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Writing this historical mystery mined my memories of India

By The SATimes News Service

By Nawaz Merchant

(a.k.a. Nev March)

In 1892, Captain James Agnihotri, an Anglo-Indian soldier, is recovering from injuries when he reads about a case that the newspapers are calling the Crime of the Century. He’s curious, then intrigued: Why did two beautiful and privileged Parsi young women drop to their deaths from the University Clock-tower in broad daylight? When the widower of one of the victims writes a letter to the editor, it tugs at Captain Jim’s heart-strings. Invaliding out of the army, Captain Jim is hired by the Parsi family—not knowing that this investigation will lead him into dangerous adventures, as he strives for the ultimate prize—a sense of belonging.

Loosely based on real events, the tragedy of the Godrej girls who dropped to their deaths from the Bombay University Rajabai Tower in 1891, the novel   is an action adventure and a love story. With deeper themes of feminism and countering discrimination, it’s an evocative journey through colonial India during the British Raj, describing the vibrant mix of sub-cultures and the danger of buried secrets. Ultimately it’s a story of triumph over adversity, and the different forms that courage can take.

After living 30 years in the United States, still, the first things I recall each morning are the sounds and smells and memories of my childhood in India. I grew up in Bombay; brun-pav at the Irani bakery, rain drumming on my new raincoat on the first day of school, the thrill of flying kites from the terrace of our building–these are vivid in my memory. During our summers in Poona, in granny’s bungalow, time slowed. Afternoons reading as I curled up on the cool marble window seat, the deep, soft silence of a dark afternoon siesta, broken by granny’s shuffling in her sapats as she went to the little agasi kitchen, followed by the spoon’s tinkle as she stirred our afternoon cups of milk, all these are precious memories; they bring more than pleasure, with them comes a sense of security, of being loved, of knowing my place in the world.

As I wrote my historical mystery Murder in Old Bombay, I began to recreate these in the scenes of my story. Then a curious thing happened.

My characters hijacked the story! They went off on adventures, encountered discrimination and injustice and got pulled into side-plots! (Fortunately every detour ended up having a reason.) Perhaps this is why: no tale of India is complete without painting the varied landscapes, inequalities and plight of women in India. The turn of the century was a time of enormous change. In the 1890s, the Sepoy Mutiny had occurred only 30 years ago. Modern India was just awakening, and people’s loyalties would have been intensely divided. Captain Jim represents that mix, since he (like Parsees, like immigrants everywhere) belongs to both worlds, and neither. He represents someone who has NOT enjoyed the sheltering love of parents and the joyful chaos of family; one who longs for this.

As I asked myself, why does Captain Jim care enough to do this next, more risky thing, he became more complex, revealing hidden sorrows. Those secrets are glimmers from the dear aunts and uncles who cared so much for me. When I visited them each summer, they welcomed me, perhaps not realizing how much I, as a young girl, noticed and recorded. Through all these years, each nuance, each puzzling incident crouched in a pocket of my mind, so that in time, I could realize their private griefs.

I tell friends that my novel is full of surprises, an action-packed adventure and love-story, an epic journey through India, a nostalgic tale of Bombay. That sounds like a lot. But in truth, it is more.

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(a.k.a. Nev March)

 

Book Extract: Chapter 1
The Widower’s Letter

Loosely based on real events, the tragedy of the Godrej girls who dropped to their deaths from the Bombay University Rajabai Tower in 1891, ‘Murder in Old Bombay’ is an action adventure and a love story. .

(Poona, February 1892)

I turned thirty in hospital, in a quiet, carbolic-scented ward, with little to read but newspapers. Recuperating from my injuries, a slow and tedious business, I’d developed an obsession with a recent story: all of India was shocked by the deaths of two young women who fell from the university clock tower in broad daylight.

The more I read about it, the more this matter puzzled me: two well-to-do young women plunged to their deaths in the heart of Bombay, a bustling city under the much-touted British law and order? Some called it suicide, but there seemed to be more to it. Most suicides die alone. These ladies hadn’t. Not exactly. Three men had just been tried for their murder. I wondered, what the hell happened?

Major Stephen Smith of the Fourteenth Light Cavalry Regiment entered the ward, empty but for me, ambling as one accustomed to horseback. Taking off his white pith helmet, he mopped his forehead. It was warm in Poona this February.

I said, “Hullo, Stephen.”

He paused, brightened and handed me a package tied in string. “Happy birthday, Jim. How d’you feel?”

The presents I’d received in my life I could count on one hand. Waving him to the bedside chair, I peeled the brown paper back and grinned at the book. Stephen had heard me talk often enough about my hero.

“The Sign of the Four—Sherlock Holmes!”

He nodded at the newspapers piled about my bed. “Interested in the case?”

“Mm. Seen this?” I tapped the Chronicle of India I’d scoured these past hours. “Trial of the Century, they called it. Blighters were acquitted.”

Outside, palm trees swished with a warm tropical gust. He sat, his khaki uniform stark in the whitewashed ward, smoothing a finger over his blond mustache. “Been in the news for weeks. Court returned a verdict of suicide.”

I scoffed, “Suicide, bollocks!”

Smith frowned. “Hm? Why ever not?”

“The details don’t line up. They didn’t fall from the clock tower at the same time but minutes apart. If they’d planned to die together, wouldn’t they have leapt from the clock tower together? And look here—the husband of one of the victims wrote to the editor.”

I folded the newspaper to the letter and handed it over. It read:

Sir, what you proposed in yesterday’s editorial is impossible. Neither my wife Bacha nor my sister Pilloo had any reason to commit suicide. They had simply everything to live for.

Were you to meet Bacha, you could not mistake her vibrant joie de vivre. She left each person she met with more than they had before. No sir, this was not a woman prone to melancholia, as you suggest, but an intensely dutiful and fun-loving beauty, kind in her attention to all she met, generous in her care of elders, and admired by many friends.

Sir, I beg you do not besmirch the memory of my dear wife and sister with foolish rumours. Their loss has taken the life from our family, the joy from our lives. Leave us in peace. They are gone but I remain,

sincerely,

Adi Framji (February 10th, 1892)

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Writing as Nev March, author Nawaz Merchant won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award. Leaving a long career in business analysis in 2015 she returned to her passion, writing fiction. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers Osher Institute and is an active member of the Mystery Writers of America and the Hunterdon County Library Write-Group. A Parsi Zoroastrian herself, she lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Murder in Old Bombay is her debut novel.

Available in book stores on Nov. 10, 2020, Murder in Old Bombay can be pre-ordered at amazon.com.

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