Author: Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Length: 402 pages
The Taj Conspiracy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is total value for money. Or maybe I should say, paisa vasool, since this is a ‘desi’ thriller set amid the familiar sights and sounds of this hodgepodge of a nation that only those of us who revel in its madness can really understand. Here characters eat greasy samosas with their fingers (Oprah, dear, if we tried to eat our samosas with cutlery, they might escape our plates and knock people’s eyes out.), travel miles for the perfect mutton kebab and biryani, wear cheap printed kurtas and, when sloshed, sing a Bollywood number loudly and off-key.
It is in this colourful world that we meet the statuesque Mehrunisa Khosa, half-Sikh-half-Persian and a Mughal scholar, who, finding herself embroiled in a murder mystery, discovers that nastier things might come to pass. Her initial impressions lead her to suspect that there may be a conspiracy at work to discredit the identity of the Taj as the mausoleum of Mumtaz, the beloved wife of Shah Jahan, and pass it off as an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva.
Should her suspicions come true, Mehrunisa knows that the fragile fabric of the nation, frayed and torn on numerous occasions, and most recently during the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the horrendous riots that followed in its wake, would be further rent.
She needs to do everything in her power, work with anyone who seems like an ally, in order to discover who is the twisted mind that would come up with a dastardly plan such as this and to save the Taj Mahal, a monument that is so symbolic of India. But the way will not be easy. There are too many people with their own wicked agendas who will not stand opposition, including a right-wing Hindu party, Islamic militants plotting a terror attack on the Taj and a devious behrupiya, a shape-shifter.
Manreet's prose is remarkably evocative. If this book were to be filmed, I would imagine the screenplay writer would have it quite easy. Manreet’s descriptions draw heavily on the senses, conjuring images in the reader's mind.
In one instance, Mehrunisa, called in to the police station for questioning, feels severely disgusted and nauseous by the odours that assail her there. Served omelette and forced to take a bite out of it, she likens the experience to biting into bread extracted from under an armpit. In another instance, she compares a terrorist's eyebrows to scythes.
The best thing about this desi thriller for me was the chance to be able to relate and identify so perfectly with nuances and cultural connotations, to understand without being told. The narrative flows on seamlessly. The descriptions of the Taj, in particular, are ample proof of Mehrunisa’s, and the author’s, fascination with the Taj.
The size of the chapters is a novelty. Most of them take up no more than two pages, and there are two chapters that are a single page each. This enables the author to take you to a scene and let you linger just long enough to watch a character do something that will take the story forward before transporting you to yet another scene where something equally deserving of our attention is afoot. I thought this was a refreshing change from books in which authors find themselves succumbing to the trap of writing long chapters and peopling them with unnecessary detail and information. Here, on the other hand, the detailed evocative descriptions, combined with the brevity of the chapters, give you the feeling of watching a film in your head. The short chapters are camera shots, cut and spliced to give you a racy thriller.
Manreet’s ability to keep readers hanging on to multiple skeins of plots and sub-plots without confusing them is to be commended. Despite having to juggle together so many characters, each one complete with a fascinating back story and sub-plot extravagantly fleshed out to perfection, Manreet manages to make them appear real. The duality of each of the characters where, at some time or the other, it seems as though everyone has something to hide, adds to the complexity.
The stories-within-stories is another device that Manreet has used very skilfully. Old Professor Kaul’s stories come at just the right time, germinating in Mehrunisa’s mind and enabling her to make an accurate deduction.
A monument like the Taj could not have stood tall for centuries had its foundations not been deep and strong. The foundations of Manreet’s The Taj Conspiracy lie in the extremely detailed and exhaustive research, a factor that adds hugely to the appeal of the book. Manreet has managed to source unknown nuggets of information about the architecture and history of the Taj, the geography of Agra, as well as the history of Renaissance art and pass it through the sieve of her own imagination before serving us this delightfully exciting thriller.
Manreet has done well by Mehrunisa, creating a woman character who is strong, yet self-effacing, intelligent and dogged, spirited and feisty.
I am also grateful to Manreet for letting the thriller pan out, undisturbed and undiluted by any romantic inclinations between the lead characters. The love story, the merest whiff of a hint of it, shows up only after all the loose ends have been tied up. As good readers who have had a good vicarious adventure, we can be indulgent and let them go off into the sunset with our blessings. That is, until the second part of Mehrunisa’s trilogy shows up.
I, for one, am eagerly waiting for it.
I received a complimentary copy of The Taj Conspiracy as a member of the Writer's Melon Book Review Team.