Have you ever thought of writing crime fiction?

If so, I am delighted to announce that you can now enrol for a new 6-part ONLINE course that I have just recorded for the Curtis Brown Creative Writing School. (Graduates from the school include such crime fiction luminaries as Jane Harper of The Dry fame.)

The course begins on Oct 7th and you can register up until Oct 5th ….

Crime fiction is now the most popular genre in the world. The incredible range within the genre means that there is a niche for everyone. Whether you want to write a nail-biting detective series, cosy mysteries or carefully plotted police procedurals, we will teach you the fundamentals.

Across six weeks, I will guide you through the essentials of writing crime fiction – including mastering the building blocks of a page-turning crime novel, creating memorable detectives with series potential, writing suspense and mystery, setting up red herrings and plotting your investigation all the way to a satisfying conclusion.

You will learn how to construct the perfect murder, establish a crime scene rich with clues and false leads, and make good use of research in key areas such as forensics to make your story more real for the reader.

In addition to the teaching videos, detailed notes, and resources, I will set weekly writing tasks that will help you practise the skills you’re learning and bring them to bear directly on your novel. These range from exploring the theme of your crime novel to creating an alternative suspects table and adding layers of clues, intrigue and questions. All students will receive a short piece of written feedback on one writing task from an expert editor during the course.

The course will help you plot, plan, and write a crime worth solving. Each week you’ll grow in confidence as you work towards answering that all-important question: whodunnit? By the end of your course, you should have written at least a 3,000 word opening and constructed your plot.

This course is perfect for fans of crime fiction who now want to write their own murder mystery as well as those who already have experience with the craft of storytelling and want to learn more about the nuances of the crime genre.

Find out more by clicking here

DO judge a book by its cover…

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Conventional wisdom tells us not to judge anything by its outward appearance. Sound advice, of course, for everyday life, but when it comes to books, my personal philosophy doesn’t quite meet this lofty ideal.

I confess, I am a sucker for a great cover, to the point that I am often swayed into parting with ruinous sums by a beautifully designed book jacket, having made only a cursory pass at the blurb. (Here’s one I bought a while ago. The cover design on the hardback is worked in gold. It’s exquisitely beautiful – and the book is a wonderful read too!)

Do I end up regretting the decision to dive blindly in where more astute book buyers fear to tread? Not as often as you might think. Buying books purely on the basis of an appealing cover isn’t quite the literary Russian roulette one might suppose.

The reason? Subjectivity aside, there is often a tangible correlation between the effort that goes into cover design and the quality of the book contained within those covers. Publishers, more than ever before, are lavishing on favoured books the sort of care one more usually associates with beloved children, seeking to woo those of us amenable to an aesthetically-pleasing offering.

A decade ago, the death knell sounded for physical books. We were told by experts that digital was going to take the hardback/paperback publishing industry out into a meadow and put a bullet between its ears – for its own good, of course. The dinosaurs among us who still professed to loving the feel of a ‘real’ book would be blasted into oblivion by the twin asteroids of e-readers and audiobooks.

Don’t get me wrong. I own a Kindle and find it practical in certain situations, such as when I’m wedged into the armpit of a Canary Wharf day trader on the London Underground. And an audiobook is a wonderful accompaniment to a long drive.

But I grew up in an era where books were to be treasured. To be coddled and re-read and fondled in one’s hands like a small, furry pet or a member of the Osmonds.

What exactly is the function of a book cover?

At its most elemental, a cover must convey, in a single glance, something about the nature and content of a book. This explains why books within sub-genres often have very similar looking covers. (I can’t be the only one who’s seen the same woman-in-a-red-coat a million times over on endless crime novels? Why is she always walking away from us into some windblown semi-distance? When will she get to wherever it is she’s going? More importantly… why doesn’t she just take the bus?)

A cover also has the unenviable task of standing out on busy bookshelves, artfully-curated window displays, and bestseller stands.

Today, book art is more important than ever because of the potential for it to be smeared across social media. As hip modern authors, it’s incumbent upon us to help out overworked and underpaid marketing staff by Instagramming, Tweeting and Tik-Toking the living daylights out of our painstakingly-designed covers. Book selfies are especially popular in terms of attracting eyeballs. The edgier the selfie, the greater the likes. (I tried to get a shot of my latest one while dangling by one leg from the underside of a light aircraft and juggling flaming chainsaws in one hand. Sadly, those party-poopers in Health and Safety poured cold water on the idea.)

The very best book covers impart a genuine sense of individualism to a book; they elevate books to objects of desire in their own right, eliciting an emotional response in the reader, sometimes subliminal, sometimes visceral. From a sales point of view, one hopes the response is positive, though even a negative one gets people talking. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Some covers, the rare few, go on to become iconic, making their way into pop culture.

We can all think of examples.

Here are some of my favourites, all books that I’ve loved. Jurassic Park. Guards! Guards! and The Godfather.

So where does our poor author fit into this equation?

The truth is that unless you’re successful enough to have management myrmidons scurrying for cover each time you set foot inside your publisher’s offices, you have little say in cover design. That’s not to say you won’t be included in the process. Your advice and thoughts will be elicited, but ultimately you will be asked to defer to the experts. Remember, a cover isn’t only about the designer. It’s primarily about how the sales and marketing team feel it fits in with their strategy for a particular book.

And this is right and proper.

The last thing anyone wants is authors unleashed with their boxes of crayons and fancy art paper, designing their own book jackets.

In my own case, my first series of books were set in modern Mumbai, and all I asked for were covers that reflected the colour and vibrancy of the subcontinent. And once a series design is set, it becomes the template for everything that follows.

My second series has seen a tonal change. Historical crime fiction has a greater sense of ‘gravitas’, and that has to be communicated. Yet I still wanted to see some of the colour of the subcontinent blazing from the covers. Here is the cover for Midnight at Malabar House, a crime novel set in 1950s Bombay. Personally, I think the designer did a great job, arriving at a cover that is both eye-catching and conveys the elements present within the book! (The book went on to win the CWA Historical Dagger 2021. Just saying.)

Covers tend to evolve over a back and forth between the various players.

