Unlike the other servants in the Nawab’s employ, Kallu was not one to forage for leftovers, however delectable; he had too much self-respect for that. His sense of self was simple, earthy, and unyielding. He nodded to his wife in crusty gratitude; he knew it would be a long day, and that he would be hungry. He would eat the roti as he walked to the haveli. No food was available during the day at the haveli during Ramzan. Even Hindu employees like Ramji had no option but to fast, at least in public.
“Who was at the mushaira last night?” asked Ishrat, as Kallu got ready to leave.
“Well, Shahenshah Zafar sent a poem, but he rarely attends any mushairas that are not held at the Red Fort. His older son, Mirza Fakhru, used to do the sadaarat, the job of master of ceremonies, until he passed away last year. Maybe it was done by his other son, Mirza Mughal, or the Nawab himself,” he said. “Ah yes, Mir Anees and Mirza Dabeer came from Lucknow.”
Ishrat perked up. Of all the poets, she loved Anees and Dabeer, for they wrote the marsiyas of lamentation for Muharram. “Who else?” she asked eagerly. Kallu was amused by his wife’s curiosity, especially given her ill-concealed distaste for mushairas. But like most of those who worked there she was always keen for news and gossip about the haveli.
“Well, among the seniors, there was Mufti Sadruddin Azurda and Syed Agha Hasan Amanat. That young poet Daagh sahib, and Maulana Hali. Hali sahib brought a young writer named Nazir Ahmed with him, though I wonder why. That strange man went around denouncing mushairas as decadent, claiming that true Muslims should avoid poetry because it was kufr. Speaking of kafirs, Munshi Naval Kishore came from Lucknow. Kishore sahib owns a printing press, and they will print books of poetry on big machines, hundreds of copies at a time, and sell them in bookstores.”
“Nonsense Angrez ideas,” squawked Ishrat. “Are there that many people who know how to read? Anyway, what about Mirza Ghalib?”
“The Nawab cannot stand the old man. He was invited, of course, and to everybody’s relief, he refused. But I saw him briefly in the haveli; he was headed to the zanana, possibly to tutor Zainab beti.”
“I like Mirza,” said Ishrat defiantly. “His poetry is impossible to understand, but he is always nice to me. When he saw Nusrat, he gave her a piece of candy and offered me an anna to buy milk for her.”
“True,” agreed Kallu. “He is always polite to the servants, and insufferably rude to the Nawab sahib.”
“Unlike that haraami Sukhan Khairabadi,” said Ishrat, shocking Kallu with her vehemence. Ishrat had this habit of speaking her mind, and though she had never slipped up in public, he knew that one such utterance in the wrong place would spell disaster for people like them.
“Don’t speak like that – ” he began, but he knew that once she began, she would not stop until she had finished what she had to say.
“I will speak in any way I like. This is my house. I can never forget how he slapped and cursed you in public. All because you steadied him when he was falling down the stairs in his drunken stupor! Anyway, he is the worst poet in the world. Even I can write poetry by rhyming aaftab and shabaab and sharaab and janaab, the doggerel-monger.”
Kallu waited, resigned. Ishrat was often too spirited to control but he didn’t mind, had he been the demonstrative kind, he would have had the words to tell her that he was as deeply in love with her as he had been two decades ago when they had eloped from the kitchen of Nawab Iftikhar Hasan. A maid running away with a sweeper.
The scandal had been intense, and in hindsight, unbelievably hypocritical. Kallu’s intentions had been far nobler than all those highborn guests of the Nawab who had been eyeing Ishrat lecherously, waiting to have their way with her, by force or financial inducement. He had, in a sense, rescued her from the fate that befell most comely young girls in the employ of the decrepit feudality of Delhi.
They had run away east for a few months, come back married, and miraculously been accepted back into the haveli’s employ, though they had suffered many a pointed barb from their masters about their “licentious” behaviour ever since. No matter. Kallu could not help feeling grateful to Allah that he and Ishrat had made a wonderful home for themselves, simple but dignified.
Their daughter, Nusrat, was now married to a hardworking farmer in Jhansi, and was pregnant with their first child. Their only son, Abbas, had died of a mysterious fever at the age of six, but their shared grief at his loss had brought them even closer.
Kallu wanted to tell Ishrat that the incident she had witnessed was hardly the only humiliation he had endured at the haveli. What could one expect when one served the inebriated and depraved nobility of Delhi, who stood around and spouted empty erotic verse while two-faced foreigners stole their country from under their noses? But to tell Ishrat that a slap and an insult was part of the routine for him would have broken her heart. So he let her rant as he got ready to leave.
