Mirza (An Excerpt from the Book Murder at the Mushaira)

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This was a bit fishy. Two guests, possibly two love affairs. Young love between Zainab and this Siraj was quite understandable, but who was this friend of Zainab’s, a Muslim woman married to a Hindu, and possibly in a relationship with another? Mirza’s head swam with confusion. He set the matter aside for later examination and continued, turning to the final duo among the five, Ramji and Ghouse. These two he barely knew, his acquaintance being limited to nodding to them during his occasional visits to the haveli.

‘Both of you were at the gate, I suppose?’

‘Ramji is the gateman. He is in charge of security. I supervise all the male cleaning staff and gardeners,’ said Ghouse. It could well have been Ramji speaking, Mirza thought, he was finding it hard to distinguish between them. As he thought that, he immediately felt guilty. People of my social station always look at these people as if through a veil, rendering their features inexact and their personalities homogeneous.

He looked closely at them and something dropped into place, an old instinct.

Initially, he had found both of them identical, youths of indeterminate age that their reticence made even more difficult to guess. This restraint was not just verbal but corporeal. There was a way in which they were able to efface their bodies and meld into the background, more prop than a person.

But Mirza now knew better. He made out that while Ghouse did seem to be a bit of a simpleton, Ramji was anything but. Under his near-emaciated singlet-wearing exterior was a sharp mind, the kind that was fully attuned to the power dynamics around him, keeping an efficient ledger of the comings, goings, and happenings around him, making astute judgments about human character.

Mirza recalled an occasion when he had been called to Agra by a relative to look into a case involving the theft of livestock. His third cousin was a master shepherd who had introduced a new breed of Balangir sheep from East India to the Gangetic plain. But of late, the best rams in his prized flock were going missing at an alarming rate. The police and the guards he deployed were clueless about what was going on.

Within days of his arrival, Mirza had solved the case. He informed his cousin that the rustler was the local distiller, whose employees made off with the animals at dusk. The sheep would be herded back to their pens after a whole day of grazing along a path on which there was a sharp bend. Here, the thieves had carved out a near-invisible detour that was difficult to make out in the dark; they spirited the rams away one at a time, picking out those that were most valuable. The distiller paid the robbers in alcohol; the stolen sheep were sold to his suppliers of date wine from Rajasthan, making the entire operation seamless and profitable.

The solving of that case had not only cemented Mirza’s reputation as a detective but also marked him as a man of great tact and wisdom. He had informed his cousin that the distiller was stealing the sheep as payback for a family feud that was three generations old. He had suggested that the matter would be solved permanently if the parties resorted to compromise rather than involving the authorities and had offered to mediate.

A week later, a small tract of land had changed hands, a marriage had been negotiated between the two families, and not only did the thieving stop, but Mirza’s cousin had gained access to a valuable market for his sheep in Ajmer and Pushkar.

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Mirza had always been coy when asked how he had solved the case. Everyone had commended him on how swiftly he had understood the mechanics of shepherding, grazing terrain, and livestock markets, but the reality was that he knew none of that. He had used nothing more than an astute observation of the dramatis personae and had worked on one suspect until he spilled the details of the operation.

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One of the younger employees of his cousin had the same blank but intelligent look he had seen in Ramji. During the course of the investigation, he had been beaten up by the policemen, who knew no other mode of inquiry than torture. When he had not confessed, they had ruled him out as a suspect. He had gone back to work, showing no animus towards his employer for the treatment meted out to him.

Mirza had patiently worn the young man down, first by explaining to him that if the police cracked the case before him, everyone involved would be in far greater trouble. He had then offered inducement, earnestly promising to safeguard his informant’s identity, and ensuring that he would emerge more prosperous after his cooperation. The young man had decided to trust him.

After negotiating the compromise between his cousin and the distiller, Mirza had ensured that his informant was appointed the agent of the new sheep-trading business, making good on his promise and rewarding his informant’s trust. He had never betrayed the young man’s confidence.

Could he do something similar with Ramji?

Based on his Agra experience and his general understanding of human nature, Mirza could have staked his reputation on three things. First, Ramji knew something critical. He was aware of and had perhaps participated in something crucial last night, something germane to the murder.

Second, he would never tell if coerced. It is simply not in the interest of the smarter members of the labor class to be informers of the elite, and the absence of fear in Ramji’s face said that he had been prepared for the worst form of questioning and not flinched.

The third sense that Mirza had was a lot more ambiguous, but oddly enough, the thing he felt most confident about. It was a strange feeling, but he knew instinctively that whatever scheme the young servant was complicit in, he appeared to be acting in good faith. He decided not to force the matter. In time, Ramji might trust him.

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‘Boys, I’d rather not waste time asking you questions when time is of the essence. Off you go, before any soldiers return. Here.’ He counted off five rupees from Umrao’s pouch and put them in Kallu’s hand. ‘One for each, all right?’ Ah, Umrao, if you knew how I spent your money, you would think a few times before berating me as a godless lush!

As if on cue, Kirorimal made a hasty appearance just as the servants were scurrying off. ‘They are here, uncle! The people from the mosque!’ Sending the servants off in the other direction, Mirza hastened up the steps, composing himself for another fight. This would require a different persona, a different vocabulary. Intensify the dance, bang the drums harder.

For the tavern-drinkers come before the ambassadors of virtue.

Excerpted with permission from Murder at the Mushaira, Aleph Book Company, Raza Mir

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