A lithograph (c.1900) of sepoys attacking the Delhi garrison on 11 May, 1857. (Getty Images)
A lithograph (c.1900) of sepoys attacking the Delhi garrison on 11 May, 1857. (Getty Images)

Review: Murder at the Mushaira by Raza Mir

Review: Murder at the Mushaira by Raza Mir
By Percy Bharucha
UPDATED ON MAR 20, 2021 12:28 AM IST
360pp, ₹799; Aleph
360pp, ₹799; Aleph

In Murder at the Mushaira, Raza Mir unites a poet with a detective. Both are devoted to the fundamental act of observation; both students of human nature and behaviour, and there can be fewer puzzles more complex than human motivation. Once one stumbles on this truth it’s hard to fathom why this combination hasn’t been seen before. In this historical crime novel, Mir introduces us to Asadullah Mirza “Ghalib”, Poet Laureate to the last Mughal emperor, detective extraordinaire, and quite the social gadfly.

Set against the backdrop of the 1857 mutiny, the reader is thrown into Delhi, a scene of chaos and tension: the last vestiges of the noble class caught in a losing war with the British Empire and The East India Company for the soul of India; a servant and middle class caught in the crossfire as they navigate the many masters they must now serve. At a mushaira held by Nawab Iftikhar Hasan, a prominent poet, Sukhan Khairabadi, is found murdered, an ornate dagger sticking out of his chest. Upon the discovery of his body, the witness gazes fondly upon the aesthetic beauty of the murder weapon and spends a few moments of quiet elation before raising the alarm. That’s the sort of feeling the victim inspires. In solving this murder Ghalib must navigate a devastatingly complex nexus: he must deal with exceedingly nosy Company officers, a nawab who hates him, and the last remaining members of the peerage. In his perilous journey, he relies upon his trusty aide and friend -- Ramchandra, who not only does most of the forensic work but also serves as Mirza’s political and moral sounding board.

There is a delicate form to Mir’s prose. Amidst the buildup towards the mutiny, with pages devoted to the tension the British face, Mir interjects beautifully with a letter of love by a British officer for this land, its culture, and a beautiful lady. When he speaks of nawabs, architecture, and grand feasts he does so with the patient drawl of nobility -- detailed yet languorous. When he talks of the mutiny, of the rebel leader Sarfaraz Laskar he adopts a more potent form of urgency. In his servants, he infuses a scathing wit that is a joy to read. Ishrat, when referring to Khairabadi, says, “Anyway, he is the worst poet in the world. Even I can write poetry by rhyming aaftab and shabab and sharab and janaab, the doggerel-monger.”

Author Raza Mir (Courtesy Aleph)
Author Raza Mir (Courtesy Aleph)

Mir spends time carving out the personalities of his vast retinue of characters. He portrays Ghalib with flourishes and little Indian details that make him utterly relatable. One of the key conversations of the murder case about poisons takes place between Ghalib and Ramchandra while the former is visiting his dhobi and buying groceries. It is a hilariously sobering chain of events. Menial chores are to Ghalib what tobacco is to Sherlock. Mir neither idolizes nor sanitizes him, presenting him with pettiness, moral laxity, and a sense of self-preservation that borders on cowardice. Ramchandra is often the moral foil to Ghalib’s otherwise, “let them stew” policy.

Of poetry and Delhi neither would be complete without love. Mir presents a range of nature and kinds of love and lovers. Trysts between married couples, same-sex relationships, paramours, servants eloping, all find a home here. Of love, Mir’s character muses,” ...what is love but the sharing of secrets?” Through Ghalib Mir celebrates poetry and the city of Delhi. Each chapter begins with a verse, and of Delhi, Ghalib says “...the world is a body and Delhi its soul.”

If a fault is to be found it is that in the depiction of historical events and mood-building the plot gets neglected. The reader doesn’t breathlessly anticipate the revelation of the killer’s identity and even after the mystery is solved, the book still goes on with the mutiny. Ghalib has barely a nemesis worthy of him and that leaves a void which is hard to fill. Strangely, this does not take away from what Mir has so confidently and casually achieved. He has united worlds for readers for Murder at the Mushaira holds much promise for readers across interests and genres. Those who love words will find much to ruminate about in the verses of Ghalib; those fond of history will find layers of tradition, fact, and anecdote; and those looking for a true bloodhound detective will find this a page turner. Raza Mir’s Asadullah Mirza “Ghalib” will hopefully lead the way for more books in this lovely nook where Indian history and crime intersect.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha

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