Ghosts of Partition – a short story in the Malabar House series

This short story is one of three marking the publication of The Dying Day, the second in the Malabar House series. The first in the series, Midnight at Malabar House, won the Crime Writers Association Sapere Books Historical Dagger 2021. To access all three stories and a competition to win both a box of crime fiction bestsellers and have your name as a character in the third book in this series, simply join my newsletter here. Newsletter registrants will also receive a FREE digital book, in due course, with 50 articles about India’s past, present, and future.

Picture attribution: Saktishree, CC

1

Bombay, 1950

The Rajabhai Clock Tower, located inside the grounds of the University of Bombay, at the southern tip of the city, overlooks Elphinstone College and the nearby Bombay High Court. A blend of Gothic and Venetian architecture, it is modelled on London’s Big Ben, though stands some thirty feet shorter than its English sibling. Built in the 1870s, it was named after its benefactor’s mother, a blind old Jain, for whom the bells tolled to indicate that it was time for the evening meal, mandated by her faith to occur before sunset each day.
Shortly before four p.m. on a sultry March afternoon, Persis found herself staring up at an open window above the tower’s clock-face.
The man beside her, the university’s vice-chancellor, Reddy, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. The temperature was sweltering, heat radiating in waves from the tower’s buff-coloured kurla stone. Clad in a three-piece suit and tie, Reddy looked intensely uncomfortable. ‘We did the best we could,’ he said.
Persis looked back down to the body at their feet.
A makeshift screen comprised of linen sheets had been erected around the corpse, but she could hear the excited gaggle of staff and students beyond.
She dropped to her haunches to take a closer look.
The woman had fallen onto her front. Arms splayed, the left at an unnatural angle, her skull had fractured on impact, blood matting her shoulder-length blonde hair and leaking out in a dark corona onto the cobblestones.
She reached out, grasped the body by the shoulders, and turned it over.
She was small, narrow-boned, and conservatively dressed. Her face was all but destroyed, the forehead caved in, one blue eye looking out from the horrifying mess.
She heard Reddy mutter something under his breath. A prayer, perhaps.
Two hundred and fifty feet.
She remembered the tower’s height from the years she’d spent here, almost a decade earlier. She’d often wondered what would happen to a body dropping from such a height.
She had her answer now.
‘What was her name?’
‘Alice. Alice Sisterson.’
‘English?’
‘Yes.’
‘Was she a student here?’
‘No. Faculty. She taught in the department of mathematics.’
She got to her feet. Her palms felt grimy. She was acutely aware of Reddy’s anxiety, mingled with his intense scrutiny. He was probably wondering why they’d sent him the force’s only female detective.
Let him wonder.
‘Were there any witnesses?’
‘Yes. There’s no doubt. She jumped.’
‘No sign of foul play?’
‘No.’

2

A short man in a sweat-stained grey safari suit – the clock’s caretaker – led them into the tower and up a spiralling staircase. Reddy laboured up the steps, pausing every few minutes as he leaned over the railing and hauled in a breath.
They arrived in the clock room, bathed in light flooding through the milky clock-faces. The clock mechanism surrounded them, supported by black iron strutwork. The caretaker moved through the tangle, then led them up an iron ladder to the belltower.
They entered into a space dominated by a medley of heavy metal bells of varying sizes. ‘There are fourteen bells,’ he said, though no one had asked the question.
‘Has anyone else been up here since she jumped?’ she asked.
‘Only myself,’ said the caretaker.
She stared at him. ‘Why?’
‘The clock can run four days without winding. But the bells need to be wound every thirty hours.’
‘You were worried about the bells with a dead woman on the ground?’
He sensed her criticism, and retreated into silence.
She weaved her way past the bells to the west-facing window. The shutters were pulled back. Looking down from the dizzying height, she saw the body sprawled below, the crowd gathered around, kept at bay only by the hastily-rigged cloth barrier.
Bombay lay spread out before her, city of three million souls, the nation’s commercial capital, drawing in migrants from all over the country. Once the ‘gateway to India’, the city was now struggling with the effects of unchecked growth – each day thousands poured from the trains alighting at Victoria Terminus, seeking the promised utopia of the new regime.
From her vantage point she could see all the way to the waters of the Back Bay, sparkling under the blazing sun.
She recalled the story of the two Parsee girls who’d fallen from the tower some sixty years earlier. Murder had been alleged, a man had faced trial, only to be acquitted.
Why had Alice Sisterson killed herself?
Even in cases of death by one’s own hand motive was paramount.
Her eye was drawn to something scrawled in chalk on the brickwork beside the window.
3:14.
She turned to the caretaker. ‘Is this your handiwork?’
He squinted at the graffiti, then shook his head.
‘Was it here yesterday?’
‘No.’
The bells chimed, a deafening sound in the narrow space. During the Raj, the tower played Rule Britannia and God save the King, but now there was only the cacophony of the bells.
When the noise stopped, she turned back to Reddy. ‘Did you know her well?’
‘No.’
‘Is there someone here who did?’