Here are the various iterations that the cover for the second book in the Malabar House series, The Dying Day, went through.

Again, I was delighted with the end result. And if you haven’t read the book yet, here’s more info and where to buy.

So… the next time you pick up a book based solely on the cover, don’t feel guilty. A gorgeous cover, like the sleek coat of a thoroughbred racehorse, is often a sign of a healthy and vigorous interior. And remember, be gentle with us authors when you see us endlessly posting those book cover selfies – a ridiculous number of person-hours have gone into them and, should you scorn us, you’ll be able to hear, carried on the breeze, the sobs of our designers as they weep gently into their mugs of macha latte.

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Inside India #26 – Red India: Communism on the subcontinent

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

India is the world’s largest democracy and has been since 1947 when it achieved Independence following three centuries of British rule. Yet, such are the differences between north, south, east, and west – in culture, language, local history, cuisine, customs – that the country has often been described as a collection of nations rather than a unified whole. 

With such immense variation, India has proved fertile soil for all manner of political ideologies to take root and flourish. 

Communism as a political force arrived on the subcontinent following the Russian Revolution, at a time when a group of prominent Indians – including the likes of Bipin Chandra Pal and Bal Gangadhar Tilak – were openly expressing admiration for the teachings of Lenin. Several made the journey to Moscow to meet the man himself, returning inspired by the Russian revolutionary’s grand vision for an egalitarian utopia run by, and for, the masses.

Picture attribution: David Wilmot, CC 2.0

In its early years, the transplanted ideology met with strident opposition from the authorities of the Raj, wary of the potential for communist agitators to attach themselves to the growing Independence movement. The newspapers were soon full of sensational conspiracy theories, with local communists accused of undermining British sovereignty in India. Little surprise then that the martinets of empire responded by prohibiting communist activity across the subcontinent, clamping down on dissenters with an iron fist. 

Despite this, in 1925, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was established followingthe first national communist conference held in Cawnpore, with S.V. Ghate elected as the party’s first General Secretary.

Over the next decade, the movement grew cautiously in the country’s principal urban centres such as Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. By the 1940s, communism as a mainstream alternative ideology had infiltrated national party politics, sprouting several offshoots, including the Congress Socialist Party, and a volatile group that named itself The League Against Gandhism, a coterie of radicals who shared Gandhi’s goal of independence, but disagreed with his non-violent tactics and compromise politics. In 1964, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – originating in the state of Kerala – splintered off from the CPI.

In the decades following Independence, the movement struggled to maintain its identity, sometimes veering towards to the right, sometimes to the hard left. This confusion, combined with a lack of cohesive national leadership, led to a waning of the socialist brand. By the 1990s, communism in India was confined to a few states – such as West Bengal and Kerala – with little national influence. 

Looking back, most commentators now believe that the communist experiment failed partly because of India’s complex societal structure and partly because of the association of the movement with violence, an association that continues to this day. 

The Naxalite–Maoist insurgencyis an ongoing conflictbetween Maoist groups known as Naxalites – or Naxals – and the Indian government. The insurgency started after the 2004 formation of the CPI-Maoists – a group of rebel communists operating in what is known as the Red Corridor, a region in the eastern, central, and the southern parts of India.

The conflict has seen hundreds killed annually in clashes between the CPI-Maoists and the government. For their part, the Naxalites claim they are fighting a ‘people’s war’.

The insurgency gained international media attention after a 2013 attack in the Darbha Valleyin the state of Chhattisgarh that resulted in the deaths of twenty-four Indian National Congress leaders. All forms of Naxalite organisations have since been declared as terrorist organizations by the Indian government.

Today, many believe that communism has missed its window in India. The failure to convert Lenin’s vision of a socialist state into a form acceptable to the subcontinental masses suggests that it is unlikely that any of the major communist parties of India will ever be elected to helm the nation. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here. 

The Man who hated Gandhi – 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.

1

Bombay, 1950

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:

-BAY TESTA-

‘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.’

2

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.’

3

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?’

4

‘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.’

‘Party meeting?’

‘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.’

5

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.

‘No.’

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.’

6

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.’

7

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.

8

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.

9

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?’

10

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.’

‘Secret?’

He hesitated.

‘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.’

11

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.’

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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.” 

Inside India #25: The Indians who invented fingerprint classification

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Until the advent of DNA analysis, fingerprinting represented the cornerstone of judicial evidence, first popularised by western law enforcement agencies. This being the case, it is remarkable that so few realise that the origins of fingerprint classification are Indian. 

Indeed, the world’s first fingerprint bureau was established in Calcutta in 1897. This is because the earliest methodology for fingerprint classification was developed by two Indian police officers, Sub-Inspectors Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. 

Picture attribution: Tholarbod. CC 4.0

It has taken over a century for history to fully acknowledge their contributions. 

The credit for the invention originally fell to their British supervisor, Sir Edward Richard Henry, the then Inspector General of Police of Bengal, explaining why the system was named Henry’s System of Fingerprint Classification. Henry wasn’t the first or last Englishman to take credit for the efforts of British colonial subjects, but this seems a particularly egregious case, given that the system found worldwide acclaim, revolutionised criminal investigation, and delivered fame and fortune to its supposed inventor.

Who were these two remarkable men? How did they arrive at their invention?

The use of fingerprints as a means of identification was first considered in the mid-19th century following Sir William James Herschel’s discovery that human fingerprints remain stable over time and are unique to individuals. He was, at the time, a Chief Magistrate in the Bengal region of British India. In 1877, he established the use of fingerprints as a means of identification and for signing legal documents. However, there was no means by which such fingerprint records could be methodically filed and searched.

In 1897 Haque and Bose were working in the Anthropometric Bureau in Calcutta – anthropometry was the system used at the time to organise criminal records in Bengal by the British Indian police force, a meticulous method of measuring body parts for the use of identifying criminals. It was, needless to say, inefficient, and not very accurate.

At the time, Henry was considering the use of fingerprints for the purposes of criminal record-keeping. In 1896, he ordered the Bengal Police to collect prisoners’ fingerprints, in addition to their body-part measurements. Henry wanted to develop a classification system for these records. He asked Haque and Bose to work on the problem.

