Murder mysteries make natural period pieces, because passion, crime, investigation and come-uppance speak to material culture and social manners. Miss Marple evokes mid-20th century Britain, Inspector Montalbano—contemporary Sicily. Raza Mir’s Murder in the Mushaira brings to life mid-19th-century Shahjahan-abad (as Delhi was then known), its Ramazan celebrations, noble palaces, shrines, shops and slums. He lets us smell the boiled sweet meats, the ambergris-heavy perfumes and the odors of the outhouse. We hear Urdu poets declaim their ghazals to polite applause as part of the mushairas of the title. So depicted, Mir’s Shahjahan-abad becomes a familiar place, despite the barriers of time, culture and language that separate us from the characters of his new novel.
The writer of a historical novel has to balance between the need to make the ambience appear suitably authentic, without so many archaisms that the reader gets distracted. Mir’s fluid, contemporary American dialogue comes out about right as the recreation of the racy, sophisticated Dehliwallahs of the time, except when a man pawns his family “tchotchkes”, an unforgivable Yiddishism. Another jarring note is the British resident calling for his female secretary Beckie, an anachronism by about 80 years. Besides these few slips, Mir navigates the details of Ghalib’s era with a sure eye and ear.
Readers in any case will not take Murder as a guide to the manners of late Mughal Delhi. For that they have Dalrymple’s White Mughals. Mir’s characters have much in common with contemporary Delhiwallahs. His women especially enjoy an anachronistic degree of freedom But this is beside the point. Mir’s women move the action of this novel forward in a way they could not do if they strictly observed purdah.
This is a straightforward murder mystery with a victim so disliked in his lifetime that more than one person is suspected of the killing. Real complications ensue as a colorful cast of characters carry on love affairs whilst plotting to overthrow British rule in India. The story moves along briskly with important psychological and social details being supplied by characters to one another in the course of their dialogue, a device the author favors to avoid too much internal monologue or narrative. The latter is more in keeping with the chatty culture of the protagonists.
Asadullah Mirza “Ghalib” is the hero of the story. As one of India’s greatest poets, Ghalib’s portrayal here necessarily captures our full attention. Raza invents much imaginative detail about the poet’s personal life. As an Indo-Muslim aristocrat neither Ghalib nor his circle recorded many intimacies for posterity. A sense of his person emerges from his extensive correspondence (edited in English by Ralph Russel and Khorshid ul Islam, 1994). He suffered terribly from the early deaths of his children and degrading poverty. Delhi folk traditions amplified these details, that then inspired the Bollywood and Doordarshan biopics of 1954 and 1988. The Ghalib of this tradition combines arrogance, a sense of fun, loyalty, and sentimentality. Mir takes this figure of Ghalib and deploys him to good account to act as a worldly and wise foil for the passions and foibles of his fellow citizens on the eve of the Sepoy Revolt/First Indian War of Independence. While the historical Ghalib disapproved of the hotheads taking on the British, the poet’s role in this telling cannot be discussed without a plot spoiler.
The simmering sepoy mutiny provides much of the tension in Murder. It will break out a week after the murder, and will end with Delhi sacked and in flames, with Ghalib’s life hanging by a thread among Britons crazed for revenge. Mir’s depiction of the English-Indian tensions is melodramatic. Bollywood maintains a few “goras”, handlebar-mustachioed, cruel-looking blond men, to represent the grasping Angrez in historical films. Mir appears to have used the same central casting.
Bollywood’s problem now is not the portrayal of English, but of Muslims, vilified in many recent films. Mir’s work evokes an India where Muslims and Hindus pray at one another’s shrines, know and respect their neighbors’ traditions and exchange wishes on their respective feast days. I hope someone in Bollywood picks up Murder in the Mushaira and makes the third Ghalib biopic. Like Mir’s novel, such a film would be fun to watch, would initiate a new generation into the cult of their great poet, and would allow them to savor the cultural and human richness of old Shahjahan-abad.
David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). He is working on a new book about the horse in Asian history.