Of migration and mysteries

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Read the history of the Bay of Bengal and stories of Mughal era detectives

Bay of Bengal map.Indian Link

Stewart Gordon showed us in his book When Asia Was the World, how peoples of Asia were trading, warring, cooperating and acculturating long before the Europeans arrived on the scene. More recently, Robert Kaplan’s book Monsoon, drew attention to the countries in the Indian Ocean littoral in an effort to demonstrate the increasing significance of the region for international security. Now, an Indian-origin scholar, Sunil Amrith demonstrates in his books Crossing the Bay of Bengal (2013) and Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia (2011) that the Indian Ocean was global long before the Atlantic and was for centuries home to a cosmopolitan world – a world of polyglot traders and cross cultural marriages, a world where long distance travel was a common experience. Booming port cities like Singapore and Penang became the most culturally diverse societies of their time. There were Arab traders, Chinese merchants, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British colonisers; movement across Asia long predated the infrastructural revolution in Europe.

Today, more people cross the Bay of Bengal than any other part of the Indian Ocean, which makes the region the most economically important segment of the Indian Ocean; the countries bordering the Bay are home to one in four people on Earth.

Crossing the Bay of Bengal.Indian Link

Crossing the Bay of Bengal places this region, and the migrants and the movement of those peoples, at the heart of world history for the first time. Integrating human and environmental history, and mining a wealth of sources, Sunil Amrith, Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies at Harvard University, gives a stirring new account of the Bay and those who have inhabited it.

Of the many groups that have used the Bay as a thoroughfare, perhaps the most significant were the Tamils. Amrith delves deep into the archives to show old South Indian Pallava and Chola dynasties and their great regional empires, indeed for centuries the Bay of Bengal was known as the Chola Sea or Chola Lake.

In the colonial period, millions of South Indian migrants crossed the sea between 1850 and 1930. Bound by debt or spurred by drought, and filled with ambition they arrived in the rubber, spice and coffee plantations of Southeast Asia. Their journeys form the core of Amrith’s book. Tamil labour to the Malay peninsula; migration from South India to Southeast Asia; journeys that linked emigrants from the Coromandel Coast to Malaya, Singapore, Aceh and the Arakan Coast – the links that bound people across the Bay were stronger, in many ways, than those that tied them to their homelands. This movement of Tamils to the rubber plantations of Malaysia is comparable with the travails of the guest workers who now find mixed welcomes in the Middle East.

Crossing Bay of Bengal Sunil S Amrith.Indian Link
Sunil Amrith

For centuries the Bay of Bengal also served as a maritime highway between India and China, and later as a battleground for European empires, all while being shaped by the monsoons and by human migration. Imperial powers in the nineteenth century, abetted by the force of capital and the power of steam, reconfigured the Bay in their quest for coffee, rice, and rubber. Today, rising waters leave the Bay of Bengal’s shores especially vulnerable to climate change. At the same time, its location makes it central to struggles over Asia’s future. Amrith’s evocative and compelling narrative of the region’s pasts offers insights critical to understanding and confronting the many challenges facing Asia in the decades ahead.

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Delhi-based Madhulika Liddle has carved a niche for herself as a writer of historical whodunits featuring the suave sleuth Muzaffar Jang, a seventeenth century detective. Jang is a Mughal nobleman with a penchant for solving crimes, who first made an appearance in a short story by Liddle. After that he went on to appear in several novels and a short story collection much to the delight of his fans. He returns now, in yet another novel Crimson City, this time with a charming wife by his side.

Madhulika’s father Andrew Liddle is an authority on Mughul numismatics and it may well be that she got her passion for Mughal period and history from him!

Madhulika Liddle.Indian Link

In her first novel, The Englishman’s Cameo (2009), Liddle introduced Muzaffar Jang to her readers: a 25-year-old Mughal nobleman living in the Delhi who ends up investigating a murder of which his friend, a jeweller’s assistant, is accused. The book became a bestseller in India that year, and was published in French by Editions Philippe Picquier, as Le Camée Anglais. The book evoked the seventeenth century Mughal era through authentic depiction of its manners, fashion, jewellery and architecture.

Liddle’s next book The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries (2011) was a collection of ten short mystery stories which were set against varying backdrops, including the Imperial Atelier, a traditional Mughal garden, the sarai built by the Princess Jahanara in Delhi, and the Royal Elephant Stables.

Crimson City.Indian Link

Engraved in Stone (2012), the third book in the series, is about the muder of a wealthy and influential merchant named Mumtaz Hassan in Agra. The Diwan-e-Kul, Mir Jumla (who is in Agra, en route to the Deccan, where he’s been sent on a campaign) assigns Muzaffar the task of finding the culprit.

In her most recent Muzaffar Jang mystery, Crimson City, published this year, Liddle’s detective returns to the Delhi of 1657. While the Mughal armies besiege Bidar in the Deccan, Muzaffar comes up against a series of murders in his neighbourhood, as well as other unconnected crimes, including the abduction of a moneylender’s infant son, and the death of a wealthy nobleman in the bath house he himself had built.

If you love a good mystery, a dose of Mughal history and love Delhi, this will be right up your alley!

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