A fingerprint classification system groups fingerprints according to their characteristics and thus is instrumental in the matching of a single fingerprint against a large database of prints. 

The Henry Classification system used three basic fingerprint patterns: loop, whorl, and arch – the so-called friction ridge patterns. A query fingerprint using the system allowed the easier retrieval of paper records in large collections based on these characteristics. (In the modern era, computerization has changed how fingerprints are used. But prior to the advent of computer databases manual filing systems were used as fingerprint repositories.)

It was Haque who came up with the mathematical formula that underpins the system, and Bose who helped him refine it. 

Haque and Bose’s efforts did not go completely unrewarded. The British government, on Henry’s recommendation, recognised their contributions with an honorarium of five thousand rupees apiece, a healthy sum for the time.    

Nevertheless, Henry was loathe to speak publicly of their contribution. 

Presenting a paper on the classification system in 1899 before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he failed to acknowledge the contribution of Haque and Bose. A year later the paper was expanded into a book entitled Classification and Uses of Fingerprints, gaining widespread traction. Again, not a word of credit for Haque or Bose. 

Rumour has it that Haque once stated to a colleague that Henry did not even fully understand the system that he was so busy convincing the world he had invented. Of course, there was little the Indians could do about the matter. This was colonial India in a nutshell. 

In 1897, fingerprinting replaced anthropometry in British India. Four years later Sir Henry returned to Britain and was appointed Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, establishing the first UK fingerprint bureau there. 

The Henry Classification system remained the basis for fingerprint classification until the early 1990s, until replaced by modern approaches. 

Today, the contributions of Haque and Bose are finally being recognised.   

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here. 

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.’

My quarterly newsletter contains articles, competitions, giveaways, short stories, book news, and recommendations. Simply register here

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.” 

A simple act of kindness

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Yesterday, on the way to the hairdressers – barbershop, to be more accurate – I was caught in the rain and had to shelter under a tree while all around me the street was lashed with monsoon fury. (So heavy was the rain, that, at one point, I was certain I saw Poseidon rise from the asphalt to wave his trident at me. He looked a lot like Jason Momoa.) During this watery hiatus, the door of the small house beside me opened and a man in boxer shorts and a risqué T-shirt skipped out to press an umbrella into my hands. 

‘That’s quite alright,’ I protested. ‘I have to go to the hairdressers.’ His English wasn’t very good and so I pointed at my head and made a combination of slashing and scissoring motions. God knows what he made of that.

At any rate, he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and so I took the proffered umbrella and went on my way. 

Sitting in the barbershop, I couldn’t help but dwell on the gesture. 

This man – a complete stranger – had no reason to help me. In fact, he had every reason not to. There was no guarantee I would return what was a perfectly serviceable umbrella. Did I look particularly trustworthy? Did I exude the sort of aura that invited strangers to leap to my aid? Was he afraid that I would drown in the deluge and that my bloated corpse would come floating by his house later that evening and that he would, forever after, find himself wracked with guilt whenever it rained?

By the time I’d had my short back and sides – my barber operating from behind the safety of a suit of Covid-rebuffing armour – I found myself inexplicably moved by the simple kindness of the act. I walked to the nearest off license, slammed a fistful of soggy currency onto the counter like Jay Gatsby on steroids, and then returned the umbrella, together with a large bar of chocolate. My saviour’s smile of delight communicated volumes. One simple act of kindness in return for another.

As I later related the story to my nearest and dearest – and I’m ashamed to say it grew in the retelling, so that my chocolate bar turned into a hamper of delights the likes of which only A-listers at the Oscars will ever receive – I couldn’t help but dwell on the past year and a half, a terrible period in human history when the desire to seek the welfare of others has been at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. Admittedly, much of that has been motivated by self-preservation – none of us can heal until we all heal, etcetera, etcetera – but we’ve all heard of many small acts of kindness that demonstrate the ‘we’re in it together’ mentality that should – but rarely does – categorise the human experience.

Altruism is a strange thing. In zoology, altruism is defined as the ‘behaviour by an animal that benefits another at its own expense’. Such behaviour has been well documented in the animal kingdom. For instance, vampire bats often regurgitate blood and feed it to other members of their colony who have gone hungry that night. (There are many other examples but this one seemed particularly intriguing.) 

The point is that true altruism occurs when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. Helping someone when it also materially benefits ourselves is great, but it’s not altruism. 

Recent research seems to suggest that such altruistic behaviour is not as rare as we might think. Studies show that humans exhibit inbuilt impulses towards cooperation – a behavioural instinct observed even in toddlers. Evolutionary scientists suggest that altruism developed as a means of helping promote the survival of our species. Though at an individual level altruism doesn’t seem to make sense – throwing yourself in front of a ravenous lion to save your friend may do wonders for your friend’s survival chances but tends to drastically reduce your life expectancy – it benefits the procreative capacity of the group, as a whole. Furthermore, the latest studies in neuroscience show that when we behave in this way, regions of our brain are activated that are usually associated with pleasure or reward. 

Such being the case, it would seem that human society should be awash with acts of selflessness… 

Clearly, there is another side to the story. 

Human history – and the world around us – is replete with the evidence of our ability to be truly selfish, malevolent, nasty pieces of work. That goes for me too, lest you think I’m sitting on my holier-than-thou camel, passing judgement on the less pious. I’ve behaved in less than admirable ways in the past. I’ve missed many opportunities to offer a kind word or perform a simple act for another with no thought of what I might receive in return. I could come up with a litany of excuses to rationalise such behaviour. I was too busy; I was too young; I didn’t think it was needed.

The best thing about being human is that we have the capacity to change with age and experience. Without descending into Eat-Pray-Love preachiness, the fact is that, each and every day, we can move towards a better version of ourselves. We are presented, almost constantly, with opportunities to behave better, to act with more thought, to express ourselves in ‘nicer’ ways.  

