3 May 1857. India stands on the brink of war. Everywhere in its cities, towns, and villages, rebels and revolutionaries are massing to overthrow the ruthless and corrupt British East India Company which has taken over the country and laid it to waste. In Delhi, the capital, even as the plot to get rid of the hated foreigners gathers intensity, the busy social life of the city hums along. Nautch girls entertain clients, nawabs host mushairas or poetry soirees in which the finest poets of the realm congregate to recite their latest verse and intrigue, the wealthy roister in magnificent havelis, and the drinking dens of the city continue to pack in customers.
One morning, Kallu, a retainer at a Delhi haveli, cleaning up after a grand mushaira, discovers a poet stabbed to death with a polished agate dagger. Gruesome as it is, the murder appears to be a fairly run of the mill crime until anxious officials of the East India Company make it a matter of the highest priority. Instructions are issued for the murderer to be found and arrested immediately. But who is the killer? The dead man had many enemies and the investigating officer Kiromal Chainsukh soon discovers there are dozens of suspects, an equal number of motives, and waves of secrets and lies that threaten to overwhelm him. As the pressure on him to solve the crime increases, Chainsukh turns to Mirza Ghalib, poet laureate and amateur detective, for help. Ghalib's tools are his formidable intelligence, intimate knowledge of the machinations of Delhi high society, ferocious curiosity, and reliance on the new science of forensics that his friend the scientist Master Ramachandra has introduced him to. As Ghalib begins to collect evidence and dig into the case, he uncovers an ever-widening list of suspects, and a sinister conspiracy that involves many of Delhi's most important men and women.
Set against the backdrop of India's First War of Independence, Murder at the Mushaira is at once a brilliantly constructed murder mystery and the finest historical novel by an Indian author in recent times.