Delhi based author and blogger, Madhulika Liddle worked in the hospitality industry, and advertising, in addition to being a travel writer, and instructional designer, before taking up full time writing. Her historical detective fiction series, featuring 17th century Mughal detective Muzaffar Jang, has been widely read and optioned for a web series.
The Garden of Heaven is the first book of Delhi Quartet, Liddle’s new series of historical novels set in the Delhi of medieval India. Liddle spoke to Scroll.in about her books, her fascination with the medieval period, her research and writing, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
Historical detective fiction is one of the most popular genres in the west, but not (yet) in India. How did the idea of writing the Muzaffar Jang series occur to you? And what was the initial reaction from publishers?
I have my brother-in-law to thank for the idea of inventing a historical detective. He is extremely fond of historical detective fiction, and owns books from dozens of series, by various writers across the world. I borrowed lots of books from him over the years, and began wondering why nobody had written an Indian historical detective novel – especially given that India has such a rich and interesting history to draw upon.
I finally decided to do just that: to invent an Indian historical detective; and since Mughal history is a period that particularly fascinates me, that’s the era I chose.
It wasn’t just historical detective fiction that was new in India back then; it was also detective fiction. Most publishers weren’t keen on genre fiction as a whole; I submitted my manuscript to a couple of major publishers, but both turned it down, saying that it would need too much work. I was fortunate, though, that a literary agency (the now defunct Osian’s) happened to spot my work, and wanted to represent me. They helped me clean up my manuscript and they were the ones who were able to sell it to Hachette: The Englishman’s Cameo was one of the first books Hachette India published.
It seems you have a fascination with medieval Delhi, since all your historical fiction is set in this city.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I actually began exploring the history of Delhi. This happened partly because of my sister Swapna, and partly because I was then working at Habitat World, at the India Habitat Centre. Habitat World was just beginning to come up with ideas for cultural events, and heritage walks was one of the ideas.
I went on a couple of exploratory walks through Old Delhi, and was hooked. The fact that history lives on in these spaces, that the past is sometimes so seamlessly enmeshed with the present – that is what fascinates me. Plus, of course, the beauty that lives on from medieval Delhi: whether it’s in the architecture of the Jama Masjid and the Qila-e-Kuhna, or the exquisite painting inside the Tomb of Jamali Kamali, or even in the history that underlies the Sair-e-Gulfaroshan: the past is a fascinating place, one I want to keep alive through my writing.
Most historical fiction in India is about kings and queens, but your latest book, The Garden of Heaven, is about ordinary men and women. Can you elaborate how you did the research for these characters? Were there any inspirations for characters like Subhadra, Madhav, Ibrahim and Shagufta?
If you know where to look, it is possible to find a fair bit of information about how ordinary people might have lived in medieval Delhi. For instance, I gleaned information on specific aspects of daily life from different books about these: for food, I consulted (among others) Colleen Taylor Sen’s Fasts and Feasts; for technology and everyday implements, Irfan Habib’s A People’s History of India: Technology in Medieval India; for the status and contributions of Jain merchants, Dr Jyoti Prakash Jain’s Pramukh Aitihaasik Jain Purush aurMahilaayein, and so on.
Also, we in India have the advantage of not being completely removed from our past; a lot of history still lives on in our daily lives, so with a little judicious work, it isn’t difficult to imagine how a character might have lived 400 years ago.
Most of all, I firmly believe that human nature doesn’t change; and my story is primarily about human beings, how they react, what they feel, what moves them. That, I think, remains universal, and therefore relatable.
None of the fictitious characters in The Garden of Heaven was inspired by real people – they are all a product of my own imagination. Some of them echo my own thoughts and beliefs, but that’s about it.
But was it easier to write about characters like Amir Khusro and Razia Sultan, who were real people, than the purely fictional characters?
Not really. In fact, it was the other way round: I needed to do a fair bit of research on Amir Khusro and Razia Sultan in order to try and understand the two of them. I wanted to remain as true as I possibly could to what these personalities might have been like, and of course, I had to get the facts right about them. That needed research. For the ordinary characters, like Madhav, Jayshree and Girdhar, I could mould them as I pleased – give them the histories I wanted, bestow on them the character traits I wanted, the flaws and virtues I thought would suit them best. They allowed me freedom. Razia and Khusro sahib restricted me, in that sense.