I am a writer. It’s a lonely profession. Writers are often caricatured as charmless social hunchbacks, beavering away, glaze-eyed, in their cave-like dens, only brought into the light like shackled prisoners when a new book must be promoted, grunting their way through literary engagements while their publicists gibber and gnash their teeth at the back of the room. We’re supposed to be a selfish bunch, perpetually infatuated by our own brilliance, so in love with ourselves that even Narcissus would be put to shame. 

Yet, one of the best things I’ve discovered over the past years, is how collegiate the writing community can be. Lifting each other up when things don’t go to plan, celebrating each other’s good fortune when things go well. I’ve witnessed numerous selfless acts, little demonstrations of kindness, for instance, successful authors with nothing to gain helping those new to the game. Contrary to popular perception, such selfless behaviour seems to be a hallmark of the literary fraternity – from reviewers to bloggers to readers to booksellers to those who work behind the scenes in publishing houses big and small. Yes, it’s a business, and it can be a harsh one, at times, but even within the economic necessities of this most of subjective of enterprises there is room for simple human thoughtfulness.

None of this is to suggest that I believe we are about to enter an ‘age of altruism’ or that I myself am now going to don sackcloth and walk the earth as friend to man and beast alike, raising the dead, embracing lepers, and so on and so forth. Far from it. I know my limitations. But that stranger and his umbrella brought something home to me – you don’t have to be rich or famous or Bob Geldof to bring a measure of joy to another human being. 

And if it costs you a little something to do so… Well, then you’ve carried out a genuine act of altruism, my friend. 

Good on you.

My quarterly newsletter contains articles, competitions, giveaways, short stories, book news, and recommendations. Simply register here

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.

Mumbai’s The Divine Comedy – the treasure for which Mussolini offered £1m

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Deep in the vaults of a Mumbai bank is one of the world’s greatest treasures. Every few years this priceless artefact is transferred to Mumbai’s Asiatic Society, under armed guard, where it is put on display, to be marvelled at by the public and experts alike. The treasure in question? A copy of Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia – The Divine Comedy – one the two oldest in the world, purported to be over six hundred years old.

The work features in my latest novel, The Dying Day. In this second instalment of the Malabar House series (the first was Midnight at Malabar House, recent winner of the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger), Persis Wadia is summoned to the Asiatic Society and informed that the Dante manuscript is missing, together with the Society’s curator, Englishman, John Healy. As she investigates, together with Archie Blackfinch, a forensic scientist from London’s Metropolitan Police, they uncover a trail of cryptic clues, including riddles written in verse… And then they find the first body.

The Bombay Branch of the Royal Society of Great Britain and Ireland has been around in one form or another in India’s ‘city of dreams’ since 1804 when James Mackintosh, a chief justice of the Bombay High Court, established a literary society in the port city. In the two centuries since, the society has grown, evolving into both an impressive storehouse of rare books and manuscripts, and a hub of intellectual endeavour. Today it is called, simply, the Asiatic Society, Mumbai.

The society houses a multitude of treasures: a five-tola coin from Emperor Akbar’s reign; a wooden bowl reputed to belong to Gautama Buddha; ancient maps from around the world, manuscripts so old they are written on palm leaves. And, of course, a priceless collection of books. A Shakespeare First Folio dated 1623 – there are only about 200 known copies in the world; a copy of both volumes of Voyages to the South Pole and Round the World by James Cook dated 1777; a two hundred-year-old History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh. In the Classics section, you can find a book on Greek grammar dating to 1495. An 1859 first edition of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection is another rare treasure, as is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a fully-illustrated work printed in Venice in 1553.

But undoubtedly the most valuable artefact owned by the society is Dante’s masterpiece. 

The manuscript was (purportedly) brought to the Society by a Scotsman – Mountstuart Elphinstone, former Governor of Bombay. In a 2008 Telegraph article Rahul Jayaram informs us that the manuscript “weighs around 400 grams, is of almost 450 pages, and was bound twice during the course of its stay”. 

For the uninitiated, Dante’s epic poem deals with the passage of a man’s soul through the three stages after death – Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). Historically, the work is important because it established the Tuscan dialect as Italy’s national language. In modern times the work has achieved newfound fame through Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novel Inferno, later turned into a blockbuster movie starring Tom Hanks.

Such was the fame of the manuscript stored at the Asiatic Society in Bombay that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is reputed to have offered £1m for its return in the 1930s, perhaps to Milan where the other oldest copy of The Divine Comedy is held. (Mussolini was a huge Dante fan, so much so that he encouraged a cult of Dante as national poet in Italy.) 

The mythology that surrounds the manuscript – and the undimmed global passion for Dante – as evidenced by the hundreds of Società Dante Alighieri that have been established around the world- is enough to ensure the ongoing popularity of La Divina Commedia

As for the Asiatic Society… Today the historical treasures stored at the Society continue to attract visitors, demonstrating the dual feelings many modern Indians maintain towards the British era – abhorrence at some of the cruelties of empire, as well as fondness for a people whose presence impacted every aspect of their lives for three centuries.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here. 

The Last King of Burma – a short story in the Malabar House series

This short story is one of three marking the publication of The Dying Day on July 8, the second in the Malabar House series, described by Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger winner, M.W. Craven, as “The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India.” Find out more here. 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 Vaseem Khan’s newsletter here. Newsletter registrants will also receive a FREE digital book, in due course, with 50 articles about India’s past, present, and future.

1

Bombay, 1950

The two-storey bungalow on Nepean Sea Road had been used as a safe house during the freedom struggle. Surrounded by tall trees whose branches wound around the overhanging portico verandas and knocked on shuttered wooden windows, it had once been owned by a family that had made its fortune in the cotton trade, before the Independence movement had reignited a latent patriotism. Victory had proved bittersweet. The Muslim dynasty had fled to the newly-created Pakistan just months before Nehru took the helm of the reshaped India.

The man who had purchased the home from its departing residents now lay dead in a copper-bottomed bathtub on the upper floor.

Persis, called to the scene shortly after arriving at the nearby Malabar House station that morning, was led through the house by Mohan Kher, personal aide to the murdered man.

