Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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A Murder Mystery Woven into a Historical Fiction Set During the Time of the Last Mughal

Author: Raza Mir

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

Genre: Historical Fiction, Murder mystery


Book summary:

3 May 1857. India stands on the brink of war. Everywhere in its cities, towns, and villages, rebels and revolutionaries are massing to overthrow the ruthless and corrupt British East India Company which has taken over the country and laid it to waste. In Delhi, the capital, even as the plot to get rid of the hated foreigners gathers intensity, the busy social life of the city hums along. Nautch girls entertain clients, nawabs host mushairas or poetry soirees in which the finest poets of the realm congregate to recite their latest verse and intrigue, the wealthy roister in magnificent havelis, and the drinking dens of the city continue to pack in customers.

One morning, Kallu, a retainer at a Delhi haveli, cleaning up after a grand mushaira, discovers a poet stabbed to death with a polished agate dagger. Gruesome as it is, the murder appears to be a fairly run of the mill crime until anxious officials of the East India Company make it a matter of the highest priority.

Instructions are issued for the murderer to be found and arrested immediately. But who is the killer? The dead man had many enemies and the investigating officer Kirorimal Chainsukh soon discovers there are dozens of suspects, an equal number of motives, and waves of secrets and lies that threaten to overwhelm him. As the pressure on him to solve the crime increases, Chainsukh turns to Mirza Ghalib, poet laureate and amateur detective, for help.

Ghalib’s tools are his formidable intelligence, intimate knowledge of the machinations of Delhi high society, ferocious curiosity, and reliance on the new science of forensics that his friend the scientist Master Ramachandra has introduced him to. As Ghalib begins to collect evidence and dig into the case, he uncovers an ever-widening list of suspects, and a sinister conspiracy that involves many of Delhi’s most important men and women.

Set against the backdrop of India’s First War of Independence, Murder at the Mushaira is at once a brilliantly constructed murder mystery and the finest historical novel by an Indian author in recent times.


About the Author:

Raza Mir is the author of Ghalib: A Thousand Desires, The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu Poetry, and the co-author of Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry.


My Review:

Murder at the Mushaira by Raza Mir is that rare book that is going to be loved by readers across genres: there is historical fiction and there is a murder mystery brought together by a writing that reflects a deep knowledge and understanding of the era the story is placed. Set in the time of the tumult leading to events in Dilli during May 1857 when discontent across British India was fermenting, this is a narrative that comes to life with a vibrant flourish. The starting is deceptive: the prologue brings in an element of thrill, a mysterious sepoy in the British India army is fleeing from a scene leading to the first chapter: there is to be a mushaira, a celebration of poetry in a grand setting.

The writer takes you on a deceptive path: the aroma of food, the ambience; the bustle at the haveli of a rich and well known Nawab known for his largesse, the domestic lives of the women of the time, the clamour for poets to be recognized. Enter Mirza Ghalib who gatecrashes the mushaira, slightly exposing the social rivalry and personal jealousies and leads to the undercurrents of the socio political winds that are about. What follows then on takes you to a world that is crumbling slowly, shimmering with discontent and distrust and nationalist fervor on one side and a foreign force that must close ranks to continue their rule and oppression. With Ghalib in the picture, there is deadpan humour and there is worldly wisdom: in the way he complains about not being paid for ghostwriting a poem published under a royal name, in the way he looks at relationships that are not accepted by society, much less understood.

There is a cast of 81 characters in the book but the writing never veers off from adding to the narrative. The author adds real life history and real characters in imagined situations and relationships that includes an intimate peek into the domestic world of Ghalib’s family; the ties between the real life Master Ramachandra, Professor at Delhi College and his protégée Zakaullah Khan Delvi and the dramatic turn of events in the tumultuous life of Mohan Lal Zutshi.

Through the conversations around the main protagonists, the author gives a look at the socio-cultural identities, the social intellect of the times, the friction and forces of a brief unity that existed in 1857. The detailing on the attire and clothing, the architectural highlights of public and private buildings add to the writing and the plot firmly taking readers into a long ago era that comes alive through the lives of the characters and the situations they are in. This is more than just a historical fiction with a murder thrown in, rather it is writing that is well research and presented such that one is left thoroughly captivated. This is one book that ought to make it to a screen adaptation as a series.

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