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.
The fire raged for half the night, the blaze visible miles into the harbour. The fire service finally brought it under control just before dawn. Less than three hours later, when they discovered the bodies, a call was placed to the nearby Malabar House station.
Persis took the call, having barely sat down at her desk.
The dock was known as Gun Carriage Basin, on the Colaba seafront, near the southern tip of the city. During the war, the area had been used as a depot for munitions and as a facility for repairing boats. Since then it had lain largely deserted as the municipal authorities decided what to do with it. A few of the crumbling old buildings had been leased out to enterprises seeking low rents and willing to live with the uncertainty – with the advent of Independence, heady new plans were being drawn up.
She spoke to the captain of the fire service team, a slender man whose dark face had been further darkened by soot.
‘How many of them?’
‘Two. An Indian and a white man. It’s lucky that the blaze was started in the middle of the night or there may have been more.’
‘What condition are the bodies in?’
‘See for yourself.’
He led her to the rear of an ambulance. Inside, she discovered the two corpses, surprisingly intact. She had expected burns and had prepared herself accordingly. But the two men might have been asleep.
‘The smoke got them,’ he said. ‘They were on the uppermost floor. By the time the fire reached their bodies, we’d already begun to get it under control.’
‘Any idea who they are?’
‘None,’ he said, curtly. She saw that he was haggard beneath the soot. The adrenalin of the night was wearing off. He had better things to do, not least of which was a shower.
She noticed that something was poking out of the right jacket pocket of the dead Indian. The top of an envelope.
Clambering into the ambulance, she put on gloves, and pulled it out.
Inside, she found a photograph, three men – all Indians – standing beside each other in front of a building. On the back were the words DO OR DIE and a date: 15th April 1933.
She stared at the photo, then put it back in the envelope, and stuffed it into her pocket.
‘Which building did you find them in?’
He led her to the end of the row of semi-gutted brick and concrete carcasses. Smoke curled from the ruins, and traces of ash swirled in the air.
The remains of a wooden signboard, burnt on both ends, was visible on the outside of the building, up on the fifth floor. It read:
‘Do you know how the fire started?’
He looked out to sea. ‘We won’t be sure until we finish going through the ruins. But I’ve seen this sort of blaze before. This was arson. Someone started that fire deliberately.’
It took her less than an hour to decipher the signboard’s riddle.
The building had been leased by The Bombay Testament, a small circulation weekly newspaper. Speaking to an experienced journalist of her acquaintance, she discovered that the paper had been run by two men, an Anglo-Indian partnership, rare in the post-colonial era.
Henry Lockhart was another of the many Brits who’d stayed on after Independence; his partner was Randeep Grover, a reclusive Bombay businessman. The two men, both in their fifties, had launched the newspaper just after the war, a passion project that had met with limited success. The newspaper had built a small but loyal following, but was mired in debt.
‘What sort of paper was it?’
‘Vocal. Lockhart was a socialist. He had an axe to grind. And Grover was, by all accounts, a committed nationalist. After the war ended, they lobbied hard on behalf of the Quit India movement.’
She went to Lockhart’s home first, a comfortable third floor apartment on Marine Drive.
Parking the jeep, she made her way past the sentry, who began a salute, then stopped halfway, confused, no doubt, by the fact of her gender. As the city’s first and only female detective, she was inured to such reactions.
Lockhart was survived by a wife and son. The son had left the country halfway through the war, fleeing the growing anti-British sentiment for the cosmopolitan embrace of New York.
‘Martin – my son – grew up here,’ said Lockhart’s wife, Susan. ‘He could never understand the hatred.’
‘It wasn’t hate. We just wanted our country back. Lives to call our own.’
The Englishwoman smiled wanly. The tears had all but run their course. She had taken the news of her husband’s death with surprising equanimity. ‘It was Martin’s country too,’ she said, gently.
She discovered that Lockhart and his wife had lived in India for almost three decades.
‘Henry always had an adventurous streak. We lived in Malacca for a few years, and then in Nairobi. Henry had this ridiculous idea of buying a gold mine. It came to nothing of course, like most of his ventures. We came to India in 1920, around the time Gandhi was launching his non-cooperation drive. Henry was quite taken with him. He spent the next three decades helping the cause. Not that we ever received any thanks for it.’
‘We think the fire was started deliberately.’
She drew in a sharp breath. ‘Are you saying that he was murdered?’
‘Yes. They both were.’
She blinked. The shock had flushed her cheeks.
‘Did your husband have enemies?’
‘Is there a newspaper man that doesn’t?’