Kher, dressed in a chalk-striped grey suit and tie, cut a tall, slender figure, an urbane man in his forties, a hint of grey at the temples, a sharp chin, and wire-framed eyeglasses. His polished Oxfords clacked loudly on the wooden staircase. A trio of smudged white lines across his brow hinted, incongruously, at a recent visit to the temple.

‘The mali found the bodies,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘He telephoned me.’

They arrived on the second floor. Kher led her to an open doorway, paused for a moment with a hand on the frame, then entered.

The white man lay in the tub, head lolled back, one fleshy arm hanging limp over the side, the water opaque with blood. His name, she knew, was John Maxwell. She judged him to be in his fifties, a haggard face, made more so by death, a short beard, and greying hair.

His throat had been cut. She felt something uncoil in her guts.

She turned to Kher, who had blanched, his gaze held by the body.

‘Tell me about him.’

He shuddered, then turned to her. Grief darkened his features.

‘He was a great man. One of those Scotsmen who came to India as a boy and spent most of his life here. He worked for Burmah Oil. We both did. We were posted in Rangoon until the Japanese invasion in ’42. We were forced to abandon everything we’d built – our homes, the company – and trek across the jungle to Assam. From there we made our way down to Calcutta. In time, Burmah Oil gave John a position in the Bombay office.’

‘And you went with him?’

‘I’ve been his aide for almost two decades. He was more than my employer. He was my friend.’ He glanced again at the body, and then, in a whisper, ‘He saved my life on the road from Burma. And now…’ He waved a helpless hand at the greying slab of flesh.

She heard a clatter behind her and turned to find Blackfinch arriving with his young assistant, Mohammed, trundling a large, boxy case.

The Englishman greeted her awkwardly. ‘Persis.’

‘Archie.’

The stiffness between them flushed her insides with an uncomfortable heat. It was her own fault. She should never have stepped over the invisible line that kept whites and Indians apart in the new India. Now, like soldiers who had fought an indecisive skirmish, and didn’t know whether to return to their respective trenches or re-engage, they were at a loss. That they were forced to routinely work together was all but unbearable.

She introduced Kher. ‘Archie Blackfinch is a criminologist with the Metropolitan Police in England. He’s currently helping the Bombay police set up a forensics laboratory. I asked him here to examine the crime scene.’

Kher looked perturbed, then nodded. ‘In that case, perhaps I should show you the second body?’

2

The woman was young, in her early twenties, dressed in an olive sari, dark-skinned, and pretty.

She lay on the floor of the kitchen, the front of her sari soaked in blood, sightless eyes staring at the gently rotating ceiling fan.

‘Her name is Laxmi Vyas. She is – she was – the housekeeper.’

‘She lived here?’

‘Yes. In a downstairs room. She joined the household six months ago.’ Kher shook his head sadly. ‘Do you think it was a burglary? Or do you think they came for him?’

‘They?’

He blinked. ‘Nationalists. The ones who won’t rest until every foreigner leaves India.’

The theory had some truth to it. Even now, three years after Independence, tens of thousands of Brits stayed on in the country. Some had known no other home; others could not imagine returning to the cold, wet suburbs of the old country. Here, like Maxwell, they were burra sahibs, little emperors, waited on hand and foot by their former subjects.

She recalled the strife-ridden years of the Quit India movement, the vehemence with which many had pursued the ouster of foreigners, the violence directed towards them, despite Gandhi’s pleas. There were still hardline elements who believed in forcibly cleansing the country of the remaining vestiges of empire.

‘Too early to tell,’ she replied. ‘Did he have any enemies?’

‘He had rivals. I wouldn’t call them enemies.’

‘Please explain?’

‘John was the key figure for Burmah Oil in a lawsuit against the British Government. In the retreat from Burma, British soldiers were ordered to set fire to our oilfields to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy. Burmah Oil contends that we should be duly compensated. The British government disagrees. The legal battle has become a bitter affair.’

‘You believe this murder was orchestrated by the British government?’ She allowed incredulity to modulate her tone.

‘The British so hate to lose, don’t they?’

The idea seemed far-fetched and she could not take it seriously.

‘I’d like to see the rest of the house.’

3

In Maxwell’s study, she found a photograph of him as a younger man, a red-faced son of empire posing beside the carcasses of a trio of leopards, a shotgun cracked open in the crook of his elbow.

A search of his desk turned up little of value.

‘I take it he wasn’t married?’

‘He was a widower,’ replied Kher. ‘His wife died in Burma.’

‘Children?’

‘No. They were childless.’

‘He never remarried?’

‘No. He loved his first wife very much.’

Blackfinch entered the room. ‘Banerji has certified the deaths.’

She nodded. The prim and unlikeable doctor, with his sallow face and prissy bow ties, was as efficient as he was uncommunicative. Or perhaps that had more to do with the fact that she was the force’s only female detective. Engaging her in conversation seemed to make him gag, as if he’d gargled with bitter-gourd juice.

‘We’ll need the post mortem to confirm,’ Blackfinch continued, ‘but, by my estimation, they were both murdered with a large-bladed knife. She was stabbed at least six times in the chest and stomach. His throat was cut. No sign of the weapon and, frankly, no other forensic artefacts at this time.’ He reached up and touched his spectacles. His green eyes blinked behind the round lenses. ‘I think our burglar came in over the compound wall late last night, entered through an unlatched door at the rear of the house, stumbled across the maid in the kitchen, killed her, then came upstairs. My guess is Maxwell was dozing in the tub, didn’t even realise anything was amiss until the killer had slit his throat.’

He articulated the gruesome scenario as if reading out a report of the day’s cricket.

She directed herself to Kher. ‘Can you tell me if anything of value is missing?’

‘I can try.’

4

Half an hour later, they had completed a search of the house.

Going through Maxwell’s wardrobe, she discovered a wallet in the pocket of a blazer. Inside, a few hundred rupees in cash, and a folded receipt, stamped with the crest of a prominent Bombay jewellery store: Premlal & Sons. The receipt indicated that Maxwell had purchased – and collected – an expensive diamond ring just days before his death.

On the receipt was the inscription he had asked to be engraved on the ring.

Punarjanmanē mriyāmahē

Her Hindi was good but this was more formal. Sanskrit.

