Set in the Gupta period (approximately 319 to 543 CE), Harini Srinivasan’s ‘The Curse of Anuganga’ is a riveting detective fiction that not only engages the reader with an intricate murder mystery but also brings to life the golden period of Indian history.

It tells the story of an intelligent young man called Shaunaka, a resident of the ancient city of Nandivardhana, who finds himself solving the murder of Vinayashura, an affluent trader believed to be having some sort of mysterious connection to the royal family.

The readers might find it intriguing that Nandivardhana is today’s Nagardhan, which is located 50 kilometres from Nagpur in Maharashtra.

Srinivasan is an ex-civil servant, writer and an ex-Editorial Advisor / Consultant to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt of India.

She has edited several prestigious publications including three volumes of Selected Speeches of the President: Pranab Mukherjee, The Republican Ethic: President Ram Nath Kovind, Selected Speeches (Vol 1) – M Venkaiah Naidu; Indian Dance: Through a Critic’s Eye, and Abode under the Dome. She started her writing career with ‘The Wizard Tales – Adventures of Bun-Bun’ (Maple Press).

Published by TreeShade Books, the 280-page ‘The Curse of Anuganga’ is priced at Rs 350.

Following is an extract from ‘The Curse of Anuganga’

Courtiers and officials were moving around busily, an important air enveloping their heated discussions — with each one assigned a task that needed to be completed before the date. Spies and informers were also watching the place like hawks ready to swoop down on any suspicious and unwanted element. It is strange then that a young man of nondescript appearance, completely covered in a plain shawl, escaped their notice. He stood stealthily, behind a pillar near one of the halls, where the Queen held her councils, observing the hullaballoo around him. As he cautiously walked past the halls and gardens, it looked like he was making his way out of the private sections into the more public arena. At the massive gates that separated the two portions of the palace, the fierce-looking porter — a huge, towering man named Harsha — stopped this young man, bidding him to uncover his face. Signalling Harsha to be quiet, the young man produced a royal insignia and showed it to him. Harsha, now bereft of his fierceness, was stunned into silence. Here was the man of the moment, the Prince, the Yuvaraja, wishing to go out without any security. Bowing quietly, Harsha excused himself and told the Prince that he could not possibly let him go. However, the Prince had made up his mind. It was an order, and besides, he was not going to leave the palace unaccompanied. And thus it was that Prince Divakara sneaked out of the inner palace!

What was he up to and why? It so happened that an afternoon, not so long back, as Divakara was in his palatial quarters, painting a scene from a play he had seen before, he overheard an interesting conversation. The voices were coming from outside the window.  Two maids, enjoying an afternoon’s rest, were discussing a new group of actors — a theatre troupe that had come from somewhere up in the north, maybe Kasi or Kosala. Hearing the maids describe the acting and oratory of these actors, Divakara had an urge to see them perform. It was not widely known, in fact it had been suppressed, that during his growing years, acting had been a passion for the young prince. Growing up under the tutelage of the great poet and dramatist, Kalidasa, meant that both Divakara and Damodara had been exposed to many plays — of contemporary and ancient renown. Both the boys had been enamoured. If Divakara wanted to act, Damodara wished to write plays! The Queen did not mind this interest nor did she actively discourage it till the time the 15-year-old Divakara wished to become an actor and an acrobat. Of course, a youthful indiscretion with a girl of dubious repute was partly responsible for this sudden ambition. The Queen intervened and put an end to both his indiscretion and his dreams of becoming an actor. Now, three years later, while the indiscretion had largely been forgotten, the embers of buried ambition still lingered. Upon hearing this conversation one afternoon, the prince, who had been feeling more and more like a caged bird, wanted to break free. Just for an afternoon. Just to see the actors rehearse.

This was how Divakara sneaked out of the inner palace courtyards and managed to sneak into the main public section. Once out, he made his way towards the Chitrashala. Actors, acrobats and other performing artists usually had their rehearsals in one of the big, empty, decorated halls, which were located near the Chitrashala. The actual performance would take place either near the specially-erected royal pavilion, closer to the main gate, or in front of the large public halls, where the Queen and the Prince would go out to greet the public.

As he walked on, appreciating the mammoth efforts that were in progress for the wedding, a niggling pain that he had been trying to dismiss emerged once again in the pit of his stomach. Divakara had dismissed these pains as symptoms of the usual nerves and anxiety before such a life- changing event. He realised that he was soon to abandon his boyhood and take on responsibilities as the King and a husband. Aches and pains resulting from nerves were probably common. Aware that this was his one afternoon of freedom, he hobbled on towards the main hall where these actors were said to be practising. There they were. A group of actors and several acrobats stood and sat in the main hall, opposite the Chitrashala. A group of onlookers, mainly citizens who had wandered into the palace estate out of sheer curiosity, had assembled in front of the hall. Divakara found it easy to remain incognito in this crowd to watch the rehearsal. The pain, which he had been ignoring had assumed gigantic proportions and he looked around to see if he could rest anywhere without drawing any attention to himself. Next to the hall was a huge banyan tree under which several onlookers were either standing or sitting. Divakara walked slowly up to the tree and leaned against it.

The actors were rehearsing Malavikagnimitra, one of the Mahakavi’s most celebrated compositions, a favourite of both the actors and the audiences. Just like the onlookers, Divakara was also familiar with it and he could immediately identify the scene that was being rehearsed. As the rehearsal progressed, amidst cat calls and hoots and many goof-ups, Divakara felt his pain take a turn for the worse and felt faint. As he leaned further against the tree, clutching a branch tightly, a tall, young man standing next to him asked him if he needed any assistance. “Yes, please, help me towards the inner courts,” Divakara somehow managed to whisper as he clutched the branch harder. The young man quietly shifted the weight of the ailing prince on to his able shoulders and then said, “Arya, please try and walk. I will take you to the inner courts.” “Please do not attract any attention,” whispered Divakara, now for the first time, ruing the foolhardy idea of stepping out without any protection.