The thing I love about Sharath Komarraju’s books – and I have said this over and over again – is the crisp narrative that doesn’t lose its warmth. A paradox if ever there was one. But Komarraju, in all his glory, knows how to keep the paradox positive. His strength has always been mythology, as seen with his Hastinapur series, the most recent of which was The Queens of Hastinapur.
Even with his other works, Sharath Komarraju showed that he knows how to bring the right balance to the story. Now, with his latest murder mystery, The Tree Bears Witness, he reiterates the hold he has over the language. The Tree Bears Witness is in the same series as his earlier work, The Crows of Agra (which I regret not reading). But the beauty of the author’s writing is that his books can also be read as standalone stories.
As with The Crows of Agra, Sharath Komarraju puts his spin on legendary smartass courtier and Akbar’s trusted advisor, Birbal’s wits to a murder mystery in The Tree Bears Witness. We know him from the famous Akbar-Birbal stories of our childhood. And now, Komarraju, in The Tree Bears Witness shows layers to Birbal’s character that we never bothered finding out about, because we were too enamored by his smooth tongue and sharp wit.
Here’s a summary (as on the blurb) of what The Tree Bears Witness is all about:
Barely a month has passed since the royal wedding of Emperor Akbar to the legendary Jodha when the new queen’s brother, Sujjamal, is found murdered in the palace gardens. With his honour and reputation at stake, Akbar asks his trusted advisor Birbal to solve the mystery. The murder has taken place in a garden, in a spot between two mango trees, and the two guards who are eyewitnesses have conflicting versions of what could have happened. Was it suicide? Was it Akbar himself who ordered the killing or was it the Rajputs who accompanied Sujjamal, his uncles and cousin, who are guilty?
Set in a period that has been described as the golden age of the Mughals, the novel draws us into the royal court of Agra, abuzz with political intrigue, personal enmities and hidden rivalries, where everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise.
The author’s narrative, as with his every work, is simple, while maintaining the beauty of well-woven stories. Agatha Christie is incomparable, but reading The Tree Bears Witness brings back memories of her writing style. I don’t say that in a negative sense, as though Sharath Komarraju’s style mimics Christie’s. I mean to say that just like Christie had a style of her own, Komarraju has a distinct one, too. [That made more sense in my head, but I hope you got the point.]
Birbal, as we know him, is the smart, silver-tongued courtier who can look through the mess and find the facts that lead him to the truth. In The Tree Bears Witness, we see more of Birbal’s origins, even if they are tucked away in his thoughts generated in connection with facts related to the murder mystery. Originally Mahesh Das, he pledges allegiance to Akbar, and takes up the court name of Birbal, or Raja Birbal. Thus he comes to solving the crime that threatens to bring the Mughal-Rajput alliance crumbling to the ground.
Sharath Komarraju gets everything right in The Tree Bears Witness. From how Mughal emperors referred to themselves as ‘hum’ (‘we’ in the book), to the way they dressed, to the way of speech among the people of that time – everything is smooth and as imaginable as can be. He maintains the pace throughout the book, putting in you an eagerness to find out what happens. A curiosity that comes only with extremely well-written murder mysteries. He builds the suspense to a point where you feel you are in the scene. You identify mysteriously with Birbal and the way his thoughts tumble around in disarray.
At different points in the story, you start speculating about who the killer could be. Then you think, “No, it can’t be.” Then a thought comes to you. “Why can it not?” This loop can be torturous. And this is testimony to how the author has sketched the events and the manner in which they come about or are revealed.
The Tree Bears Witness has suspense, wit, history, and well-written characters. It is everything that a murder mystery should be and everything that Sharath Komarraju’s talent has always shown to be. I knew I wouldn’t be let down by it and at the end of this brilliant book, I feel vindicated!
Needless to say, I absolutely love The Tree Bears Witness!
Rating: 4 .5/5 stars
P.S. Half a star less because of how it ended. But it was in compliance with how empires operated at the time. I know that the 4.5 stars more than make up for the missing half star. 🙂