Historical Thriller Books

Detective Ghalib investigates: Ranjana Sengupta reviews ‘Murder at the Mushaira’ by Raza Mir

The year 1857 catches at our collective imagination: the heroic, doomed endeavour, the mix of high and low who joined the fight for freedom, the horrific reprisals. Murder at the Mushaira begins on the moonlit night of May 2, 1857, with a messenger galloping to Delhi carrying a letter for the rebels, a posse of East India Company soldiers in hot pursuit. It ends in September with the uprising’s defeat and a whole city, its traditions and way of life, systematically dismembered.

In between, in the run-up to the uprising, there is a murder during a mushaira at the grand haveli of Nawab Iftikar Hasan. The victim, a poet called Sukhan Khairabadi, has been stabbed to death with an agate-handled dagger. He is a rather dodgy character, thought to be a spy in the pay of the East India Company, and worse, a second-rate poet. Company officials, already uneasy over the widespread anger over greased cartridges, fear the murder is connected to a broader discontent.

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High tension

The investigation is handed over to the Naib Kotwal of Chandni Chowk, Kirorimal Chainsukh, who, realising someone familiar with the mushaira scene would be invaluable, enlists the help of the legendary poet Mirza Ghalib.

Detective Ghalib investigates: Ranjana Sengupta reviews ‘Murder at the Mushaira’ by Raza Mir

It is a time of high tension. Resentment at the Company’s arrogance and greed is widespread among Indians but their power is feared and their informers are everywhere. Meanwhile, the Mughal world is collapsing. In the vacuum, loyalties are shifting and old ties being betrayed. There is an array of characters, some fictional, some historical. The latter include Ghalib, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the junior magistrate Theophilus Metcalfe, the poet Daagh, the Delhi College professor Master Ramachandra, the publisher Munshi Nawal Kishore, and others.

Beguiling universe

There are any number of potential suspects — the owner of the haveli, Nawab Iftikar, his wife and daughter, their large retinue of staff and their very many guests, not to mention all the poets who attended the mushaira.

As Ghalib, aided by Master Ramachandra, sets out to unravel the complexities of the crime, it becomes apparent that the murder and the larger conspiracy of the rebellion are connected. As the investigation progresses, he is drawn into the rebels’ plans.

There are twists and turns aplenty but what makes Murder at the Mushaira such an engaging read is the plethora of period detail. The sights, sounds and smells of Shahjahanabad spill out of every page — life in a grand haveli; the maze of busy thoroughfares and narrow, winding alleys; a high-class tavern where English wine is available; the shadow-barred courtyard of a small mosque — all make for a densely imagined and beguiling universe.

Alternative account

Such forays into the past are not new in crime fiction. Historical detectives have a long and prestigious pedigree, having apprehended murderers in times and places as far apart as ancient Rome, medieval Shrewsbury, and Jazz Age Australia. Their stories, however, have quite a few themes in common, attesting to the fact that human nature remains the same. Murder at the Mushaira fits well into this category.

The rebellion of 1857 is one of the defining moments of Indian history. For a century, the British version pitched it as a mutiny by disgruntled, violent soldiers with tropes of black holes and inhuman violence against memsahibs and children, as well as a chaotic, fratricidal Indian leadership. Raza Mir gives the alternative account. While the murder mystery is sometimes over-complicated, the character of Ghalib is beautifully drawn — he is a man of a detached, worldly kindness who recognises the uprising’s potential but also sees its weaknesses, and is eager to protect those he can from the consequences of its failure.

The novel is a tender, vividly detailed portrait of Delhi in the throes of calamitous change and the last days of the graceful Mughal world.

Murder at the Mushaira; Raza Mir, Aleph Book Company, ₹799

The writer is former Deputy Publisher at Penguin Random House India and author of Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 1:50:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/detective-ghalib-investigates-ranjana-sengupta-reviews-murder-at-the-mushaira-by-raza-mir/article34279293.ece

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