Raza Mir’s debut novel, Murder At TheMushaira, is a charming historical fiction set in Delhi, 1857. It is set brilliantly in the midst of the 1857 Uprising when Indian soldiers — both Muslims and Hindus —- revolted against the British for insisting upon the use of cartridges in their rifles that were rumoured to be coated with pig/cow fat. All the major people of the time are resurrected in this languidly-told, detailed story about the murder of Sukhan Khairabadi in the haveli of Nawab Iftikhar Hasan. It throws the Brits into a bit of a tizz as Khairabadi had been hired to spy for them. But these are tense times in the city with many stories intertwined. Even the locals are unsure whom they can trust or not. Meanwhile the poet laureate Mirza Ghalib is entrusted with the task of investigating the murder. It is a bit of a bumble in the manner he is appointed but it seems to work out in everyone’s favour. It makes for a very interesting landscape as the reader is left guessing till practically the very end of the story about the identity of the murderer. The storytelling style is caught between two worlds of literary canons — Urdu and English. There is the slow, many times conversational propelling of plot, minute descriptions and male-dominated storytellers, although fortunately in this story, many women come across as very strong and sharp characters. They definitely know how to hold their own — across the social spectrum. So whether it is the spouses of the Nawab or the poet Ghalib, to the lesser mortals, lower down in the social pecking order, the women have a voice, share much of of gossip and control many of the finances and thus manage the men in their lives. It is a very modern take on what may or may not have happened in the past but it is an enjoyable aspect. The English literature canon makes its presence felt by the recreation of a Victorian novel in its sumptuousness, asides, social commentaries and the clever insertions of the authorial voice tucking itself sneakily into the plot or judging characters. It is fun.If it were possible to deem it so, Murder at the Mushaira is like a literary pietra dura. Incredibly packed with descriptions that make the reader pause in amazement at the beauty. It could be anything stemming from the architecture or description of clothes etc. There is so much to appreciate that I am very sure filmmakers are already beating their way to the author/publisher’s door to be the first to option for this book. But more than anything else, reading this book is like a breath of fresh air where communities intermingle freely, without any edges. The characters respect each other’s communal identities and have a fair understanding of the cultural practices to be observed. There is no wilful ignorance instead a gracious acceptance. Something that is sadly lacking in today’s day and age, not just in the way people conduct themselves but also in contemporary literature that is being mostly created in favour of one or the other community. Fortunately, green shoots of recovery are noticeable with conversations in online discussion forums or even in stray examples of publications that celebrate the syncretic beauty of our Indian culture. Murder at the Mushaira is very reminiscent of Abir Mukherjee and Arjun Gaind’s first murder mysteries set during British India. Perhaps Raza Mir too can be persuaded to create this into a series? It is well worth exploring!!
Meanwhile kudos to Aleph Book Company for nurturing this book over some years before deciding to publish it. The time spent on developing this book has been well spent. It is utterly scrumptious!
9 Feb 2021