Author: Sharath Komarraju
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
We Indians are quite familiar with the Akbar and Birbal stories where Birbal’s wit and intelligence thrived under Akbar’s munificence.
In The Tree Bears Witness, Birbal is called upon to do a spot of sleuthing when Sujjamal, the brother of Hira Kunwari, who is the princess we remember today as Jodhabai, is found stabbed to death in the royal garden.
Azgher Abbasi, on the verge of retirement, and greenhorn Rashid were the only two guards on duty at the time. At first Azgher believes that Sujjamal killed himself, while Rashid thinks he was killed by an invisible spirit. Later, a heavy cane turns up with a note stating that it was the one used to kill Sujjamal.
Akbar entrusts Birbal with the task of discovering the identity of the killer within two days. Should he fail, Azgher will hang for the crime. It is up to Birbal to find the killer, no mean task in a kingdom rife with intrigue, particularly when, it appears, that Sujjamal’s death is viewed by almost everyone with a sense of relief.
I was completely drawn into the book, anxious to find out how Birbal would solve the murder mystery. The book is tightly plotted, and we find ourselves trying our best to piece clues together. Birbal, whose wit is legendary, soon finds that solving the mystery behind a crime is not easy.
In stories and comics, one always had the impression that Akbar was aged and Birbal was young. But here Akbar is a youth aged 21, and Birbal has a full mop of grey-black hair. Also, Birbal has had a colourful past, having been a priest by day and a robber by night in his youth.
The author captures well the banter between Akbar and Birbal. We also get to see ample evidence of the fact that Birbal was a man of considerable wit and a master of the art of riposte.
The evocation of the period was well done, with not a note out of place. I commend the author for his ability to build the right mood. One feels oneself transported to the Mughal era. It was quite interesting to read about the far-from-modern methods of autopsy that the body is subjected to.
The characters are all well drawn, and appear real, even the minor ones. Azgher, in particular, stood out for his keen intelligence and intuition.
Through the person of Hira, the book makes fun of the incredible stories of valour associated with kings of that era, reminding us that history is but a story.
Birbal has the ability to observe the problem closely, refusing to be distracted by anything but the facts. In his own words, I need only the bare essentials… Sometimes too much information is useless.
Birbal is not a neutral observer. He is convinced of Azgher’s innocence; the mere suggestion of duplicity on the part of the old man is upsetting. Nor does he enjoy the possibility of being upstaged by Gulbadan Begum, Akbar’s aunt. There was some history here that I missed, as I had not read the first book in the series.
Incidentally, in the tradition of Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Birbal invites all the players to be present at the kitabkhana for the denouement.
The author also succeeds in critiquing the excesses of the time. Even if the rest of Agra was dying of thirst, the fountains and lakes in the Mughal garden always stayed full.
The writing is very assured. The dialogues flow smoothly and the chapters are very well structured.
Some of the lines are worth quoting.
The omniscient narrator observes, Perhaps it is something in the air of Hindustan that makes a man aspire to such silly ideas – the idea that the emperor could be equally fair to all religions.
It was a line that was both gratifying and distressing. Gratifying because that is the essence of India, and distressing because the very idea seems to be gravely threatened in the country today.
In the same spirit, Raja Bharmal says, Everyone identifies themselves as human in times of peace…Place a sword on a man’s neck and ask him what god he worships. I imagine the answer will be different then.
But there were places that needed keener attention.
In this sentence, It was a lesson of experience that when someone was trying to remember something, the worst thing one could do was to leap up at him and demand what it was, while a part of me cheered this truth which most of us experienced, another part felt that the sentence would have been better phrased as ‘demand to know what it was.’
Also, the right phrase is “Curdle my blood,” not “Curdle me to the bones.”
The blurb on the back of the book tells us that it has been barely a month since the royal wedding, but Mirza, Akbar’s kinsman, says in the book that it is no more than two days, a point confirmed by Raja Bharmal, father of Hira.
I also found it odd that Hira referred to Raja Bharmal as her father and Sujjamal as her brother, even though as the son of her father’s older brother he was actually her cousin. Bhagwant Das was actually her brother, and Man Singh, Bhagwant’s son, is her nephew.
In yet another place, Man Singh is referred to as her brother, just because they are around the same age and presumably played together as kids. Even the blurb refers to Raja Bharmal and Bhagwant Das as Sujjamal’s uncles and Man Singh as his cousin. Clearly the blurb was written by someone who had not read the book properly.
There were some proofing and grammatical errors strewn through the book in the form of missing spaces, missing full stops, wrong usage of words etc.
Even so, I totally enjoyed this book by Sharath Komarraju, and look forward to reading more from this talented author.