How did you approach the research? How much help did you get from your historian sister? Is it essential to know Urdu and Persian if you are doing research of the mediaeval period?
I needed to do my research primarily to establish the historical backdrop in The Garden of Heaven: how the Slave Sultans established their rule, the ups and downs in Razia’s career, the conflict between Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, and so on. These were facts I was able to gather from several dependable books on history, which wasn’t difficult.
A good starting point for me was HK Kaul’s excellent Historic Delhi: An Anthology. Swapna helped me a good deal by pointing me to various books I could refer to; she also lent me her copy of Ishtiyaq Ahmed Zilli’s translation of Zia-ud-Din Barani’sTarikh-i-Firoz Shahi. Most importantly, Swapna read the first draft of my manuscript for historical accuracy, made several invaluable suggestions, and ironed out some errors.
I think, given the amount of research a novel like this would need, a knowledge of Urdu or Persian isn’t necessary. I didn’t need a lot of in-depth knowledge of the era, just a grasp of the times, and what I got from English sources was sufficient for me.
You’ve written seven books so far, two of which are short story collections set in the present, while the rest are historical fiction. What adjustments did you have to make when toggling between these two forms?
I don’t really need to pay a great deal of attention to how I write a story, vis-à-vis the period in which it’s set. It comes naturally. Mostly, I take care that when I’m writing a period piece, I don’t use modern slang, for instance. Also, I tend to follow some basic self-imposed rules for language that I think helps make language sound more formal or more archaic: for instance, “wager” instead of “bet”, “suppose” instead of “guess”, and so on. I think my fascination with the past (including the fact that I read a lot of historical fiction as well as old books) helps: I am easily able to slip into what I call the “old-fashioned mode”. With fiction set in the present, I shed my old-time persona and switch into a modern mode, using the idioms, slang and other forms of language now current.
The Muzaffar Jang series has been optioned for cinematic adaptation. When do we expect to see it on screen? Who do you think would be the best actor to play the protagonist?
Yes, the dramatic rights to the Muzaffar Jang series have been sold, so we’ll see the books made into a web series – but I don’t know when that will happen. As we all know, these things take their own time, and the Covid pandemic has wreaked havoc with a lot of plans. As for whom I would like to see as Muzaffar, I honestly can’t say. At one time, I might have said Hrithik Roshan (his portrayal of Akbar in Jodhaa-Akbar impressed me), but he might be a bit too old to play Muzaffar by the time the series materialises.
What is your next project? Sequel to The Garden of Heaven, or a new book in the Muzaffar Jang series?
No more Muzaffar Jang books, as of now, are going to be written, I don’t have any plans to go back to that series. But yes, I’m currently writing the second book of the Delhi Quartet, which will be the sequel to The Garden of Heaven.
Tell us about your other areas of interest – travel writing, classic Hindi cinema and cooking.
I am very curious about the world, and have a wide range of interests: nature and wildlife, history, culture, food, cinema (especially cinema from before 1970), and more. Some of these interests come together in my love for travel.
I love to travel, and to explore new places, especially those with an interesting history, a rich cultural heritage, and natural beauty. My travel writing has, thanks to the pandemic, been put on the back burner for now, but I’ve continued to write about classic cinema and food. My blog, Dustedoff, is pretty much completely devoted to classic cinema: I review old films (mostly Hindi, but also from across India, through Hollywood and world cinema – as long as it’s from before 1970); I also make themed “favourite ten lists” of old songs, which are my most popular posts.
I’ve always been interested in food and cooking, and the flexible timings that being a writer allows means I have more time to experiment with food and to write about it. During the lockdown, I embarked on a project to cook international food, focussing on one country every two weeks. I turned that project into a cookbook-cum-memoir, Lockdown Lunches, which I’ll be self-publishing on Kindle, probably in December this year.
Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic, and banker. His debut novel, Patna Blues, has been translated into eight languages. He can be reached here.