3

‘She never seemed happy.’
They were sitting in an empty lecture theatre. The lecturer, a Professor Robin Atwal, neatly dressed in a waistcoat and bow tie, pushed his spectacles up his nose.
‘What makes you say that?’
‘She kept herself to herself. Rarely joined in with staff functions. Rarely smiled, for that matter.’
‘Do you know the cause of her unhappiness?’
‘No.’
‘You never asked?’
He frowned. ‘Of course. But, as I said, she was a very private person.’
‘She gave no indication that she intended to take her own life?’
‘None.’
She paused. ‘Tell me about her.’
‘Well… She was born in India, the only child of a British couple who came out here in the early twenties. Father was an engineer, mother worked at the Taj. They both died of dengue fever a couple of years before Independence. She decided to stay on.’ He paused. ‘She was a gifted mathematician. There aren’t that many women teaching here. We were lucky to have her.’
‘Does 3:14 mean anything to you?’
He squinted at her in confusion. ‘Should it?’
‘She chalked it onto a wall in the belltower before jumping to her death. I thought there might be a mathematical significance.’
‘Well, three point one four is the value of pi, of course, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.’
‘Why would she be thinking of pi just before killing herself?’
‘I have no idea.’ He looked genuinely perplexed.
‘How long did you know her?’
‘I became head of department three years ago. The previous head was killed in the rioting. He’d been visiting family in Bengal.’
The Partition riots had seen a million dead around the country.
‘Is there anyone who knew her longer? A personal relationship?’
‘She wasn’t married. But I believe there was a gentleman friend.’

4

David Milton was American. Of middling height, with pockmarked skin, and blond hair lacquered back from a high forehead. His eyes were dark and deep-set.
She found him at his place of employment, a pharmaceutical outfit in Cuffe Parade.
He arrived in the sweltering office they’d asked her to wait in with a cigarette in his mouth and already looking at his watch.
‘What’s this about?’
‘I understand that you’re a friend of Alice Sisterson’s?’
‘Yes. What of it?’
‘I have bad news.’
She told him, then watched as his legs folded under him, and he crashed onto the oxblood chesterfield.
‘What happened?’ he said eventually.
She gave him the details, leaving out a description of the damage sustained by the body. ‘You were romantically involved?’
He took a deep breath. ‘We were together, yes.’
‘Engaged?’
‘No. But not for want of trying.’
‘She turned you down?’
He gave her a sharp look. ‘No. She just wanted to… wait.’
‘Why?’
He sucked savagely at his cigarette, then ground it out on a marble-topped coffee table. ‘I don’t really know. We talked about it. She said she wasn’t ready.’
She changed tack. ‘Does 3:14 mean anything to you?’
He stared at her in blank confusion. She had her answer. ‘I’ve been told that she was unhappy.’
He looked set to protest, then seemed to deflate. ‘Yes.’
‘Why?’
‘She wouldn’t talk about it.’
‘You must have some idea?’
‘She-’ He stopped.
She waited.
‘Three years ago, she went north to lecture at the University of the Punjab. When she came back, she was a different person. It was as if someone had flicked a switch. Her personality changed. She became withdrawn, silent. She suffered from insomnia. Sometimes, she’d wake up in the middle of the night bathed in sweat. She was alive but simply going through the motions. I begged her to tell me what had happened, but she just… couldn’t.’
A beat of silence. ‘Why did you stay with her?’
He swung a wounded gaze her way. Tears stood in the corners of his eyes. ‘I wanted to help her. But I couldn’t find a way through.’

