Title: Death at the Durbar
Author: Arjun Raj Gaind
Publisher: Harper Black (An imprint of HarperCollins)
Pages: 352; Price: Rs 399
It begins promisingly enough, as author Arjun Raj Gaind introduces us to Death at the Durbar’s chief protagonist, the Maharaja-detective, Sikander Singh, in this second book in the Maharaja Murder Mystery series.
“On most days, Maharaja Sikander Singh held a lacklustre opinion of the English,” the book asserts.
“Shakespeare bored him, Dickens was too depressing and Jane Austen always managed to give him a resounding migraine…..”
In a similar vein, the author goes on to dismiss Sikander’s other bugbears of British origin: Elgar’s music, tea, cricket and what have you.
Refreshing, one thinks. Here is a character who has definite opinions and a well-defined worldview – and is not afraid to flaunt them. Moreover, the one abiding passion of the ruler of the minor kingdom of Rajpore, Sikander, is the detection of crime. Definitely a good fellow, one feels.
The story opens in a hotel in Delhi, where Sikander has come – or has been summoned by the British — to attend the Durbar of 1911 in celebration of King George V’s ascension of the throne.
One evening, a few days prior to the Great Day, two Englishmen barge in forcefully. One of them is Captain Arthur Campbell, a member of one of the oldest regiments of the British Army – the elite Coldstream Guards.
The Englishmen hustle him to the King’s encampment at the Durbar settlement. There, in the royal public reception room, he is confronted by five top-ranking men of the British Empire in India, including the Viceroy, Lord Charles Hardinge himself.
To Sikander, it is clear that something is dreadfully amiss: for him to be summoned in this manner; to be confronted by these particular men. His misgivings are confirmed when it turns out that a young nautch girl in her late-teens/early-twenties has been found dead, hanging in the adjoining, more private, reception room prepared for the King’s use.
It is imperative to prevent a scandal from breaking out, which might mar the Durbar celebrations. And Sikander is tasked by the Viceroy with finding the murderer in the next 48 hours or so.
Preliminary investigations throw up a long list of high flying suspects who are known to have had contact with the girl, Zahra, just prior to her death.
These include the potentates of most important princely states; the Spanish wife of the Maharaja of Kapurthala; an Indian princess; and the Guppies, a band of unruly young scions of some important British families. Also included are a nationalist leader and an unknown paramour.
Arjun Raj Gaind has chosen the little explored (by Indian writers) genre of the historical detective novel. The flair for writing is evident – sometimes positively delightful. The author shows great prowess in depicting the people and their time, minutely filling in details on subjects as varied as wines, music, cars, décor, fashion, and a myriad other subjects.
However, for much of the novel, Sikander moves from interviewing one suspect to the next, in linear fashion. While each encounter facilitates a lead-in to the historical stories; together, they contribute little to unravelling the mystery. And, the final solution surfaces as a result of Sikander almost accidentally stumbling upon a clue.
The characters of the book too, have not been sketched in a consistent manner. Any signs of sang froid, of great deductive abilities that we are set up to expect of Sikander initially, quickly dissipate. Captain Campbell, too, lacks a well-etched characterisation. Despite being an experienced officer of a crack regiment, he is portrayed in a manner, which sometimes makes him seem clownish, sometimes like a callow youth.
The interplay between the two also oscillates – not as a result of a plotted graph of the story; but rather, due to the lack of definition in both characters.
Yet, Death at the Durbar inspires you to take several side journeys as you read it – to learn more about the personalities and events portrayed. And it makes you want to delve further into the pages of history. No mean achievement that, in itself.