Move over Da Vinci, the Taj Mahal’s here. Half Persian half Indian scholar Mehrunnisa stumbles on a murder during an early morning meeting at the Taj. The supervisor is dead and someone’s been at work altering the calligraphy on Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb to make it seem as if the tomb is a fake. Most people in India have at some point or the other encountered Professor Oak’s vehement defence of the theory that the Taj Mahal is a Shiva temple which was known in ancient times as Tej-o-Mahalaya – the email frequently does the rounds and manages to shake the convictions of quite a few. Shah Jehan’s love for Mumtaz Mahal also frequently gets questioned, with whispered accusations of incest immediately after Mumtaz’s death thrown in for good measure.
Sodhi Someshwar makes deft use of PN Oak’s theory and puts it at the heart of her conspiracy. Twists and turns run as deep as the subterranean city under the Taj. And at one point it seems as if Dan Brown has competition. Especially since the conspirators include extreme right wing Hindus and Muslim terrorist working at cross purposes with the Kashmir issue thrown in for good measure.
The novel maintains the reader’s interest with its fast paced style and occasional flights of poetry in the passages where the author describes the mists hovering over the Taj Mahal or the glow of autumn and the beauty of the pietra dura. Sodhi Someshwar adds her own particularly gruesome Indian twist with a python that is used to dispose of murder traces and a whistle trained viper borrowed from The Speckled Band. SSP Raghav and RP Singh are the two police heroes who join Mehrunnisa in their struggle to save one of the seven wonders of the modern world from defamation and to prevent another and more catastrophic version of Babri Masjid plunging India’s capital into communal violence.
A great deal of research has gone into the writing and this has been used to lend credibility to the plot rather than impress the reader, much in Dan Brown’s style. There are also schematic drawings at the beginning of the book to enhance the smoke and mirrors effect. One could have wished for a more judicious use of editing in places, especially at the end of the book when the climax gets held up in the plethora of things happening. The other problem is that one of the evil doers turns out to be really not so credible, which is a pity.
Sodhi Someshwar obviously has a series planned with Mehrunnisa, her two cop helpers and a deepening love interest between her and RP Singh, the hot shot rebel dragged up from pursuing Maoists in Chhattisgarh to crack the problem. The shape shifting villain’s identity also remains in doubt – he may be a politician, he may not be – but he certainly pulls the strings. And a monkey capped snake whisperer too is alive and well. Given the promise of this first book one can hope that the following series will build and improve on an interesting theme.
The Taj Conspiracy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Published by Westland Tranquebar in India, 2012
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