Death at the Durbar: Read an excerpt from Arjun Raj Gaind's book on a Maharaja-sleuth, who solves murders
In part 1 of the first chapter of Arjun Raj Gaind's Death at the Durbar, a visibly bored Maharaja Sikander Singh finds himself in the company of strangers who will make a request | #FirstCulture
Editor's note: Arjun Raj Gaind is the author of the Maharaja Mysteries, which follow the adventures of Maharaja Sikander Singh. Set in the times of the British Raj against the backdrop of Princely India, Death at the Durbar follows A Very Pukka Murder, the first installment in the series.
A vast tent city has been built where a grand durbar is being hosted to celebrate the coronation of George V, the first monarch to travel to India from England. Maharajas and nawabs from all over India have gathered. Maharaja Sikander Singh of Rajpore is frustrated amid all these preparations -- only to find himself whisked away by British officers and requested by the Viceroy to put his detective skills to use. Many suspects, a dead nautch-girl, a variety of motives -- Sikander finds all these once he agrees to take on the case, but will he regret it?
Death at the Durbar is published by Harper Collins in India and Poisoned Pen Press.
On most days, Maharaja Sikander Singh held a lackluster opinion of the English. Shakespeare bored him, Dickens was too depressing, and Miss Austen had always managed to give him a resounding migraine. Elgar was too loud, and the raucous lures of music-hall held no appeal for a man of his education and elegance.
Cricket he found bewildering, since he had always failed to see the attraction of standing beneath the noonday sun and flailing about with a piece of polished willow. As for tea, it was not his drink. He much preferred coffee, preferably of the Yemeni variety and, frankly, as far as he was concerned, the British couldn’t bottle a good wine if Dionysus himself came down from Olympus and taught them how. For Sikander, if there was one great contribution the Angrezi Sahibs had managed to make to world culture, it was the music of Henry Purcell.
When it came to Baroque composers, people were quick to praise Handel and Bach, but it was Purcell that Sikander had come to admire the most. There was an anguish in his work, a palpable longing that appealed to Sikander’s intrinsically romantic nature.
Each evening, he liked to follow a well-established ritual. Before retiring for the night, Sikander would spend at least an hour at his piano, inevitably polishing off the better part of a bottle of champagne while caressing its ivory keys. It was a habit that dated back to his childhood, when he had first learned to play seated upon his mother’s lap, and one he continued even as he approached the ripe old age of 40. In many ways, it was his favourite part of each day. For these few moments, he was not the Maharaja of Rajpore. He was free, identified only by whatever music his slender fingers wrought, liberated from the web of duty and obligation and responsibility within which his birth had trapped him.
On this particular evening, swaddled in a bronze silk banyan jacket, his feet comfortably ensconced in a pair of woolen socks to fend off the chill, Sikander had spent two and a half hours trying to transcribe one of Purcell’s finest compositions, the aria ‘The Cold Song’. He had heard it performed by a fine soprano in London, and it had haunted him since—a bewildering piece of music, tragic to the point of heartbreaking.
Sadly, in spite of his prodigious technical abilities, he found himself unable to master its intricacy. Every note was perfect, for Sikander was very nearly as skilled as a virtuoso. Still, something remained missing, that ephemeral rapture that Byron had described so well as the ‘echo of the spheres’. It was unsettling, to say the least. Perhaps it was the fact that he was in Delhi, a city he had always loathed, that was throwing off his rhythm so thoroughly, or that he was playing a strange instrument, a brand new Vertegrand upright that felt very different from the concert grand he normally preferred. To his dismay, the music was proving incapable of calming his restlessness.
Finally, Sikander could bear it no longer. Unable to restrain his mounting frustration, he thwacked shut the piano’s lid. Rising to his feet, he crossed to a side table where a bottle of Abele was chilling in a Baccarat crystal ice bucket. As he began to pour himself a fresh tulip, it dawned on him that he was being watched by a pair of cold eyes, stony with disapproval.
The bust was exquisite, a Rodin carved from brown-veined porphyry, but despite its elegance, it failed to capture even a glimmer of his mother’s essence. Maharani Amrita Devi had been diminutive in stature, barely five feet tall, but she had possessed such exuberance, such vitality, that her presence had filled every room she entered. It was from her that Sikander had inherited his pale eyes, which were as gray as a thunderstorm, and his love of everything French. Most of all, it was from his mother that he had received that insatiable sense of curiosity which so defined him as a person.
It isn’t my fault, Mother, he thought apologetically. It’s just that I am so dreadfully bored.
How could he deny it? It was not in Sikander’s nature to be inactive. Like a shark, he needed to keep moving. If forced to stop, even for a moment, it felt to him he was drowning. That was what had made this past week even more difficult to endure. The inertia of sitting around and twiddling his thumbs, waiting for the King to arrive and for the Coronation celebrations to commence, had managed to leave him on the very brink of despair.
Once again, as he was prone to do at least eight or nine times each day, Sikander felt a familiar stirring of wanderlust in his gut. It was so tempting to call for his faithful manservant, Charan Singh, and command him to pack their bags immediately and make arrangements to hop aboard the first mail train going south, no matter what the destination, just as long as it took them far away from Delhi and the miasma of the blasted Durbar encampment. Sadly, Sikander was far too pragmatic to give in to such a cavalier impulse. Stifling his impatience, he raised his glass in mock salutation to his mother’s effigy.
It should have been you here, not me, Ma. You would have made a far better king than I can ever hope to be.
Before he could take a sip, though, he was interrupted most rudely.
The door slammed open, and a pair of Englishmen came barging into the room.
‘Are you Sikander Singh of Rajpore?’ the first of them asked rather too forcefully, strutting to a stop directly to his right.
The brusqueness of his manner nettled the Maharaja, causing him to scowl. Who did the silly bugger think he was talking to? Not so much as an ‘excuse me’ or a ‘pardon the interruption.’ How dare he just barge in and address Sikander in such a high-handed fashion, as if he were a common khidmutgar?
Stay tuned for the next two installments of the first chapter of Death at the Durbar