“Yes, Khairabadi will be there as well. I will try and avoid him. All right, I am off.”
“I will also be at the haveli later, Begum sahib has asked me to come and help,” she called after him. “When we return, let us stop at the bazaar and bring back some limestone, we need to whitewash the house before Eid.”
“Fine,” he replied, as he stepped out into the warm air.
A recent, unseasonal rainstorm had washed Delhi. The streets were deserted, but the city was beginning to stir. The aroma of ghee wafted from the shop of Ghantewala halwaai, people had bought jalebis for the early pre-fast meal. The ovens of the paratha shops were redolent with the smell of baked bread, and Kallu could make out the outlines of workers kneading dough to be kept ready for later.
A milkman walked his buffalo towards the square, fresh dairy for the first customers of the morning. Kallu walked past the Naya Mandir in Dharampura and thought he heard the Hanuman Chalisa being chanted by a solitary priest. Soon the muezzin at the Jama Masjid would be sounding the azaan. He realised that his conversation with Ishrat had made him late and hurried towards the haveli.
The haveli of Nawab Iftikhar Hasan was an imposing building about two kos north of his house. Kallu had heard an Angrez once refer to that distance as four miles. It would normally take an hour and a half to walk that distance, but Kallu was quicker than most, and reached in an hour. He knocked on the huge wooden gate – the same three measured knocks he had used for the past two decades. “Coming,” said a sleepy voice from inside. The gate opened, and the surly face of Ghouse, the night guard, gazed at Kallu.
“Jaagte raho,” said Kallu slyly. Stay awake. The joke, referring to Ghouse’s tendency to treat the night watch as bedtime, had grown old years ago, and produced neither embarrassment nor anger from the watchman. Wordlessly, he went to his bedding and began folding it up. He had begun to treat Kallu’s arrival as an alarm clock of sorts.
Kallu walked past the Gol Kothi, and into the Jannatnuma Hall. The mushaira had been scheduled to start after the Isha prayers at nine the previous night and had probably ended when the participants staggered to their appointed chambers around three in the morning, either to wash for their morning prayers, or to sleep off their hangovers. He steeled himself for the labours of cleaning up after the cavorting of the ashraaf noblemen.
He found a mess all right, and something else. Amongst the spilled drinks, poorly aimed squirts of betel juice, broken glass, and half-eaten kababs, was the figure of Sukhan Khairabadi, seated awkwardly on the floor, supported by a large bolster, looking straight at him.
Kallu felt a tingle of fear run up his spine. He wondered if he was going to be berated for slights unknown. Khairabadi was known for his irrationality, especially when inebriated. He had once kicked Ghouse on the backside for not bringing him his huqqah. When Ghouse had protested that Khairabadi sahib had never asked for the huqqah, Khairabadi had punched him so hard for his “insolence” that the poor man had to go to a jarrah for balm, and to get his shoulder joint reset. Kallu was one of his favourite victims; besides the incident Ishrat had witnessed, Khairabadi had once squirted paan spittle at him for “showing me the eye”, when he had done no such thing.
Even as he steeled himself for abuse, Kallu noticed that Khairabadi’s expression was strangely vacant. His eyes were open, but he did not look particularly awake.
Not wishing to provoke him, Kallu tried to walk quietly past the hulking figure, when he noticed the hilt of the dagger sticking out of Khairabadi’s chest, and the circle of congealed blood around it.
Later, when recounting the incident to Ishrat, he would recollect that his first emotion on realising that Khairabadi was dead was neither fear nor horror, but unexpectedly one of aesthetic appreciation for the murder weapon. He noted that the hilt of the dagger sticking out of the Nawab’s chest was made of such a well-polished agate that it seemed like a candle that had just been extinguished, with a hint of a shiny moistness.
It had a beautifully calligraphed inscription on it, which Kallu could not read. He wondered whether it was Persian or Arabic. Could it be that line that he had heard quoted by a maulana at a majlis, “La fata illa Ali, la saif illa Zulfiquar?” That there is no youth like Ali, and no sword like his Zulfiqar? That would be an appropriate inscription for such a magnificent weapon.
The next emotion he felt was elation. I’m so thrilled, you are dead, you gross, abusive haraami!
After admiring the workmanship of the dagger hilt for a few more moments, Kallu walked out of the kothi and raised the alarm.
Excerpted with permission from Murder At The Mushaira, Raza Mir, Aleph Book Company.
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