She handed the slip to Kher. ‘Do you know what this means?’

‘“We die to be reborn.”’ He all but whispered the words.

A strange thing to inscribe on a ring. And why had Maxwell, a Scot, chosen Sanskrit? She pondered the words, then said, ‘Why would a widower buy a diamond ring?’

His lips pursed. ‘This must be for Miss Matilda.’

‘Matilda?’

‘John had been courting a woman for the past year. I hadn’t realised that he’d decided to marry.’ He seemed perturbed that his friend had kept such a decision from him.

‘The ring isn’t here.’

He handed back the receipt. ‘Perhaps our killer took it?’

‘What else did he take?’

Kher contemplated the question. ‘There were a pair of solid silver engraved thabeik bowls. They were the only items we managed to leave with when we abandoned Burma. They were exceedingly valuable.’

‘Who knew about the bowls?’

‘It was no secret. John would use them as props when retelling the story of our escape. Perhaps his killer came to steal them, and the murders simply… happened.’

It was as good a theory as any. But questions continued to nag at her. ‘I’d like to speak with his intended fiancé.’

5

Matilda Harrison was in her late forties, an austere-looking woman, impeccable in a yellow cotton wrap dress falling to just below the knees. Her blonde hair was styled into victory rolls – a hangover from the war years – and her cheeks were rouged. She could not have been called beautiful but there was a forced elegance about her that spoke to a certain sense of determination.

They met at a restaurant in Nariman Point.

As the lunchtime service clattered around them, Persis waited while the woman ordered a martini. This wasn’t the venue she would have chosen to break the news of a loved one’s demise, but Harrison had declined to step outside.

She explained the reason for her visit, observing the woman’s reaction. A freezing of the features, a tremble of disbelief, and then the realisation that this unusual woman in a khaki uniform had told her nothing but the terrible truth.

A silence yawned between them, and then Harrison lifted her glass and drained it.

‘John’s dead.’ It was not a question, merely an affirmation of fact.

Persis allowed a moment. ‘May I ask you a few questions?’

Harrison looked at her sharply. ‘It’s usual to offer condolences.’

She ignored her. ‘How long had you known him?’

Harrison took a deep breath, composed herself. ‘Almost a year. We met in Bombay, at a bridge game organised by mutual friends. We hit it off. Two Scots, two widowers. We had a lot in common.’

‘How did you lose your husband?’

‘He was a soldier. He served as a recruiting sergeant in the Punjab, raising Indian regiments. In the end, they shipped him off to war. He never came back.’

She said this matter-of-factly. Old wounds. The woman’s composure was remarkable. Having weathered the initial shock, her distress seemed to have evaporated. Intriguing.

‘Did John propose marriage?’

This earned her another sharp look. ‘What business is that of yours?’

She took out the receipt and handed it to her. ‘He purchased what looks like an engagement ring. It appears to be missing from his home.’

She continued to stare at the slip of paper. ‘Oh, John,’ she murmured. A tremor shook her shoulders. She still hadn’t wept, Persis noted. A woman in control of her emotions. Or was there something more to it? ‘I hadn’t realised he was intending to propose.’

‘But you hoped?’

She grimaced. ‘At my age, what is left except hope, Inspector? To be frank, he’d been increasingly distant these past months. I half expected him to break things off, not… this.’

‘Do you know why he chose that inscription? It means “We die to be reborn.”’

The crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes crinkled. ‘No. But that was John. He always did have a dark sense of humour.’

6

Something about the inscription continued to bother her.

She made her way to the store where Maxwell had made the purchase, and found herself in conversation with the man who had sold him the ring.

‘Yes. I remember Mr Maxwell very well.’ The young man was more than an attendant. He was the youngest son of the store’s owner, immaculately dressed in herringbone tweed and two-toned shoes. A pencil moustache, Brylcreemed hair, and an acrid cologne that made her eyes water and felled flies in mid-flight. ‘A gentleman who knew his own mind.’

‘Did you suggest the inscription to him?’

‘No. He expressly asked for it.’

‘Didn’t it seem unusual to you? We die to be reborn? It hardly seems apt for an engagement ring.’

He gave her a condescending smile, flashing a set of white teeth. ‘Have you received a great many engagement rings, Inspector?’

She resisted the urge to wipe the smirk from his face. He seemed to notice her irritation, and coughed abruptly. ‘He told me that he’d chosen those words because they symbolised his union with the woman he intended to marry. In a sense, he was being reborn. He was leaving behind his old life, everything that he had been. I suppose he’d become somewhat possessed by romantic notions.’ He indulged in a cautious smile.

A sudden thought gripped her, as clear as a tolling bell.

‘Did he mention the name of his intended fiancé?’

‘No.’

‘Did you ask him?’

‘Yes. But he declined to share that information.’

‘Why?’

The question seemed to perplex him.

‘What I mean is, why keep it from you?’

‘Well, I-I don’t really know.’

7

Malabar House was all but deserted.

She found Roshan Seth in his office, scribbling in a notepad, and in a rare good mood.

The superintendent had once been a rising star on the Bombay force before Independence had run a tank over his ambitions. Accused by rivals of pursuing his duty a little too zealously under the British, he was now sidelined to the force’s smallest station, ostensibly in charge of others similarly in bad odour.

She went over the details of the case.

‘What makes you think it wasn’t a random burglary?’

‘There’s something about it. Something too precise.’

He grunted. ‘Perhaps his aide is right? If Maxwell was picking a fight with the British government, he was asking for trouble. Losing such a case would set a terrible precedent. I mean, the powers that be would hardly wish the British army rendered answerable for its actions.’ His tone was dry.

‘It doesn’t seem credible. Even the British would baulk at having a man killed on foreign soil.’

He snorted, derisively.

Back at her desk, a peon arrived with Blackfinch’s initial findings from the crime scene, and a set of photographs taken by his assistant. Autopsies were scheduled for the following day, though she doubted there was anything more they could learn. The cause of death was not in any doubt. Blackfinch’s preliminary analysis had been thorough.

Her eyes flicked over his description of the wounds…

Something snagged.

