A whodunnit of Princely India and its royal investigator (Book Review)

Title: A Very Pukka Murder – The First Maharaja Mystery; Author: Arjun Raj Gaind; Publisher: Harper Black/Harper Collins India; Pages: 336; Price: Rs 299

As 1909 dawns, the British hold unquestioned sway over the Indian subcontinent with the freedom movement yet to achieve critical mass and Mohandas Gandhi not even back home, let alone being a known name. A large expanse is princely India, where the native rulers have some say in governance and are permitted idiosyncrasies which do not cause a revolt or embarrass the paramount power. Is sleuthing among them?

That is the question that comes to the minds of many, both British and Indian, in the small princely state of Rajpore (12-gun-salute) on New Year’s Day of 1909 when the British Resident is found dead in his house and the ruler — once he has dealt with his hangover — eagerly jumps in to probe the matter, since he is feeling bored.

His Highness Farzand-e-Khas-i-Daulat-i-Inglishia, Mansur-e-Zaman Amir ul-Umara, Maharajadhiraja Raj Rajeshwar Sikander Singh Bahadur is, however, no whimsical ruler dabbling in sensationalism but a keen investigator with experience of studying crime scenes, forensic investigations and questioning witnesses. But when he finds there is a whole set of people with motives, including some from the British elite, and skeletons regularly tumble out of closets, can he find out who is guilty — or, more importantly, will the British overlords allow him to?

We find out answers to both in the course of this royal (in all senses of the word) whodunnit set in a glorious but bygone era as Arjun Raj Gaind, who has a number of graphic novels to his credit, in his prose debut, skillfully takes us through a wide gamut of suspects with powerful motives, to a stunning finale, where some more shocks are store.

Sikander Singh’s inclination for detection is also not outlandish, being well in line with the “peculiar passions”, the “eccentric fascinations that boggle the very mind” of the “strange breed we princes of India are” — jewels for Baroda, dogs for Junagadh’s boy heir, electric trains for Jayaji Rao Scindia, and more. In his case, mysteries and solving them lead over women and fast cars. And he can also cite Guru Nanak to justify his passion.

While his investigation is in the best tradition of Sherlock Holmes, with painstaking effort at following all lines of inquiry, the ending is pure Hercules Poirot, where all the suspects, and some others too, are invited to a lavish banquet and our royal detective carefully builds — and then demolishes — the case against each of them, before unmasking the guilty party. And the way he deals with the aftermath is pure class — and can only be done by a Maharaja.

Princely India is a promising, though much under-utilised, area in fiction, and Gaind deserves full credit for using it, most aptly and with flair, as a setting for a murder mystery, which combines the locked-room murder and everyone-has-a-motive tropes. He well evokes the atmosphere of a princely state during the Raj, where a ruler was usually but not always treated better than almost all his people, and a culture of sycophancy and conspiracy is mostly rife.

The location — in Punjab between the plains and the hills — is also apt and research is meticulous, save a couple of small errors: there was no way that a junior army officer could, in 1909, seek a posting to Palestine, which was still under Ottoman rule, while a key Indian suspect proclaims himself to be a “Kayastha brahman”, which is not right at all.

While the suspects, encompassing officials with secrets to hide, on the take, or embittered at lack of promotions, femme fatales, or servants with powerful revenge motives, are well set off by other characters like the boorish British police chief, the wily diwan, the hulking bodyguard, the resourceful journalist and others who only serve to present prevalent race and class views, Gaind strikes pure gold with the Maharaja, who is not only effective, but also interesting and possessed of depth.

But while a number of references to earlier events in his life are cited but not fully explored, this engrossing book is said to be the first of a trilogy, and subsequent installments promise to be even more interesting.

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