If you think about it, Mirza Ghalib as an amateur detective who solves domestic crimes—from finding out who is stealing a cousin’s prize sheep to helping put out simmering tensions in Shahjahanabad, Delhi’s walled city—makes so much sense that it’s a wonder he hasn’t been cast as an Indian Sherlock Holmes before Raza Mir's Murder at the Mushaira.
By all accounts (and by the evidence of his own writing, especially his collected letters), Ghalib wore his scholarship and erudition lightly, never taking himself too seriously and maintaining an ironic self-deprecation in his interactions with others and in his writing. He was a student of human nature, and something of a cynic who questioned everything from religion to life and death, but retained an essential warmth that made him popular among most of his peers. Also, he was highly observant, willing to bend the rules, and blisteringly intelligent—qualities no detective can do without.
Mir could probably have created a brand new detective solving crimes in 19th century Shahjahanabad—maybe someone along the lines of Madhulika Liddle’s 17th century Mughal detective Muzaffar Jung—but placing Ghalib at the centre of these events is one of those literary masterstrokes that feels absolutely right.
Not every character in the book is based on a real person, though, and Ghalib is helped in his quest for the truth by several extremely colourful invented characters—from the innocent young investigating officer Kirorimal Chainsukh to a beautiful and intelligent courtesan, Ratna Bai, and a gay professor of science from ‘Delhi College’, Master Ramachandra, who, like most Victorian scientists, is as much a dab hand at performing complex chemical experiments in his lab as he is at investigating forensic evidence at the scene of a murder.
The murder, of course, takes place at a mushaira, where poets from across the land pull an all-nighter trying to impress the gathering with their writing and machismo at the stately home of a haughty but impoverished Nawab, Iftikhar Hasan. In the early hours of the morning, when most of the company has departed, cleaner Kallu Mian finds one of the poets dead in the Gol Kothi of the Nawab’s haveli, where the mushaira was held overnight, the hilt of an ornate dagger sticking out of his chest.
But even before we meet these characters, there is the rider from Mathura. The book opens with an evocative scene of a lone horseman riding towards Delhi with revenge in his heart for all the atrocities and abuses of power of the British raj, and you realise with a start the significance of the year in which these events are set.
It's 1857, and the stark violence of the "sepoy mutiny", which subsequently became a pogrom against the British population in India, is imminent. It was a time of high passion and intrigue, with an extremely efficient system of planning and communication, which led to coordinated attacks against the British across north India. Mir uses the atmosphere of intrigue and impending darkness to great effect, slowly drawing the apparently domestic crime of a debauched poet’s murder into the larger picture of an uneasy nation on the brink of civil war.
And he does all of this with a light hand and an effervescent sense of humour, making the book a highly enjoyable read that, like its protagonist, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Murder and its investigation have often been used by authors to write excellent, highly atmospheric historical novels teeming with colour and weaving in and out of established historical truths. Mir's work falls neatly into the precedent set by Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, both classic examples of the genre.
As the author of books like Ghalib: A Thousand Desires and The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu Poetry, Mir inevitably peppers the book with Urdu poetry—each chapter begins with a couplet by Ghalib, for instance—and all of this combine to make Murder at the Mushaira as much a compelling novel of manners that brings a specific time and place vividly alive, as a crime novel.