5

‘I’ll need to go to Amritsar.’
Roshan Seth peered at her from behind his desk, then reached into a drawer, pulled out a bottle of Black Dog and poured himself a glass. ‘Why Amritsar?’
‘She went to meet a friend in the city before she was due to travel onwards to the University of the Punjab in Lahore.’
‘Lahore?’ Seth’s alarm made the glass shake in his hand. With the advent of Partition, the city, just fifty miles from Amritsar on the other side of the newly-created border, had fallen to Pakistan. It was now enemy territory. The sabre-rattling between the two governments had only worsened since the war over Kashmir directly following the division of the nation. ‘Surely, you’re not planning to cross the border?’
‘No. That’s just it. Milton told me that she never made it to Lahore. He received a call from the university asking as to her whereabouts. She was due to lecture there in March 1947, but never showed up. Three years ago to the day, in fact. The next thing he knows, she’s back in Bombay. A completely different person.’
The superintendent tapped his glass with a fingernail. ‘What do we know about this friend of hers in Amritsar?’
‘He’s a professor of mathematics. Her former doctoral supervisor.’
‘You’re planning to go up alone?’
‘Yes.’
‘Take your revolver with you.’
A knock on the door.
A tall, dark-haired white man walked in. Dressed in a simple suit and wireframe spectacles, he blinked at them both, then set a manila folder onto Seth’s desk. ‘The report you asked for. The Bedi case. Thought I’d run it over myself.’ He turned to her. ‘How are you, Persis?’
She nodded, uncomfortable under his gaze. She knew why he’d brought the report himself rather than sending a peon. She’d been avoiding him. What had happened between them couldn’t happen again.
Archie Blackfinch was an Englishman, a criminologist from the Metropolitan Police in London, here for a short while, setting up a forensics lab for the Bombay Police. That they had bonded over the handful of cases they’d worked together was not the point. The point was that she’d allowed things to go too far. An Englishman and a native woman: in the new India, an equation too complex for anyone to solve.

6

The Frontier Mail ran north for almost twenty hours, stopping briefly at Delhi before turning north-west towards Amritsar. The long journey gave her a chance to ponder the case.
A young white woman, more Indian than English, decides to take her own life. According to those who knew her, she had fallen into misery following a trip north exactly three years earlier. Something had happened in Amritsar. Who was this man she had gone to meet? Was he responsible?
She could imagine what might have happened. But then why not talk about it?
Shame? Anger?
The suffering of the human spirit was a terrible thing, she reflected.
There was also the matter of her enigmatic final testament: 3:14.
What could pi possible have to do with Alice Sisterson’s death?

She was surprised to discover that Professor Darius Framji was a fellow Parsee, and considerably older than she had supposed. A white-haired, elegant gentleman in his seventies, dressed in a white shirt and cotton trousers, he led her into the blessedly cool interior of his Amritsar home, through to a well-tended garden, where a servant was ordered to fetch refreshments.
‘I was devastated to hear about Alice,’ he said. ‘She was the finest doctoral student I have had the pleasure of supervising. Intuitive. Contrary to popular opinion, higher mathematics cannot be learned. It has to come instinctively.’
‘What sort of person was she?’
‘Forthright. She wasn’t shy of expressing her opinion. Then again, few Britishers were.’
‘She was born in India.’
He smiled at her. ‘I know many Anglo-Indians who have never been within a thousand miles of the Old Country, but would swear allegiance to the King of England before they’d condescend to partake in their own democracy.’
She shifted in her seat. ‘Would you describe her as a happy person?’
‘Yes. Or at least, she was content.’
‘Three years ago, her demeanour changed. Just after she visited with you.’
He sighed, his rheumy eyes peering down into his glass. ‘So I’ve been led to understand. I really don’t know what to tell you. When we met, she was her usual self. We discussed her career, various mathematical problems she was wrestling with. And then she left. She never returned. We spoke a few times on the telephone, but she always seemed guarded. I assumed she was busy, her career, life, was taking over and she had no more time for an old fool like me.’
She paused. ‘3:14. Does that mean anything to you?’
‘Three point one four? It’s the value of pi. Why do you ask?’
She explained. He seemed perplexed. ‘I can’t see what that could have had to do with her death.’
‘Neither can I,’ she murmured. She set down her glass. ‘When she left here, why did she return to Bombay instead of going on to Lahore?’
‘That’s just it,’ he said. ‘She did go to Lahore. I took her to the station myself.’

7

The Amritsar Junction station was the busiest on the Punjab Railway, the busiest in the state.
She waded through the press of coolies, passengers, beggars, and snack vendors, making her way to the station’s administrative office.
Here she found the station superintendent, a tall man with a thick beard, and the rough voice of a heavy smoker. His name was Saigal.
She had worn her khaki uniform, and quickly explained her mission.
Saigal tugged at his beard. ‘I wasn’t here three years ago. I can dig up the passenger manifest, but I’m not sure how that will help you. They’re not always reliable, particularly at that time.’
‘It would be a start.’
‘It will take some time.’
‘I’ll wait.’
Three hours later, a peon came to fetch her. She’d spent the time in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant outside the station, drinking tea, and reading through her notes.
Saigal was waiting for her, face turned up to the ceiling fan in his cluttered office. A red ledger was laid out on his desk, beside a steel tray with the remains of a meal.
He slipped on a pair of incongruous horn-rimmed glasses, then ran a thick thumb down the page. Here she is. ‘Alice Sisterson. Return ticket to Lahore on March 17, 1947.’ He peered closely at the page. ‘Strange. She seems to have opted for a second-class berth.’
‘What’s strange about that?’
‘She was white. They usually travel in the first-class cabins. Away from the Indians. Or at least, in the company of a better class of Indian.’ He flashed a savage grin.
‘She was Indian.’
His smile slowly vanished.
‘Is there anyone still here from that time? Someone who may have been on that train, or spoken with her? A porter? A train attendant?’
He considered the question. ‘Yes. As a matter of fact, there was.’

