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Murder, mushairas and mutiny: historical crime fiction in English comes of age in India
A conversation with Raza Mir, author of the scintillating novel, 'Murder at the Mushaira'
May 2, 1857. Delhi is simmering with tension. In March of that year, a sepoy called Mangal Pandey had attacked British officers in the Barrackpore garrison; he had been arrested and executed. In April, sepoys in Meerut refused to use the Enfield cartridges, greased, it was rumoured, with the fat of cows and pigs and offensive to Hindus and Muslims, both. They had been put in chains and imprisoned. Their comrades, burning with anger, are on the verge of revolt, and plans are underway to overthrow British rule and reinstate Bahadur Shah Zafar, emperor only in name, as the rightful ruler of Hindustan…
Set in Delhi, in the tense and heady days of 1857, Raza Mir’s novel is one of the most elegant works of historical crime fiction I have read in recent times. It has all the classic elements of a whodunit—the gory corpse, a large cast of possible suspects, and the mandatory shoal of red herrings to bemuse and confuse. There is also the competent but nevertheless ineffectual kotwal and, of course, the brilliant amateur detective without whom no crime fiction is quite complete. These are woven together in a compelling tale of intrigue, which fact alone is enough to make this novel an engaging read; but what makes it outstanding is the setting and the author’s unusual choice of sleuth, who is none other than the celebrated poet Mirza Ghalib! Raza Mir’s extensive research on the period and his deep knowledge of the life and works of Ghalib are evident in every word of his novel.
In recent years, historical crime fiction in English has been growing in popularity in India. With Raza Mir’s Murder at the Mushaira, it has come of age. I had the good fortunate to ‘meet’ the author over Zoom last month. Here are excerpts from our conversation, shared with gratitude and the author’s permission. (The excerpts have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
RC: How did you come to write Murder at the Mushaira?
RM: To tell you a little about my life first…the trajectory of the author's life which, in the larger scheme of things is not important, but nonetheless, let me begin with that. As I guess you know, part of the process of being in academics is writing academic stuff, papers and so forth. This kind of writing has its own language and its own conventions. I had to do a lot of this when I was doing my PhD in Management—it was a job and I did it, but I didn't have much fun doing it. I tried to bring my own writing style into it, with limited success. At that point in time, I became interested in writing on Urdu poetry.
Now, growing up in Hyderabad, I had studied Hindi and Telegu in school. But Urdu is my mother tongue and I spoke it all the time at home. So my interest in the language was already there. At some point in time I began to teach myself the script, and, over the course of my teens and twenties, I began to read a lot of Urdu poetry and developed a great interest in it. My initial interest was really modernist poetry, leftist poetry, poetry of anti-colonial organising and stuff like that. So based on that I wrote a book, called Anthems of Resistance. It got published. That was my first encounter with publishing.
This book came to the attention of Penguin India and they asked me to write an anthology of Urdu poetry as an introduction to Urdu poetry for the beginner. I began to understand that this is where my expertise lay. As you know, everybody has certain areas of expertise. I realised that mine, specifically, was that I was mobile between two languages, Urdu and English. So I began to translate, and I put this anthology together. It was called The Taste of Words. This came out around 2014, and it was reasonably successful.
By this time I had developed a reasonable interest in Mirza Ghalib as a poet. I began to read his books. His poetry is notoriously abstruse, abstract, very philosophical, very difficult to get. I began to read it, but then I found also out that Ghalib had a vast body of work in prose, essentially in the form of letters, which had been collected and published. I also discovered that in these letters, where he talks of simple, everyday matters like pensions and telegraphs, his language is extremely accessible. I also found that he had written a book on the 1857 rebellion.
Reading all this I realised that Ghalib is a quintessentially modern subject—because a letter is a very modern mode of communication, and Ghalib is perhaps the first person to use the postal system that the British in India introduced so systematically. Moreover, he is modern in essence, not just temporally modern. It just reveals itself, that this man was born in Mughal India and he died in British India. And the moment of cleavage between the end of the Mughal Empire and the beginning of the colonial empire empire, the formal takeover of this continent by the crown from the East India company? That is our 1857.
So here I had a subject, a very interesting individual. And the subject was walking through history, that too through 1857, the most important historical event of the 19th century! This was a world event, where a small group of people took on the world’s superpower and almost won. I now began reading about 1857, and gradually a plot emerged. I had read enough thrillers. I knew that people like whodunits and that they also like the suspense and tension of a race against time. So I decided layer in both those elements.
RC: And your characters? Your novel has a rich cast of diverse characters, some real historical people, some fictional. How did you ‘find’ them?
RM: Now, I wanted to write a novel, I didn’t want to write a story. A novel has multiple strands, multiple characters, who intersect and go their separate ways, and have their own lives. So I began to do a lot of historical research. And I came upon this character of Master Ramachandra—a very interesting person, a person of science, a contemporary of Ghalib’s. There are brief indications somewhere that they met, but it is not certain that they were friends (as they are in the novel). I now began to layer in several characters from history. I used whatever little I could find, but history is silent on many matters. There I used my imagination to fill in what I could. Munshi Zakaullah, Ramachandra’s junior and friend in the novel, is a historical character—but their relationship as I have written it, is not. Mohan Lal Zutshi, the erstwhile British spy, is a real historical person. Many of the British officers are historical characters.