‘Can you be more specific?’
She considered the question. ‘There was someone. He threatened Henry. Sent his thugs around. Henry told me they’d been having financial difficulties. He’d done something foolish. Taken money from the wrong man.’
Persis took out her notebook. ‘What was his name?’
‘I can’t believe he’s gone.’
The man was in his thirties, tall, handsome, with a fine moustache and the beginnings of a paunch. Dressed in a white kurta and loose pyjamas with a Nehru jacket that he wore with as much elegance as the prime minister.
His name was Rudraksh Grover, the dead man’s son.
‘Henry Lockhart’s wife told me that her husband had taken a loan from a man named Youssef Sabri. Have you heard of him?’
He seemed startled. ‘The gangster?’
‘He calls himself a businessman,’ she said, drily. ‘The newspaper was foundering. The loan shored them up for a while but when they couldn’t afford the payments, Sabri took it badly. He threatened Lockhart. Was your father approached?’
‘If he was, he didn’t tell me. But then, my father was an intensely private man. He rarely spoke about himself. He lived alone and he preferred to be left alone.’
A child, no more than four or five, wandered into the room, followed by a pretty young woman in a sari. The girl clambered onto her father’s lap. She gazed at Persis and then whispered into her father’s ear.
‘She wants to know why you’re wearing a police uniform,’ he smiled. ‘She’s never seen a woman in one.’ He handed the child to his wife, and watched them leave. His eyes darkened. ‘I haven’t told her about her grandfather yet.’
‘Can you think of any other enemies your father might have had?’
He stroked his chin. ‘He and Lockhart had an axe to grind against the city’s administration. They took a particular disliking to Chinoy, the municipal commissioner. Took him to task in the paper. Corruption, incompetence. Chinoy didn’t like that much. Sent his emissaries to let them know just how displeased he was.’
‘He threatened your father?’
‘Not in the way you mean. He threatened to sue for libel. Threatened to put them out of business.’
‘They are out of business,’ she said.
He looked at his watch. ‘I’m afraid I must go. I have a party meeting and then I must attend to my father’s funeral.’
‘I’m an MLA for the Congress Party,’ he said. ‘Another reason why Chinoy didn’t like us, I suppose. We’ve always been staunch Congresswallahs. The word is he and Nehru hate each other.’
‘One more thing.’ She took out the envelope and showed him the photograph. ‘The man in the middle. It took me a while to see it, but he bears a resemblance to your father.’
He seemed rooted to the spot. ‘Yes,’ he said eventually, staring at the picture. ‘He couldn’t have been much more than thirty here.’
‘Why would he be carrying this photograph around?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Who are those men?’
He shook his head. ‘I really can’t help you.’
‘Do or die,’ she said, quoting the message on the back. ‘Gandhi’s rallying cry.’
‘My father was a patriot.’
She continued to hold him with her gaze. ‘I understand Lockhart was also a supporter of the Independence movement?’
Something flickered over his features. ‘Lockhart was a different animal to my father. He went where the prevailing winds took him.’
He looked younger than his newspaper images.
Youssef Sabri maintained offices in the mid-town Mazgaon district, on Gunpowder Road, near the pier.
She was led up three flights of steps by two large men in matching navy safari suits, armed and curious.
Sabri rose to greet her. He was dressed in a fine suit and tie, though had shed the jacket. A thick head of dark hair was slicked back over a high forehead, and a slim moustache gave him a debonair look.
‘Inspector. Would you care for lunch?’
She saw that he had been eating, a plate of noodles with a glass of wine.
He smiled, disarmingly, then waved her into a seat. ‘Tell me, what brings you to my door?’
‘Did you know a man named Henry Lockhart?’
He pursed his lips. ‘The name sounds vaguely familiar.’
‘He ran a newspaper. The Bombay Testament.’
‘I have no time for newspapers. I seem to unduly attract their attention, and not to my benefit.’
‘That might have something to do with the fact that you’re a criminal.’
He flashed a pained look. ‘I’m a businessman, Inspector.’
‘Smuggling. Gun running. Racketeering. Extortion. You have an intriguing sense of commerce.’
‘My hands are cleaner than half the politicians in this new republic of ours.’
She gave him a jaundiced look. ‘Lockhart was murdered last night. Killed in an arson attack that burned down his newspaper offices.’
He set down his fork. ‘That’s most unfortunate.’
‘Six months ago, you loaned him a considerable sum. A few weeks ago, you sent men to his home to hound him.’
