A Detective Poet, and an Empire in Revolt

From Public Books:

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 MushairaThat 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.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Modern depiction of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

PG notes that the book described is apparently only available as a hardback on Amazon. Evidently, the publisher didn’t permit Look Inside to be activated for the book. The Share button also appears to be unusable as well.