A Detective Poet, and an Empire in Revolt

In 1857, the largest rebellion against the British East India Company took place. And famed poet Mirza Ghalib was there to witness it all.

In 1857, the largest rebellion against the British East India Company took place. It spread across the subcontinent and among people of different religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class. The city of Delhi, as the seat of the Mughal emperor, held special significance among the rebellion’s many centers. The previous year, the Company had annexed the neighboring state of Awadh and exiled its ruler in a particularly venal move. It shattered the last illusions that the Company’s political ambitions would be limited by even an appearance of what was lawful. Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was to become the last Mughal emperor, feared for his remaining authority, which did not really extend beyond the city of Shahjahanabad, the walled enclave of political power in Delhi. And it is the powder keg of Shahjahanabad that is threatened with ignition by a murder in Raza Mir’s historical mystery, Murder at the Mushaira. That is, unless Mirza Ghalib—a real-world poet in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor—can solve the mystery in time.

As required by their profession, detectives in Indian historical mysteries in English routinely and expertly transgress boundaries created by the socialization of the encounters between native and colonial hierarchies. In Mir’s novel, the process of this socialization comes to a head, with battle lines being drawn not only between the British and the rebels, but between rebels with different understandings of history, and between domestic and public spheres, as well as between different systems of political and cultural patronage.

At the center of these many oppositions is Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. In his novel, Mir casts one of 19th-century Delhi’s most illustrious residents as his detective.

Ghalib was born in 1797, six years before the East India Company captured Delhi from the Maratha Confederacy. His first collection of poems was written when he was 19, followed by decades of poetic compositions in Persian and a Persianized Urdu. Most of his now-famous Urdu ghazals, written later in life, were under the patronage of Bahadur Shah, himself a poet. Mir portrays Ghalib, as he was in real life, beleaguered by debt and familial conflict, painfully aware of each slight to his prodigious talent—in this case a reluctant detective who would rather write poems than solve crimes. Unlike many historical-mystery writers whose characters are taken from real history, Mir makes little to no changes to Ghalib’s character and temperament for the sake of fiction, for which there is sufficient documentation. His family being at the receiving end of both Mughal and Company patronage, his employment by the British in the role of a “cultural expert,” a native informant, to solve the mystery also rings true. It is of course a role that is then overwhelmed by the happenings of 1857, when, as Ghalib wrote in a letter a year later, “so many friends died that now when I die, there won’t even be anyone left to mourn for me.”1

In Murder at the Mushaira, Mirza Ghalib, blessed with uncommon insight and nearing the end of his life, is chief witness to the dying of his world. The novel itself is a satisfying read, paradoxically perhaps, because it so often divests its energies from genre conventions that are beloved by fans, and it gives itself over to the uncertainty and devastation of this moment in the history of India.

Mystery and crime fiction, even when not ostensibly historical, depend on the past, however recent, being available as a tantalizingly difficult object of investigation. Historical mysteries not only reinforce this rewarding pastness of the past by placing it at a greater distance, but they also analogize the detective’s queries within the narrative to the reader’s curiosity about the past itself. So what does it mean when Indian historical mysteries concentrate on the period of colonial rule? How does the solution of the crime figure against the collective inheritances of colonial pasts?

These novels have understandably capitalized on the romance of the Raj—the British colonial regime that lasted until 1947—which, in turn, is often connected to the decline of colonial rule. In fact, quite a few of these series are set in the 1920s, corresponding to the so-called golden age of detective fiction, when the likes of Agatha Christie started publishing.

The 1920s as a cultural idiom have powerfully affected writers of historical mysteries. But in choosing to set their mysteries in India of the 1920s, a decade that saw an upswell both in anticolonial movements and in their brutal repression, these writers produce interesting results.

Christie’s novels frequent the drawing rooms and parties of the English upper and middle classes. At times, these elites are shielded from the economic downturn in Britain in the early 20th century, often benefiting from colonial wealth. Christie’s crime fiction is mostly classified as cozy mysteries, indicating their underlying sense of comfort and the conviction that nothing really bad happens, which is a product of the novels’ spatial and economic logics.

However, the spaces that contain and arrange Christie’s characters—manor houses, seaside resorts, golfing hotels, and even sleepy hamlets—all replicate the logics of empire, their coziness inextricably tied to the latter’s political, ideological, and economic cohesion. Even when Christie mocks superior senses of Britishness that would brook no criticism, whether in person or in organization, the lasting impression of these spaces’ comfort is still linked to that Britishness that has resulted from centuries of imperial self-affirmation.

The factors behind the coziness in Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry novels are a little different. Here the coziness is afforded by the detective’s upper-class Anglicized Parsi community of Bombay, whose monetary and social capital was a product of the colonial economy. Modeled after the first female lawyer of modern India, Cornelia Sorabji, Mistry’s exclusion from the larger professional field of law owing to her gender is calibrated against the affluent spaces that open up for her due to her class. In the first novel of Abir Mukherjee’s Wyndham and Banerjee series, the blame for the murder of a British official is at first falsely laid on Indian nationalists, but finally is brought home to the inner rot of the colonial administration. One also has to read his novels vis-à-vis the origins of modern policing in India, which had less to do with solving individual crimes than with the management of colonized spaces and peoples, and often the protection of the interests of religious caste majorities. Besides Mukherjee and Massey, Barbara Cleverly, Brian Stoddart, and Harini Nagendra also set their mysteries in the 1920s.