‘Hound? That’s an emotive word. If my emissaries visited Lockhart it was merely to remind him of his obligations. Call me old fashioned but when a man makes an agreement I believe he should honour it.’
‘And if he doesn’t? What then?’
The corners of his lips turned upwards. ‘I didn’t kill Lockhart. What would be the point? Dead men are notoriously bad at repaying loans.’
‘Perhaps you were making a point.’
He picked up his fork again. ‘I’m well past the stage where I need to prove a point to anyone, Inspector.’
As she got up to leave, he held her with liquid eyes. ‘I allowed you up because I was intrigued. I’ve had every kind of policeman after me, but never a female one. Perhaps we’ll meet again.’
‘Unless you’re about to give up your current life to become a monk, I suspect that we will.’
As the body responsible for the civic administration of the city, the Bombay Municipal Corporation maintained a budget larger than most states in the country. Such wealth, combined with a Byzantine internal structure and a commitment to red tape that would have strangled the enthusiasm out of an actuary, ensured that the organisation was routinely accused of corruption and malpractice.
She had rarely visited the BMC headquarters near the Victoria Terminus Railway station. With its cusped windows, dominating arches and lion-headed gargoyles, the place openly displayed its colonial heritage. She recalled that the area around the building had once been called Gallows Tank, so named because the city’s Portuguese progenitors had once hanged convicted criminals here.
It was an hour before she was finally ushered into the presence of Chinoy, the BMC’s commissioner, a short, dark-haired man sporting bottle-bottom glasses and dressed in the national uniform of the bureaucrat, a white kurta and loose pyjamas. On the wall behind him was the obligatory trinity: photographs of Gandhi and Nehru, and a framed Indian flag.
‘What is this about?’ he said. ‘A police matter? Why does this require my attention?’
He spoke as if firing bullets from his mouth.
‘This concerns you personally.’ She couldn’t bring herself to say ‘sir’. ‘Last night the offices of The Bombay Testament burned down. The owners died in the blaze. I have been led to understand that they were particularly critical of your tenure, and that you had threatened them with legal action.’
His cheeks puffed in and out, and his eyes wobbled behind his spectacles. Words failed him. Finally, he spoke, ‘You think you can walk into this office and accuse me? I can end your career with one phone call.’
‘Why don’t you try it? I have it on good authority that the police commissioner is no fan of your work. I’m certain he would love the chance to investigate further.’
He gaped at her. She suspected that he had rarely been challenged. Another paperclip Napoleon, of which the country had too many.
The silence stretched, until finally he picked up a glass of water with a shaky hand. ‘They printed untruths about me. Vicious lies. Yes, I threatened to take them to court. But I had no hand in their deaths.’
She stopped to check on her father before returning to Malabar House.
Sam was at his customary place behind the counter.
Outside, the twin stone vultures that sat on a plinth above the glass front of the Wadia Book Emporium looked down at her with a steady gaze.
She entered the shop, waited while Sam raged at someone on the phone, then thumped the receiver back into its cradle, rolled his wheelchair backwards, and headed towards the rear of the shop. ‘Aziz wants a book about French cheeses. The man has the palate of a cement mixer but has got it into his head that he’s going to start a wine and cheese club.’
Dr Aziz was one of her father’s oldest friends. He’d told her that Sam was suffering from hypertension, though how he could tell was beyond her. Sam’s usual mode of expression was barely suppressed rage. That he’d managed to raise her on his own, ever since her mother’s death, had always astonished her.
As he searched for Aziz’s book, she explained the case to him. She often used him as a sounding board. For all his bluster, her father was an intelligent and perceptive man.
‘I’ve met Lockhart before,’ he revealed. ‘He’s been in the shop a few times. Seemed earnest, or as earnest as you can expect of an Englishman.’
Her father’s ire with the British stemmed from the Quit India rally where her mother had died. For years, he’d neglected to mention that he’d been at the wheel of the car in which she’d been killed.
He found his book and began thumbing through it. ‘Have you considered the possibility that they targeted Lockhart because he was British?’
There might be a grain of truth there.
Tens of thousands of foreigners had remained in India after Independence, mainly British, unwilling or unable to return to a country that many had barely known. Hardline nationalists had called for their forcible ouster from the new nation. A few had taken matters into their own hands.
‘Do or die,’ said Sam, repeating the words on the photograph she had shown him. He continued by quoting Gandhi’s speech from which the words had been taken. ‘“The mantra is: ‘do or die’. We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery.”… Perhaps they sent that photograph to goad the pair of them? Lockhart and Grover, I mean.’