Blood on the fingers of the dead maid’s left hand. Blackfinch’s report stated that the blood came from cut marks on the fourth finger.

He’d speculated that she’d cut herself while cooking. But the cuts were fresh. What would she have been cooking that late at night? Why had she even been in the kitchen?

A sudden burst of electricity arced in her stomach like trapped lightning.

The shape of an answer.

8

‘Tell me about her.’

The mali was a small man, with hoary, sunken cheeks, a shirt limp with sweat, and a dhoti wrapped around his narrow hips. He seemed confused and agitated at the unexpected interrogation.

‘Madam, I had nothing to do with Mr Maxwell’s killing.’

‘I haven’t accused you of anything.’

She understood the terror in his eyes. A poor man had much to fear from the city’s police. If a scapegoat was needed for the murders, he was the perfect fit.

She chose not to reassure him.

He lifted his bidi to his mouth with a trembling hand and sucked on it. Blowing the smoke skywards, he said, ‘She was a Dalit, like me.’

A Dalit. An untouchable. Gandhi had called them harijans, children of God. But for the majority of India’s Hindus, they remained at the bottom of the social pyramid, the lowest members of a caste system – technically, below the lowest rung – that stretched back into antiquity, codified by the British in official documents, the basis for ongoing strife and hatred in spite of the efforts of the Mahatma and, now, Nehru’s fledgling government.

Social engineering had made little impact on millennia of entrenched prejudice.

‘Did she have family?’

‘No. She was an orphan.’

‘Was she married?’

‘No.’

‘Was she seeing someone? What I mean is, was there a man in her life?’

His agitation increased. ‘Why are you asking me these things?’

‘You’re here almost every day. Tending the garden. You must have seen something.’

He refused to meet her gaze.

She reached out and touched his elbow, startling him. ‘Two people are dead. If you know something, you must tell me.’

9

She found Mohan Kher at the Cuffe Parade offices of Burmah Oil.

The building, as imposing as anything the British had built during their imperial project, was in keeping with the company’s stature. Founded in Glasgow in the late 1800s, the fledgling outfit had struck it rich after British warships moved from coal to oil, supplied via Burmah Oil’s Rangoon oil fields.

Kher sat behind an enormous desk that might have doubled as a dining table in a medieval castle. The office had belonged to John Maxwell and had all the trappings of a wealthy man, including a tigerskin hung on the wall, the tiger’s expression one of extreme surprise, as if it had not anticipated such an ignominious fate.

‘I’m working through John’s papers,’ said Kher. ‘It helps to keep my mind occupied.’

His face was drawn. He had lost some of the energy she had witnessed in him that morning.

‘Tell me about Laxmi.’

His pen missed a beat. He set it down and looked at her.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Laxmi. The housemaid. She was murdered too. Or had you forgotten?’

He chose not to reply.

‘She was a Dalit. An Untouchable.’

‘I believe that word is now considered impolite.’

‘Changing a name doesn’t change the reality. Not in the minds of those who refuse to acknowledge that there was ever a need for change.’

‘I’m not certain what you’re getting, Inspector.’

‘John hired her, didn’t he? Without consulting you.’

‘What of it? It was his house. A private matter.’

She waited a beat. ‘It couldn’t have been easy for a man like you. Interacting with someone like her.’

His face had turned to stone.

She tapped her forehead, indicating his own. The three white stripes had vanished, but she saw that he understood what she meant. ‘You’re a Brahmin. She was a Dalit.’

A silence stretched. ‘Are you suggesting I had something to do with this woman’s killing?’

‘“We die to be reborn.”’ If John Maxwell truly believed that his intended marriage was a way of being reborn, that it would mark a leaving behind of his old life, then he couldn’t have been intending to marry Matilda Harrison. She was a continuation of the life he already knew, a fellow Scot, a woman who shared his old sensibilities, his upbringing, his religion.’ She stepped closer. ‘You found out that Maxwell was intending to marry his maidservant. Laxmi. You couldn’t allow that. In a sense, she would have become your superior. The mistress of the house. A Dalit able to command a Brahmin? It was unthinkable.’ Another step. ‘Once you decided to kill her, you knew you had to kill Maxwell too. He’d never let it lie. He was besotted with her. In your mind, he’d betrayed you.’

He was breathing heavily now, blinking rapidly behind his eyeglasses. ‘Conjecture. It means nothing.’

She stepped closer, then leaned over and set down the package she had been carrying.

He stared at it as she’d placed a grenade under his nose.

Eventually, he picked it up and removed the brown packing paper.

Inside were two silver bowls, heavily engraved.

‘I ordered a search of your home. We found them hidden at the bottom of a wardrobe. You couldn’t bear to leave them behind. The last memory of a man who once saved your life on the Burma Road.’

Find out more about the next book in the series, The Dying Day.

The Dying Day

by Vaseem Khan

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Cancelling Enid Blyton and Chimamanda’s “It Is Obscene” essay – is it possible to have a balanced discussion?

This week saw two incidents that exploded into the literary firmament, the shock wave propagating out into the public domain and inciting worldwide comment and debate. At the risk of stepping into a political minefield and having my metaphorical legs blown off, I present here my own take on matters.

Firstly, English Heritage updated its online entry for Enid Blyton, a recipient of the organisation’s blue plaque honour. For those not familiar with the scheme, blue plaques are awarded in England to figures of historical significance. You can see them dotted around the country on the walls of buildings where the recipients once lived.

English Heritage’s revised description of Blyton notes that her work was criticised – during her lifetime and after – “for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit”. Such updates are being made, according to English Heritage, “to provide a fuller picture of each person’s life, including aspects that people may find troubling.” Clearly, much of this is in reaction to the Black Lives Matter summer of last year, and the global reckoning that followed in its wake, a reckoning that included, for instance, the toppling of statues and the desire to reframe one-sided historical narratives with relevant context. 

Blyton’s revised entry has caused particular angst, namely because her books sold some 600 million copies in innumerable countries around the world, and formed a cornerstone of many people’s childhoods. This army of nostalgic, middle-aged readers has taken to Twitter to express their ire, defending Blyton – sometimes with an ardour that borders on fanaticism – and demanding the cancellation of English Heritage and all those who have dared to impugn their literary heroine’s moral virtue.

