Book #20 – AK Srikumar’s The Begum’s Secret: A political potboiler set in 18th century Awadh

Historical novels are extremely difficult to pull off.  On the one hand, is the problem of recreating a believable version of the past. We  have enough and more research about how people spoke, thought, wrote, ate, drank and lived their lives in different eras of history, and a writer of historical fiction has to tread the very thin line between an obsession with getting every detail right and wild fantasy.

Then there is the other problem of actually getting people’s interest and holding it till the end of the book. Now, to my mind, history is one of the most fascinating subjects there is. No other subject, except literature, provides such fine examples of how people think and behave. Not to mention the unbelievable romance of battles and court intrigue and the lavish lifestyles of the royals and nobilities of yore. Of course, a lot of these notions change once one studies history with any depth, as I did in college, and then the point of interest becomes the fact that throughout our history, we have made the same mistakes over and over again, without ever learning anything. In that sense, the study of human history becomes the study of human stupidity.

But I digress. As I said, writing historical fiction is a difficult task to pull off; but even more difficult is writing historical mysteries. I have read two outstanding examples in this genre: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. What elevated these two works above the historical whodunit genre was the fact that besides the mystery itself, which was nice and juicy in each case, the two novels chose to engage with very real concerns of the day.  They went beyond the dross to look at what people believed in back in those days and how they would react if these beliefs were challenged.  The Name of the Rose dealt with the question of heresy and the growing factionalism in Christian intellectual thought. It plays out in a remote Italian monastery, which has sees a series of gruesome murders.  The Christian world in fragmented into different sects, who have widely varied ways of interpreting holy texts, and  anything new or different – such as a pair of reading glasses – is looked at with suspicion. In fact the crimes, as becomes clear by the end of the book, are closely linked to this intellectual climate prevalent in Europe at the time.

My Name is Red, which is set in the Ottoman Empire, could also be crudely described as a ‘murder mystery’. But it goes so much beyond the examination of clues and the questioning of witnesses; Pamuk sets it as his task to acquaint us with more important questions, such as what happens when Western and Eastern philosophies and ideas clash, as they did in 16th century Turkey? Many of the characters of Pamuk’s novel are miniaturists and the introduction of ‘Western’ concepts like perspective and vanishing points to their art is unsettling some of them.  Here too, then, the novel becomes more than a whodunit. It becomes a meditation on the forces unleashed by the intellectual and cultural changes of a country.

AK Srikumar’s The Begum’s Secret tries to do something similar. It is not a historical mystery in the sense of there being an actual crime here. There is no murder, no theft. There’s just a lot of ambiguity surrounding the actions of certain characters which becomes clear as you get closer to the end of the book.  The plot is a fairly complicated one, which is fine, since this is a book set in 18th century India in the kingdom of Awadh, where court politics has many, many players – from the Nawab to his estranged mother to his harem, not to mention ambitious courtiers and the British East India Company.  In the beginning, it’s a little difficult to keep track of all the characters, not only because they have long names and longer titles, but because a lot of them seem rather randomly introduced and have no major role to play in the book.  It’s not easy to give a précis of such a complex plot, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. The Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daula, is getting set to receive the Laat Sahib – Warren Hastings – he’s also dealing with a three-year long famine in his kingdom, besides attempts by various parties to wrest power from him. His favourite begum, Shams-un-nisa advices him to build the Bada Imambara, to win the favours of both Allah and his people. At the same time, the eunuch Nuruddin, who is in charge of the palace harem, is wrestling with his growing passion for a female poet, whose face nobody has ever seen, as well as trying to stay ahead of certain parties who wish to see him dead, for reasons which the reader will begin to suspect about halfway through the book.

Srikumar’s attempt seems to have been to give a realistic account of what life must have been like in the Awadhi court. From all accounts, it seems to have been quite the vipers’ nest, where nobody could be trusted and loyalties changed in the blink of an eye. The pace of the book is therefore, appropriately swift, and in keeping with the dramatic unfolding of events, and the tone is casual and sardonic.  Clearly, the author has put in a great deal of time and research into this novel, so it’s a bit of a pity that it seems a little unfinished. Occasionally, Srikumar seems unsure of how to deal with the romances in the book: Kamla and Gufran’s romance is given very little grounding, as is Nuruddin’s ill-fated love affair with the poet, Sharm. And in his quest to cram in as many colourful details as possible – descriptions of wrestling matches, mushairas and the invention of the Dum Pukht – Srikumar fails to create properly sympathetic characters. The protagonist clearly is Nuruddin, and as he dodges the various attempts on his life, one feels sympathy for him. But what are his motivations, if any? He seems a rather passive character, who only wants to do his duty well and see that his sister is well-settled.  Does he have other ambitions? Who are his friends? Does he ever wonder what the purpose of his life is? Nuruddin, unfortunately, is less an actor and more a re-actor. He would never, for instance, have acted on his love for Sharm, if that lady hadn’t taken the first step.

But perhaps the biggest problem here is that Srikumar doesn’t seek to address any bigger questions. He’s laying out the events of the day as they unfold, but what is the intellectual and philosophical context? What do these people believe in that makes them behave the way they do? India, at this point in history, was a land with an identity crisis. The empire of the Great Mughals was waning, regional identities were asserting themselves, and in less than 100 years, the land would see it’s first concerted effort to throw out the British in 1857. It had only been a mere 27 years since the Battle of Plassey, when the British East India Company became officially the most powerful political force in the country. Why isn’t there any reference to this in the book? It could have been done many times, as Hastings is mentioned a number of times, while the Company’s Resident in Lucknow, John Bristow, gets many scenes.

Despite these rather serious flaws, the book is very enjoyable.  Given the quick unfolding of events, one can read it in a couple of days. It might even intrigue some enough to try and find out more about this very remarkable period in India’s history.