The novel divests its energies from genre conventions beloved by fans, and gives itself over to the devastation of this moment in the history of India.

Murder at the Mushaira opens with rumors of rebellion from the east of Delhi, with plans being made in secret to open up Delhi for the arrival of rebelling sepoys, Indian soldiers defecting from the employ of the Company, from the city of Meerut. “In the dead of night, there is something called ‘too silent.’” The rebel Sarfaraz Lascar enters the city “not riding, but floating on a lake of silence that stretched all the way to the invisible horizon.” Unlike in noir, darkness in the novel does not indicate the danger that lurks within individual human malevolence; instead, Mir’s darkness signifies the sure doom that awaits incumbent political and cultural structures in India.

The mystery in the novel connects directly to the relationship between colonizing and colonized peoples. The victim is a spy for the British; the scene of the crime is a mushaira, a traditional Urdu poets’ meet, a social and cultural institution that had almost entirely resisted British influence. The mushaira therefore presents an ideal environment for rebel activity in the novel.

Mir’s ensemble of characters, larger than in most mysteries, is created more to render in thick detail the world of mid-19th-century Shahjahanabad than to comprise a list of murder-mystery types. It includes Umrao Begum, Ghalib’s wife, who shores up her love for a husband who is partially responsible for their poverty; Hyderi Begum Zutshi, a talented painter with a secret life; Master Ramachandra, a professor of chemistry in a queer relationship that does not survive the events; Kirorimal Chainsukh, a hapless officer of the law punished for doing the right thing; Edward Vibart, a British officer exhibiting the worst cruelties of Company rule; and Andrew Watson, unlucky in life and lowly in Company hierarchy, whose love for India does not bode well for him. While most of these characters have crucial roles to play in the solution of the mystery, Mir’s attention stays more on how the circumstances of that mystery provide the reader with these characters’ yearnings and frustrations. In solving the murder, Ghalib uncovers a rebel conspiracy that involves people he loves and admires, all of whom are younger than him. He almost regrets escaping the bloody retribution meted out to the rebels, and his experience of the massacre appears to hasten the end of his life.

The final chapters of Murder at the Mushaira distribute the aftermath of the rebellion among the few survivors. The solution of the mystery, the revelation of the conspiracy, the devastation of the rebellion have been sustained by the small insular space of the walled city. In the end, “a new city … [emerged] from the chaos of the rebellion … with its lingering memories of a lost sovereignty.” Mir ends his novel at Ghalib’s deathbed, with only Umrao for company. A recurrent image in the novel is the shama, the candle: it marks, as per tradition, the time of performance at the mushaira, and, in one of the poetic epigraphs that accompany each of the chapters, two shamas have represented the painful watch of parted lovers, of whom several populate the novel. Ghalib died 12 years after the rebellion, too long a period to represent in the denouement of a historical mystery. The shama at Ghalib’s deathbed, which goes out and leaves Umrao alone in the darkness, collapses time and brings that moment closer to 1857.


Cosmopolitans in Indian Fiction

By Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

Murder at the Mushaira belongs to that group of historical mysteries in which the remit of the solution takes on a communal and national character. There is also Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo, which, like Murder at the Mushaira, is also set in Shahjahanabad, but in 1656, two centuries earlier, when the British were only a mercantile people trading with the Mughal Empire in its prime. The novel makes much of this power dynamic that historically withered with the growing influence of the East India Company, underscoring a fascination with the strangeness of British ways, from the titular jewelry to the newly imported drink of coffee. Harini Nagendra’s The Bangalore Detectives Club, on the other hand, set in the 1920s, is set against the nationalist movement that was bent on reviving an Indian cultural identity for upper castes and middle classes negotiating with their own dependence on British economic and cultural norms. The murder takes place at the Century Club, founded by Indians barred from the other clubs of the city, which only allowed white people as members.

My own taste for historical mysteries has adapted differently to these novels and to that other group in the genre where the mystery and its solution appear as a slice of life, part of the everyday, set in the past but not overtly connected to larger historical movements. My approach to both kinds has essentially been similar to that of Briallen Hopper, who in a B-Sides essay has described coping with the anxieties of the pandemic by rereading all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries in chronological order. In the past two years, I have exhausted myself and my library accounts with historical mysteries, the pandemic having put my love for them on overdrive. I read them back to back, moving between different series or staying with the same series until I feel the need for a change. My experience of the Indian historical mystery in English has been determined by this frenzied, almost desperate, reading habit. But it is a special thrill for a devoted fan to witness the burgeoning of a genre, and these mysteries are definitely at that stage. Its conventions have by no means been standardized, as Mir’s exploratory reaches show in the best possible way.


This article was commissioned by Tara K. Menonicon

  1. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Ghalib: Selected Poems and Letters (Columbia University Press, 2017), p. 84.
Featured Image: "Ghalib during his leisure time" by Anwaraj / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)