Ghalib’s own life is also based on what I read and what my research threw up. His wife is a historical figure, the fact that they did not have children, that several of their children died in childbirth or in infancy is documented. And that they also adopted a son, that is also documented. The son unfortunately pre-deceased them. From these facts, I developed the rest of the story, their interaction with each other, the adopted grandchildren, and so on. It is also known that Ghalib had a younger brother who died during the 1857 ghadar, and who had some mental problems. That’s all i know. The rest of it, the details, I filled in.
There are also many fictional characters. I wanted women to have strong and significant roles in my novel. But the way history has been written, women have been written out. As a result, most of the female characters in my novel have been imagined by me.
And I didn't want my novel to be all about rich people—the king, the courtiers, the nawabs—and so I brought in others…
So while there is a lot of extrapolation, I will say that historically there is nothing in the novel that is historically inaccurate, whether documented fact or imagined by me.
RC: How long did it take, this whole process of coming up with this plot, this story, 1857, and then writing it?
RM: This idea of the 1857 revolt as the backdrop against which the story plays out came to my mind over a period of time, it took a long time…The process of writing it took between two and a half and three years—that is, from the time I started actually setting words to paper. Before that the idea was in my head for a good five to six years. So the entire process took at least a decade. But you know, writing is craft and writing is task…
One of my friends suggested I take this novel to Aleph Books, and he introduced me to David Davidar. So once I had written some twenty to thirty pages, I sent them to David. He wrote back and wrote back with so much enthusiasm, and said that English writers writing literary fiction, historical fiction in India are very rare. So my book was historical fiction! David was very courteous and he didn’t hassle me. Once he took the book he began to impose a certain order, a certain structure on the writing of it. For example, he would ask—can you give me something in 6 months, an you give me something in 9 months. So that pushed it along. I also received a lot of very good editorial feedback from Aleph.
RC: You have prefaced each chapter with a few lines from Ghalib, with your translation…
RM: Yes. I chose those couplets the best I could in terms of their relevance to the narrative. You know, we are fortunate that Ghalib was a prolific writer so there is a fair amount of corpus. I tried to stick to the format and fortunately always found something or the other, which then I translated.
RC: And Ghalib as sleuth? Was there anything in his life or his personality or his writings that indicated that he would fit the character of ‘detective’? Or was this purely your invention?
RM: The poet as a detective is possibly the most interesting part of my book, especially for those in India who are familiar with Ghalib. Everyone knows Ghalib was a great poet, and TV serials like Gulzar’s had made him popular. So, people are interested in him. The idea of giving him the role of detective was entirely mine. It is only later that I discovered that there is actually a sub-genre of historical crime fiction in which a real historical character is cast as the detective. Apparently there are several books in which Shakespeare appears as the detective.
The closest I came to inspiration is by a book called Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter [by Seth Grahame-Smith]. In that book, Abraham Lincoln plays a dual role: during the day he is dealing with the American Civil War and so on, and during the night he is a vampire hunter. It was just the idea—that you take a well-known historical figure and turn them into someone else in their spare time—that stayed in my head.
RC: Finally, a question that everyone who has read and enjoyed your book is asking: are you planning to publish more books with Ghalib as sleuth?
RM: Let’s put it this way—I'm hoping to!
RC: Your fans are hoping too!
RM: Ghalib dies in the book, so I can’t really do a sequel with him.
RC: But you could do a prequel!
RM: There you go! That’s exactly what I am doing! The next novel will be set in 1830. You know, Ghalib went to Calcutta in 1829—Calcutta was the capital of [British] India at the time. He was pursuing a case, and it is that connection that he went to Calcutta and lived there for a while. Calcutta at that time was a place of great churning. This was just before the Brahmo Samaj was formed, and the engagement between the traditionalist Bengalis and the modernist British was producing all kinds changes. I want to develop that theme.
RC: I look forward to it! Your writing brings history alive. And so a very big thank you to you for writing this book. It brought me, and many others who read it, much joy.
Raza Mir is the author of Ghalib: A Thousand Desires, Iqbal: Poet of the East, The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu Poetry, and the co-author of Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry.
His books are available on Amazon, and in India, on Flipkart as well.
More on Murder at the Mushaira:
On Goodreads: Murder at the Mushaira.
For a more scholarly treatment of the book:
Bosu, Saronik. “A Detective Poet, and an Empire in Revolt.” Public Books, September 27, 2022. https://www.publicbooks.org/a-detective-poet-and-an-empire-in-revolt-raza-mir/.
The book has also been extensively reviewed. Read the reviews here.
Do you enjoy historical crime fiction? What other books in the genre set in India would you recommend? Do write in via the comments below!
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