Indian crime fiction is not as popular as the American or British counterparts. Take a look around an airport lounge or inside a train or in the innumerable franchisee stores or the roadside bookwallahs, you will easily spot a Jeffery Archer or a Sidney Sheldon or even an Agatha Christie mystery. It will be quite difficult to find a reader clutching a book featuring Satyajit Ray’s Feluda or Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi or Anita Nair’s Inspector Gowda. Although Indian crime fiction books are readily accessible in the regional languages, they are still not popular among the anglophile Indian readers.
Yet, Indian crime fiction has survived and is thriving. From past couple of years, the number of books published in this genre has been steadily growing with new authors venturing out to write innovative whodunits. 2016 saw at least two new series joining the league of Indian detective fiction in the English language: Ambai’s Sudha Gupta Investigates series and Arjun Raj Gaind’s A Very Pukka Murder in The Maharaja Mystery series, both as varied as chalk and cheese with the common denominator being the genre they belong to. While Ambai’s short detective stories are contemporary realistic tales with social issues interwoven in them, Gaind’s book is a historical crime fiction with a macabre murder, a plethora of suspects and an eccentric maharaja with a penchant for sleuthing.
Set in pre-independence India, A Very Pukka Murder is Indian comic writer Arjun Raj Gaind’s debut novel. Published by Poison Pen Press in the United States and Harper Black (an imprint of HarperCollins) in India, the book is the first of a planned trilogy. The story follows Sikander Singh, the maharaja of the fictional princely state of Rajpore in the North West Frontier Province of British-ruled India. Despite many talents, the maharaja suffers from the most common human malady, called boredom. Nothing rouses him from his doldrums of running the state than a mystery that needs to be solved. On New Year’s morning of 1909, he is shaken out of his royal hangover by the news of the cold-blooded murder of a pukka sahib, Major William Russell. Russell was the Resident of Rajpore, the highest-ranking British official of the princely state.
It is rare to come across a detective of royal lineage. Most fictional detectives are inconspicuous as they prowl and sniff around hunting for clues and looking for suspects. Sikander Singh is more than just conspicuous. He is the perfect caricature of a flamboyant maharaja who arrives uninvited to the murder scene in a Rolls Royce with a royal entourage in tow. With his knowledge of criminology and fueled by absinthe and morning pick-me-ups of champagne, the maharaja unravels the mystery of the elusive Resident and his killer. Along the way, he has to deal with racial slurs and utter disdain of the British administration and constant conflicts of intelligence (or lack of it) with the belligerent Superintendent of Police, Inspector Jardine.
The princely state of Rajpore is not without its fair share of class rifts, extreme misogyny and racial chauvinism, as rest of British-ruled India was. Through a veneer of dry humor, the book gives a close-up view of the dubious social and moral proprieties of the Indian society during the heydays of British reign. In a garden party scene, Sikander Singh’s entrance is announced by his manservant with lofty honors, much to the embarrassment of the maharaja :
All Hail His Highness Farzand-i-Khas-i-Daulat-i-Inglishia, Mansur-i-Zaman, Amir ul-Umara, Maharajadhiraja Raj Rajeshwar, Maharaja Sikander Singh Bahadur, Yadu Vansha Vatans Bhatti Kul Bushan, Maharaja of Rajapore.
Later in the party, the situation is comically flipped. The maharaja accosts a memsahib, who is one of the suspects, only to be brought down from his glorious stature by her very drunk husband who calls him a “bloody darkie” and “chuprasi”. Thus, even a ruler of a princely state is not spared the abject humiliation suffered by his subjects from the supposedly superior Englishman.
Gaind has crammed the world of Rajpore with characters each malicious than the other. The number of suspects keeps on piling. The mystery keeps on winding. Each twist reveals a pack of skeletons tumbling out from every character’s cupboard including the victim’s: sexual deviance, hunger for power, brazen manipulation, and greed, all the vices of human nature. In this sense, A Very Pukka Murder has a noir-like quality without the sleazy setting but with enough moral ambiguity.
However, unlike classic noir that speeds along, the book has a weary pace that meanders around the crux of the story. Writing historical fiction requires a lot of investment in terms of research. Evidently, Gaind did meticulous research to dig out precise details of Rajpore and the habits and mannerisms of its inhabitants. So much so that the original draft apparently went up to 500 pages, which was finally reduced to 329 pages.
Despite this, the editing has the potential to be tighter. It was confusing when names of characters were mixed in a story already inundated with an extravagant cast. (Was the maharaja’s mother’s name Ayesha Devi or Amrita Devi?) Also, it can be a jarring experience while reading to come across typos in a book by a well-known publisher . Hopefully, the next adventure of Maharaja Sikander Singh of Rajpore would have a more punctilious eye going over it.