Nev March: Historical Mysteries
What inspired the book Murder in Old Bombay?
As a teenager living in Mumbai, I had heard of this unsolved mystery: The tale of the suspicious deaths in 1891 of two young women of my (Parsee) community was passed down as a cautionary tale to warn girls of the dangers of traveling alone. Their deaths are usually attributed to the heroic choice of death over dishonor.
Murder in Old Bombay is based on these real-life events. That 22 year-old widower, a law student, did not remarry. He went on to become a prolific inventor and serial entrepreneur, founding with his brother, what is now a powerful industrial conglomerate. How did he recover from this tragedy? I wondered, could he have hired a detective to solve the mystery? Who might he hire? An ex-army officer would have the right skill-set. An Anglo-Indian officer, able to travel in both worlds, with a penchant for disguise!
And so, Captain Jim stepped into the light.
Although an army veteran makes for an intriguing protagonist, (he obsesses over the mystery to avoid memories and guilt) I needed a solution that was grounded in the times. If the women did not commit suicide to avoid miscreants, how did they die? What if the two girls were under a different sort of duress?
Researching the 1890s offered a number of potential villains. Slavery had ended in 1865 with the American Civil War, but Guyana and other territories needed labor for sugarcane plantations. They obtained it as indentured labor brought from India and elsewhere. Escaping the flesh trade was another possibility: women might be abducted for prostitution or sent to the Middle-East. Fair complexioned women would be highly prized, and Parsee girls were fair and beautiful.
This set up my story: A hero’s journey to uncover the women’s murderers. Many Parsee women of the time, like Madam Bhikaiji Cama, were educated, well-read and politically aware. Diana’s character emerged as a living embodiment of that sort of girl, perky, bold, yet wise to the push and pull of political eddies, a perfect counterpoint to Captain Jim’s cautious resolve. Many of the plot twists arose from this unlikely pairing.
Note: Events in Karachi and Lahore are fictional. However, published notices regarding Victoria Cross awardees mention several skirmishes involving British Indian troops before (and after) the 1882 second Afghan war in Maiwand and Khandahar.
Why I wrote Murder in Old Bombay
This novel chose to be more than a memorial to two brave girls, it chose to describe the vast sweeps of India, its contradictions, to be an adventure and a love story. It’s also a cry of sorrow to my own community, to whom race matters so much that we, the Zoroastrian Parsees, are close to extinction. Many Parsee men and women did not marry due to their parents’ refusal to accept their non-Parsee partner. If we do not accept those who love our children, or admit them into the faith, we place them in an impossible quandary.
In the end, the tale of two beleaguered girls is the tragic story of how women were, and sometimes still are treated in patriarchal cultures. India, in 2018, had 943 women to every 1000 men. Where are the millions of missing girls? The clock tower deaths represent the millions of girls forced into marriage, brides burned, dowry deaths, those suffering rape, or aborted as fetuses. They are brave like little Chutki, and loyal, and worthy of respect and love. This book is written for them.
To the millions of men who have the capacity to truly love, I offer a portrait of a modest, determined and tattered soul, who teaches us that loving someone means you cannot hurt the ones they care for.