Updated: May 21, 2014 16:08 IST

Long, long ago…

Shonali Muthalaly
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FACT AND FICTION: Madhulika Liddle Photo: R. Ravindran
FACT AND FICTION: Madhulika Liddle Photo: R. Ravindran

Madhulika Liddle’s fascination for the past inspired her to write her debut novel, revolving around an aristocrat who mingles with the masses.

What’s a 17th Century aristocrat doing with a jamun-chewing boatman? “Well, though Muzzafar Jang is a nobleman, he has friends in not-so-noble places,” says his creator, writer Madhulika Liddle.

And a good thing too. Jang’s fascination with the bustling world of the common man in Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s Dilli results in a book that’s different from the steady gush of Indian Writing in English that hits the bookstores every month. As Jang totters upon boats, drinks with dramatic dandies and socialises with gorgeous courtesans, the reader is taken on a riotous ride through a Dilli that few people are familiar with.

In conversation with D. Murali, Deputy Editor of Business Line, Madhulika discusses her first novel “The Englishman’s Cameo” (published by Hachette) at Landmark, Citi Centre. Talking about why she chose to write a historical detective novel for her first book, Liddle says, “I’m passionate about history, about historical monuments, about culture — all that,” adding that she spent many hours poring over old books and taking long walks through the historical area of Shahjahanabad, around Jama Masjid, the place where her story is set, circa 1656. Liddle says she’s addicted to historical detective novels. “Then I thought, if I enjoy it so much, why don’t I create a story set in India for the Indian readers?” Instead of picking a story set in the royal court, she decided her hero should mingle with the common people, because there’s so little about them in popular culture.

“The royal courts have been done to death in popular culture,” she says. “This story gives you an insight into how the common people lived at that time. What they wore. What they ate. The books they read. I think that’s more interesting than politics. An interesting fact that turned up in her research was just how cosmopolitan Delhi was at that time. “There were people from England, Russia, Italy…” says Liddle, talking of how many of her sources were from books written by travellers. “There was a French jeweller. Also a French physician… much of what we know comes from people like this and their records. They took copious notes of their time in India.”

Of course, this is a work of fiction. “No matter how much research I’ve done, no matter how many historians I’ve spoken to, there are places where I’ve hit a wall,” smiles Liddle. “Thank god I’m a writer of fiction and not a historian! Wherever it’s possible to use fiction, I have.”

Since the story is set at a critical time for the Mughal court, just as rumours began to do the rounds about Prince Aurangazeb’s rebelliousness — it’s inevitably propped up by historical fact.

“But the whole point is that it’s fiction against a historical background… So at a macro level there’s fact — but the story of my hero, the crime and how he goes about solving it — that’s fiction. The dividing line is pretty clear.”

Liddle, who worked in hospitality and advertising, started with writing short stories. Now that her first novel starring Jang is out, she’s planning to build an entire series around her flamboyant hero. Of course, it’ll all be set in a time long, long ago. “That is my major failing,” she laughs, “I live in the past.”

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