‘Perhaps,’ she muttered. ‘But why did Grover have the photograph? Why was he in the photograph? If they were delivering an anti-British message why send it to him and not Lockhart? According to his son, Grover was a committed nationalist.’
‘Perhaps whoever started the fire didn’t like the fact that he was partners with an Englishman. They probably considered him a traitor. People have long memories.’
She felt his eyes lingering on her and wondered if he was thinking about her and Archie Blackfinch. Her father had always had a sixth sense for such things.
Blackfinch, a Metropolitan criminologist currently deputed to the Bombay force, had worked several cases with her. Something complicated had grown up between them, something unexpected, and by no means welcome.
Malabar House was deserted. She sat down, pulled off her cap, and inclined her face up to the ceiling fan.
A noise behind her.
She twisted in her seat to see Seth walk out of his office with his arm around a heavy-set man with a short beard and a turban. One arm was missing, the empty sleeve pinned back. The pair exchanged a gruff farewell. The stranger eyed her curiously as he walked by her desk and made his way out of the office.
Seth turned to her. ‘A childhood friend. Served in the war. Won himself a medal charging a tank. Hard to believe it’s the same kid we used to call Snotnose and shove into the assembly hall without his trousers. He’s just been promoted to major.’ He looked morose and she knew he was thinking about his own situation. The superintendent’s career had crashed into a brick wall with the advent of Independence. He’d found himself outmanoeuvred by his rivals, relegated to Malabar House, a dumping ground for the incompetent, the undesirable, and those who had upset the establishment.
Persis’s crime was that she was a woman.
‘So… how did you get on with the fire?’
She brought him up to speed with the investigation.
‘My money’s on Sabri. Nasty piece of work.’
He picked up the photograph from her desk, read the back. ‘Do or die,’ he murmured. ‘I arrested him once, you know. Gandhi, I mean. This was at the height of the Struggle. I told him I was simply following orders. He didn’t seem to mind.’ He paused. ‘I’ve never met anyone like him. He was such a small man, twinkly-eyed, looked like someone’s jovial grandfather. And yet he had this iron conviction, an aura of such formidable strength that even then I knew he was going to win. Imagine that. Such relentless commitment to an idea. The idea of freedom, not for himself, but for us all.’
‘I thought you didn’t like him?’
‘It’s the cult of Gandhi I never liked, not the man.’
He handed her the photograph, then headed back to his office.
She stared at the image. The three men caught in its embrace. Why had it been sent to Grover? She sensed instinctively that the heart of the matter rested in the picture.
She took a magnifying glass from her drawer and began to examine it.
Moments later, she stopped. Her eye had been drawn to a symbol in the background, on a brick wall behind the three men.
A red cross.
The Indian Red Cross Society had been around since the 1920s, particularly active in times of famine, outbreaks of tuberculosis, and the occasional earthquake. During the war, the society had supplied food parcels to POWs languishing in camps up and down the country.
Persis recalled visiting the Bombay office with her mother, the year before her death.
She remembered white walls, friendly smiles, an air of busyness. A tall man chucking her under the chin and asking her if she’d like to be a nurse when she grew up. Why a nurse? her mother had said. Why not a doctor? The man had looked confused and a little panicky, then handed her a lollipop.
She parked the jeep, and made her way inside.
Questioning the receptionist led her to the office of the man in charge. He listened to her explanation, examined the photograph, then said, ‘1933 is a bit before my time. but there’s someone here who might be able to help.’
‘Yes, I remember them.’ Maria Rodrigues looked at her through wire-rimmed spectacles. A wide-hipped woman in her sixties, she had the no nonsense air of one who had weathered the vagaries of the human condition for more years than she cared to recall. ‘But they had nothing to do with the Red Cross.’ She shuffled around on her seat. ‘They rented the floor above us. Used to meet twice a week, regular as clockwork. Some sort of gentleman’s club, though they were always a bit hazy about exactly what it was they were doing up there.’
‘Did you know Grover?’
‘Not really. He was polite enough, but they all kept themselves to themselves.’ She tapped the photograph, indicating the man to the left of Grover. ‘I know that he died not long after this photograph was taken. Heart attack, if I remember. And this one-’- she pointed at the man on the right – ‘Manoj Rai. He had some sort of accident not too long ago. Crippled him.’
‘You’re in touch with him?’
‘Not exactly. He lives in the area. Comes in occasionally looking for medical supplies, clothing, anything we can spare. To tell you the truth, it’s difficult to see a gentlemen like that reduced to such circumstances.’
