving the mystery. That meant my need to know whodunit was real. It helped that the writing is more than decent (though I can’t forgive ‘suss out’ and ‘snuck out’), and that the history is fascinating (the characters, with the exceptions of Sikander, Campbell, and Zahra, sound reasonably authentic, as does the set up of the Durbar).

Or at least you assume the description is genuine, since Sikander’s first glimpse of the camp is replete with statistics:

“A grand total of 50 square miles had been earmarked for the celebrations. As a result, almost 40 villages had been leveled, and their inhabitants resettled. Vast expanses of swampy marshland had been drained, and the River Jumna embanked to create an artificial plain just north of the ancient walls of Shahjahanabad. A hundred miles of metaled roadway had been excavated, and forty-four miles of railway track laid, including ten miles of narrow-gauge. Twenty-nine new stations had been built, including the complete renovation of the Selimgarh Station, where the King was due to make his arrival.”

This paragraph alone makes me want to visit Delhi just to see what, if anything, remains of this artificial plain.

I would definitely read another book in this series. I just hope it will be more tightly plotted, that Sikander’s character will be less wannabe Holmesian, and that nobody ‘susses out’ anything at all in the solving of the mystery.

Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea. She tweets @HappyQueenRose.

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