Intrigues of historical India are always interesting subjects for one to delve into. And historical fiction is one delightful tool where knowledge, scholarship, imagination and literary craft come together and recreate the era in front of the reader. The books of this genre take the subject out of its endless list of names, events and years and bring the past to life and deliver a slice of the period experience.
“Shadows and Secrets” is one such admirable attempt by Harini Srinivasan where her protagonist Shaunaka (introduced in her debut work “The Curse of Anuganga”) takes us closer to the Golden period of Indian history.
Set in 403 CE or VIkram Samvat 459 as the author diligently fixes the period of her story, a series of high-profile deaths and murders rock the formidable Gupta Empire. Even as the empire gears up for its biggest Buddhist festival, the body of an unidentified foreigner is found behind the otherwise pristine ashram of Acharya Brihaspati at Pataliputra. That is not all. There are other deaths, questionable absences, convenient coincidences in the great capital city of Guptas. Parallelly, the daughter of Emperor Chandragupta, Prabhavati, the Queen of Vakatakas is struck by another tragedy, the death of her first born. Thus starts the second sojourn of unravelling the royal intrigues through a sojourn of espionage for our protagonist Shaunaka.
Introduced as the elder son of the leading goldsmith of Nandivardhana, the Vakataka capital. Readers of the author’s last book “The Curse of Anuganga” would already know Shaunaka’s attention to detail, loyalty to the throne and endearing courage. In “Shadows and Secrets”, one gets to meet a much suave and well trained Shaunaka who knows the complications of royal intrigues and the dangers that loom around. But the other side is a powerful enemy and Shaunaka has his work cut out.
Back at Pataliputra, the peace-loving Acharya Brihaspati finds himself more and more entangled in the twin murder cases and adding to his troubles, is the kingdom’s leading courtesan Devi Rajyasri seeking refuge at his place with multiple circumstantial evidences pointing at her. The epicentre of the whole series of morbid events, I thought would be from someone in house, with designs on power. But the twist in the story ends up pointing at an international angle. Not to mention, Harini got me interested in the 4th Century Roman history now!
What makes Shadows and Secrets a delightful read is the layered world building done by the author not just in terms of historical accuracy but also in weaving of the aesthetic background and crafting of lively characters. The topography of ancient cities, the bustling spirit of the communities that existed back then, the social and familial practices, spirited conversations, debates and deductions, all come together in the making of this page turner.
Readers should not expect a linear murder mystery plot with its usual tropes when they read the book. Instead, the realistic nature of human ambitions and weaknesses in a grander game of powerplay comes to the fore along with the detail and vibrance of the Gupta Empire in Harini’s masterfully woven tale. The narrative is driven by multiple perspectives and the multitude of characters serve as a variety of windows to specific aspects of the era where the story is set in.
That way, the book is a rich experience of historical Gupta India along with the nail-biting thriller story that brings it all alive. The book has been praised by Nandini Sen Gupta, an accomplished author who is an authority on the Gupta Era herself and does not have a single dull moment. The lively conversations between various characters, the melodramatic deliveries and carefully curated use of metaphors remind me of the legendary Ponniyin Selvan. Hope Harini Srinivasan writes more such captivating thrillers set in the Gupta Era and later, expand into many more unexplored pages of Indian history.
The cover, the page quality and binding is top notch and the book is a friendly fit in your office bag or a travel bag and a great companion when caught in a traffic jam. I only wish the publisher had invested in a larger font and a better page setting.
Sai swaroopa Iyer is a bestselling author of notable books such as Abhaya, Avishi, Draupadi and Mauri. She has an MBA from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and is a former investment professional.