‘Do you know where I can find him?’
Rai lived on the third floor of an elegant building less than ten minutes from the Red Cross office.
When she knocked, the door was answered by an emaciated elderly man, clutching a cane, hollow eyes sunken into a greying face. A grey stubble worked its way around a wet mouth; more grey bordered a bald dome. His gaze was curious.
‘I’m looking for Manoj Rai.’
‘You’ve found him.’
The man was unrecognisable from his photograph. Time – and fate – had been unkind.
‘I’d like to talk to you about Randeep Grover.’
He stared at her. ‘I don’t know anyone by that name.’
She took out the photograph and held it up to him.
His eyes widened and he seemed to deflate.
He led her inside and collapsed onto a sofa that looked as faded and weary as he did.
She took the seat opposite then leaned forward, elbows on her knees. ‘Grover was killed last night in an arson attack on the offices of his newspaper.’
For a moment, he seemed to struggle to breathe. ‘You can’t think that I had anything to do with that?’
‘I think you sent him the photograph. Was it a threat? Who were you threatening? Grover or his partner?’
He blinked rapidly. ‘It wasn’t a threat. I just- I needed help.’
‘What sort of help?’
‘Take a look at me!’ he snapped, suddenly furious. ‘Ever since the accident I haven’t been able to work. My medical bills have eaten up my savings. I have no family. And now the money has run out. I can’t even pay my rent. They’re trying to evict me. In this condition!’
His bitterness was a tangible thing.
‘So you asked Grover for money? And when he refused you burned down his office. Did you know he was inside?’
‘I tell you it wasn’t me! Yes, I asked him for money. But he refused. Forgot all those years we worked together. Forgot that I knew his secret.’
‘Two men are dead,’ she said. ‘Someone must answer for it.’
He fell back, turned his eyes upwards to the gently rotating ceiling fan. ‘After Grover turned me down I approached another.’
The Colaba ward office of the Congress Party was located on Fitzmaurice Road.
Parking the jeep, she made her way past a giant hoarding standing sentinel outside the building, emblazoned with an image of Nehru and various party luminaries.
Inside, she was directed to a second-floor office where she discovered Rudraksh Grover behind a desk, dictating a letter to his secretary.
She set the photograph down on the desk, and said, ‘I spoke to Manoj Rai.’
He sat up straight, then dismissed his secretary. The woman left, casting curious glances over her shoulder.
‘What is it that you think you know?’ His face looked drawn.
‘Rai and your father worked together for a short while during the thirties for an outfit calling themselves the League against Gandhism – the Gandhi Boycott Committee, as it was originally known. It started in Calcutta and then spread to cities around the country. Your father and Rai were founding members of the Bombay chapter. The group was an offshoot of the Communist Party. They deplored what they called Gandhi’s compromise politics.’
He was silent a moment, the only sound the whirring of the ceiling fan. ‘I don’t see what any of this has to do with my father’s death.’
‘Manoj Rai fell on hard times. He became a desperate man. He approached your father, asked him for money. Blackmailed him, in fact. Threatened to tell the world that he had once been part of an outfit that campaigned against Gandhi. In the new India, that’s a label no public figure can afford. Especially not a man openly running a commercial enterprise with an Englishman.’
He continued to take refuge in silence.
‘Rai sent him that photograph, as evidence. He has plenty more. But your father refused to buckle. And so Rai approached you. Told you everything. He knew you were a Congress MLA. Your career couldn’t possibly survive such a scandal. A Congresswallah whose own father had actively undermined the party’s most revered icon during the Independence struggle? It was unthinkable that you could allow this secret to come out.’
‘I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Before coming here, I spoke to the security guard at your building. Last night, you left your apartment at just after one a.m. You told the guard you couldn’t sleep. You took your car.’ She paused. ‘Rai will testify in court that he met with you.’
His eyes seemed to stare into the middle distance. Finally, he found his voice. ‘I begged my father to think of me, of his grandchild. He wouldn’t listen. I offered to pay Rai myself. But my father had decided that it was time for the truth to come out. That’s why he and Lockhart were in the building so late that night. Working on a special issue where my father intended to confess, come clean about his years working against Gandhi. He knew that it would ruin me, ruin us both, but he just… didn’t care.’ He turned his hollow gaze to her. ‘He left me no choice. You can see that, can’t you? I couldn’t be the son of the man who hated Gandhi.’
My quarterly newsletter contains articles, competitions, giveaways, short stories, book news, and recommendations. Simply register here.
My latest novel is The Dying Day … Bombay, 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.”