Once again, battle lines have been drawn and we are all being urged to take up one position or the other. 

The truth, as always, is a little more slippery.

My own feelings, for instance, are ambivalent. Enid Blyton’s books are one reason I am an author today. The Famous Five and The Secret Seven novels were staples of my childhood, foundational elements of my earliest forays into ‘serious’ reading. I cannot recall being aware of any overt racism in those books at that time and I’m not going to pretend that my fond memories of them have now soured in light of current revelations. Neither am I going to pretend that I’m not affected by some of the things I’ve discovered this week.

Many of Blyton’s defenders argue that she was merely a product of her time, picking up on the cultural cues swirling around her, cues that she may have grown up with. They argue that it is unfair for us to critique her through a lens ground from our modern ‘woke’ sensibilities. 

Yet the truth is that she was criticised even as far back as 1966 by the politician Lena Jeger writing in The Guardian in the wake of proposed amendments to the Race Relations Act. She highlighted one of Blyton’s books, The Little Black Doll, a book I’d never heard of till this week. 

In the book, Sambo, the black doll of a white girl, is told by our heroine that “I think you are ugly Sambo. I don’t like your black face”. The heartbroken doll runs away. Ultimately, magic rain washes off Sambo’s black face and suddenly everyone loves him. A pixie squeals “You aren’t black anymore, Sambo. You’ve got the dearest, pinkest, kindest face I ever saw!”

For all those suggesting that Blyton was merely reflecting her social environment, I can only say that any writer penning such words must surely have had some semblance of an idea that they would be offensive. It beggars belief that Blyton couldn’t have anticipated the effect such sentiments might have on people of colour. The book was published in 1965 not 1765!

Here’s a little thought experiment.

Imagine a prominent black author from Blyton’s time. Now imagine he or she wrote a children’s book where a white child was vilified for the colour of his skin or his blue eyes or blond hair. Imagine, if you, a white parent, found this book in your child’s hands. How would you feel watching your child imbibe such a negative message about their identity?

I can only imagine the mixture of confusion and sadness black children might have felt reading a book such as The Little Black Doll. And consider the effect on millions of white children who read it. What’s the takeaway message? White face good. Black face bad. How does that shape their thinking at a formative time in their lives?

This is racist messaging of the worst kind and I feel particularly embarrassed that so many supposedly well-read people from the subcontinent have taken to Twitter vowing to defend Blyton to the death without taking account of the sensibilities of those who might have been offended by such offerings.

And there are other examples. 

Blyton’s The Three Golliwogs included characters named Golly, Woggie, and a third name beginning with N which I won’t repeat, but which can be guessed at. I’m afraid that all the buttered scones and ginger beer in the world cannot wash away the bad taste left by such creations.

Having said this, there is no doubt that Blyton’s extraordinary oeuvre brought millions upon millions of children to reading, myself included. That cannot be a bad thing and to try to erase that achievement or to suggest that her books have no literary merit is disingenuous in the extreme. 

The problem is that we are not allowed, in today’s ‘cancel culture’ era, to participate in a nuanced, complex debate about the issue. We’re expected to take up arms and choose one side or the other. We have all been enlisted in the so-called ‘culture wars’, where sitting on the fence, or being confused as to how one should feel is simply not permissible. To do so invites the ire of the pitchfork-wielding mob.

And this leads me to the second incident from this week: Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay tackling cancel culture and the ‘worrying homogeny of thought’ in today’s environment. 

Adichie writes: “There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion… People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy… People… who have no compassion for anybody genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Ask again for clarity and be accused of violence…What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness… It is obscene.’

The essay, needless to say, went viral, crashing Adichie’s website. Adichie appears to have tapped into a depth of feeling that many of us would like to express but haven’t been able to. The despair and anger we feel when we see important discussions hijacked by immoderate loudmouths who only seem to want to tear down others for the sake of their own virtue-signalling. 

On the subject of Enid Blyton, this is what Adichie had to say in a past interview in Net-A-Porter. “I like the worlds she created. I wanted to be in the circus or The Famous Five, and I had this hankering for ginger beer – which turned out to be a bit disappointing when I tasted it… I know she was supposed to be terrible and a racist, but I enjoyed her books. I’m not someone who goes around trying to disapprove of writers; it’s the lack of choice and differing point of view that matters, and which I want to highlight.”

The truth is that none of us enjoy seeing our heroes torn down. When that happens, we feel as if a small part of ourselves is also lost, a measure of innocence that will never be regained. I felt the same way when I discovered that Roald Dahl had once made anti-Semitic comments. How could the creator of one of the seminal books of my childhood, Danny, the Champion of the World, have voiced such bigoted opinions? 

We are all guilty of hagiographic excess when thinking of our idols, of portraying them in the best possible light. In reality, they are people like us, with complex emotions, sensibilities, and all too human frailties. The fact is that if we look hard enough we can find fault in practically every historical character. This is not necessarily a bad thing. For human society to progress we must be willing to acknowledge past errors so that we can learn from them. But it makes no sense to erase or ‘cancel’ history; historical revisionism benefits no one, unless it is employed to highlight those elements that will serve to aid our understanding as we face the future.

In that sense, I believe that English Heritage’s attempts to contextualise some of Blyton’s work is probably in the right spirit. They have made it clear they do not intend to remove the blue plaque that honours her contribution. They aren’t in the business of ‘cancelling’ historical figures, no matter what the Twitter mob and the mouth-frothing, self-proclaimed upholders of our national virtue would have you believe. 

The fact is that without discussion nothing changes. 

What we could all do with is less of the rhetoric and beetroot-faced rage, and a calmer, more balanced conversation. Maybe over a cup of tea with some buttered scones of the type Blyton so favoured. 

Note: I am currently releasing a series of 50 articles about India via this blog. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, short stories, and lots of other interesting content. 

My latest paperback, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here. The follow up, out in July 2021, is The Dying Day, described as ‘The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India,’ by M. W. Craven, winner of the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger.