In this work of fiction set in Delhi of 1857, just before the start of Ghadar or the first War of Independence, the very first thing that piques your interest is its title, Murder at the Mushaira. And when you are told that the poet laureate Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib” is the main protagonist of this murder mystery where he is going to investigate a murder, you’re practically committed.

A grand mushaira has been organised at the palatial house of a Delhi nobleman, attended by the crème de la crème of the city. One of the participating poets, Sukhan Khairabadi, is found dead by a servant the following morning. Khairabadi was a man of dubious distinction, a collaborator with the East India Company at a time when the air was suffused with the news of imminent revolt by the Indians against the company, unrest in the army barracks being a particular matter of concern.

And, because of Khairabadi’s proximity to the East India Company, the senior officials at the company are keen to resolve this murder case at the earliest. A young police officer, Kirori Mal Chainsukh, is given the task of investigating this case. Kirori Mal is a novice in the police department and finds it difficult to handle the investigation alone. Hence, he seeks help from his uncle’s friend, Mirza Ghalib. Why Ghalib? Because Ghalib, besides being a great poet, has also become famous for solving a number of crimes with the deftness of a professional detective.

Mirza Ghalib’s introduction as a detective doesn’t sound contrived or forced, thanks to Raza Mir’s ingenuity in justifying this new role with interesting and believable back stories. Mir’s plotting is interesting and believable in equal measure; and all the important characters of the novel are multilayered and distinctly drawn.

The author has used his knowledge of history of Urdu poetry to sketch out a Ghalib who is not different from the poet we know, despite the fact that his role in this novel is new and has nothing to do with his real life. His sense of humour, his financial hardships and his grief at losing seven children come alive on these pages. And none of these detours from the main plot disturb the flow of the story.

There are several other interesting characters besides Ghalib, and some of them were real historical persons. A brief appearances by great poets of yesteryears, Anees, Dabir, Dagh, etc, transport the reader effectively to 1857. There is an interesting reference of Munshi Nawal Kishore, the legendary Lucknow-based publisher of the 19th century, known for publishing the Urdu fantasies Daastan-e-Amir Hamza and Tilisme-Hoshruba, based on the old oral tradition of storytelling, dastangoi. Pandit Ratan Nath Sharshar, an iconic Urdu poet of the 19th century, also makes a cameo appearance as a ten year old child prodigy.

Amongst the fictional characters, Ram Chandra Mathur is most impactful. A newly converted Christian, Ram Chandra is professor at a Delhi college who helps Ghalib solve the murder case using his scientific knowledge. Coming from a poor family, Ram Chandra had married the mentally challenged daughter of a rich man, and does not have a normal marital life. Obviously, he is not a happy man, though he pretends to be one. His conversion to Christianity seems to be his way to deal with the sorrows and emptiness in his life. The author has sketched this character with diligence and empathy without getting into a lengthy backstory.

There are other subplots that give a sense of time and place to the story. One of them is related to the first war of independence. The novel provides a fair idea of what was going on in Delhi in 1857 just before the rebels marched towards Delhi in order to overthrow the ruthless British East India Company and to proclaim the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, emperor of India. And how the elites and the hoi polloi of Delhi went about their daily lives through all of this.

Besides being a murder mystery, the novel is, also, therefore, historical fiction enriched with socio-cultural and socio-political details. The prose has the strong flavour of the traditional Urdu fiction, replete with the simile and metaphors. The ornamental writing works well, giving the novel a feel of the 19th century Delhi.

Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic and banker. His debut novel Patna Blues has been translated into eight languages. He can be reached here.

Murder at the Mushaira

Murder at the Mushaira, Raza Mir, Aleph Book Company.