8

The man seemed too frail for the enormous suitcase he was manhandling onto the train.
As they approached, he completed his task, then leaned against the maroon-painted carriage, wiping his forehead with a sodden handkerchief.
As he spotted Saigal, he straightened, shoving the rag back into a pocket.
He looked to be in his fifties, a slender, short man with sunken cheeks and peppery hair hacked back from a narrow forehead. His porter’s uniform had darkened several shades with the sweat of his exertions.
‘This is Moazzam Ali. He’s been a porter here for twenty years.’
She explained her quest, then took out a photograph of Alice Sisterson that David Milton had given her.
Ali held the picture nervously in his hand, as if it might be a warrant for his arrest.
Finally, he spoke. ‘Yes. I remember her. There weren’t that many foreigners still passing through here by then. I thought she was brave. Travelling to Lahore at that time.’ His eyes carried an inexpressible sadness. ‘I warned her, but she wouldn’t listen.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The unrest, madam,’ he said, simply. ‘Rioters. Several trains had already been stopped that month. I suppose it was fate.’
The Partition riots had begun in earnest in 1946, with the Calcutta Killings. Five thousand dead in the space of three days, bodies piled like sandbags in the streets, gas-bloated corpses left to rot where they lay. Neighbour killing neighbour, women and children not spared.
Savagery on an unprecedented scale.
She remembered newspaper accounts of the brutality.
One story had stayed with her. A nine-year-old Muslim boy returning from school, confronted by a Hindu mob, stripped to confirm that he had been circumcised, and then held down in a pond with bamboo poles until Death had swung his scythe.
In the year that followed, murderous rampages had become commonplace around the country, concentrated in Punjab and Bengal, the two regions divided by the Radcliffe Line. Bombay had escaped the worst of it, but the Pathé news coverage had left little of the unfolding horror to the imagination.
‘What happened to Alice?’
‘Her train was full of Muslims moving to Lahore. The word was out. It wasn’t safe for Muslims in Amritsar.’ He grimaced. ‘I saw many families go, my brother included. But in the end, I chose to stay. This is my home. My life is here. My ancestors are buried in this soil.’ He stopped. ‘Just outside the city, the train was stopped by a mob of Sikhs and Hindus. They boarded the train and murdered almost everyone on board. A thousand dead. Alice was in a carriage full of women and children. They were hacked to death in front of her. But she was a white woman. A Christian. So they spared her.’ He blinked, reliving the horror. ‘The driver brought the train back here. I was one of those who entered the carriages, looking for survivors. I cannot describe to you the horror of what I saw. The blood. So much blood… I can’t imagine how it must have affected her.’
It destroyed her, Persis thought. To witness such horror was more than most would have been able to bear. But to survive, to be singled out for survival while infants were hacked to death around you; to find yourself powerless in the face of such evil… It was obvious now why Alice Sisterson had changed, why she had faded into a shadow of her former self, and why, ultimately, she had taken her own life.
Living with the ghosts of Partition had finally taken its toll.
She turned to leave, then turned back. A thought had struck her, a possible answer to the one remaining puzzle.
‘What time did the train leave Amritsar?
Ali seemed surprised by the question. ‘I don’t know what time it actually left that day, but its scheduled time was the same as it has been every day since the route was established. 3:14.’

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My latest novel is The Dying DayBombay, 1950. When a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy vanishes from Bombay’s Asiatic Society, the case lands on Inspector Persis Wadia’s desk. Uncovering a series of complex riddles written in verse, Persis – together with English forensic scientist Archie Blackfinch – is soon on the trail. But then they discover the first body… Find out more here.  Ann Cleeves, creator of Vera, says of The Dying Day: “This is a crime novel for everyone; for those who love traditional mysteries there are clues, codes and ciphers, but it also had a harder edge and a post-war darkness. Brilliant.” 

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