Inside India #29: The Amritsar Massacre – a mass murder that ignited a revolution

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.

13 April 1919. In a walled garden in Amritsar, principal city of the north-Indian state of Punjab, and home to the famed Golden Temple, spiritual centre of the Sikh faith, a British garrison commander committed one of the worst acts of colonial-era brutality witnessed on the subcontinent.

The incident took place against a backdrop of escalating calls by Indians for self-rule, in the aftermath of the Great War.

Prior to the outbreak of WW1, the British government had granted their martinets in India repressive powers to combat politically subversive activities. Faced with a costly and debilitating conflict in Europe, this position was modified for the sake of expediency. In an attempt to ensure a ready supply of Indian servicemen into the British armed forces, promises were made to the effect that such draconian measures would be rolled back at the conclusion of the war and Indian demands for a limited form of self-rule would be met.

In the event, these promises turned out to be hollow.

Following the war, instead of self-rule, the Indians were presented with the Rowlatt Act – officially known as the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act – a series of legislative measures that came into force in March 1919. The acts banned seditious gatherings on the subcontinent, allowed the indefinite incarceration of suspects without trial, and ‘political’ cases to be tried without juries.

Unsurprisingly, the new legislation was met with widespread dismay among Indians, a righteous anger that quickly escalated into nationwide civil agitation. The eye of the storm hovered over Punjab, where protests were particularly belligerent, resulting in violent unrest across the state’s major cities on April 10, 1919.

Three days later, on the afternoon of April 13, a crowd of at least 10,000 unarmed men, women, and children gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, a walled garden in the city of Amritsar. Some were there to defy the Rowlatt Act, some to express their solidarity with the independence movement, and others were merely there with their families to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi.

The British soldier tasked with enforcing order in the region, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, was informed of the gathering and decided to act. Assembling a force of ninety Gurkha and Indian soldiers, he rushed to the scene, ordered his men to seal the exits and then, without warning, instructed them to open fire.

They fired until they ran out of ammunition, with Dyer urging his troops to aim for the densest sections of the crowd. (He would later say that his intent had been to punish the Indians, not to disperse the crowd.) Having completed his bloody work, Dyer withdrew his men, leaving the dying and wounded where they lay. No medical assistance was offered.

At the time, official figures stated that 379 had been killed, though current estimates suggest much higher casualties. The dead included children and infants.

The consequences of Dyer’s murderous actions were immediate.

At first many in Britain praised the brigadier, including those in the House of Lords who had grown rich from the Raj. Eminent writer Rudyard Kipling stated that Dyer “did his duty as he saw it”, believing that this was the sort of stern action that would nip another Indian mutiny in the bud. It was a viewpoint held by many, symbolic of the colonial mentality where violence was the inevitable response to calls for reflection upon the brute inequalities and systematic suppression of human rights imposed by the Raj.

Opinion began to change once news filtered back of the precise circumstances of the massacre.

Dyer now found himself roundly condemned in the House of Commons (by, amongst others, Winston Churchill) and a committee appointed to examine the incident. Dyer, an unrepentant and arrogant racist to the last, eschewed legal counsel and chose to defend himself, believing himself to be on the side of the angels.

Ultimately, with the facts now glaringly obvious, the committee recommended censure and Dyer was forced to resign from the British Indian Army.

The episode soured relations between British and Indian politicians for years. The Amritsar Massacre, as it became widely known, served to galvanise the independence movement, allowing the likes of Gandhi and Nehru to stoke the engine of rebellion. Indeed, Gandhi organized his first large-scale non-cooperation campaign in the wake of the killing, thrusting him to prominence in the nationalist struggle.

Today a monument marks the site of the massacre.

Inside Jallianwallah Bagh, bullet marks have been left where they struck the walls of the garden. The well inside the compound, into which many jumped and subsequently drowned, in a futile attempt to avoid the hail of bullets, is a poignant reminder of those bloody and desperate moments.

Dyer himself died in England in 1927. On his deathbed, he is reported to have said: “So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right… but so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.”

If nothing else, his words demonstrate the staggering lack of self-reflection that characterises the colonial mindset. By any stretch of the imagination, the murder of hundreds of unarmed civilians – including children – can never be right, no matter who your Maker.

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.  NOTE: In Dec 2021, in the UK, The Dying Day is available at 99p on Kindle.

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. 

Cultural appropriation: So what’s all the fuss about?

by Vaseem Khan

From films to books to hairstyles, the issue of cultural appropriation has become a hot button topic in recent years, inciting debate and outrage in equal measure. But what exactly is it?

Let’s start with an exercise. I’d like you to click here and watch this video. It’s only 10 mins long, and you don’t have to watch all of it to get some idea of the background to this divisive topic.

This video is the result of a project I carried out this year examining the landscape of diversity in the publishing industry and seeking to provide authors with advice on how to include characters from diverse backgrounds into their fiction, an endeavour that is increasingly fraught with anxiety. The project is called “Turning the page: a guide to writing cultural diversity in fiction.”

Free Event: 7pm, UK time, Dec 7th – You can attend an event where I will present the results from this project and launch a free PDF guide. Register here.

The Oxford English Dictionary now has an entry for the term “cultural appropriation” defining it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.”

Yet, the truth is that writers borrow from other cultures and experiences all the time. When we talk about cultural appropriation, what we really mean is cultural misappropriation: the adoption of elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture in a way that is deemed to cause offence.

But who is drawing the lines here? Who gets to decide what is or is not offensive? And how do evolving viewpoints in society move the goalposts?

Take the crows in the 1941 movie Dumbo, a Disney classic. Today, these once loved characters are considered by some as racist caricatures because of their parodied speech patterns. More recently, the Oscar-winning film La La Land faced criticism because the lead character, a white musician, is shown “whitesplaining” jazz to an African American musician. Jazz is traditionally considered an African American art form. This example illuminates the divisiveness that sometimes arises with modern attitudes to cultural appropriation. After all, who says a white man shouldn’t be passionate about jazz music? At what point does his display of said passion become cultural misappropriation?

In a survey I carried out as part of this project, out of 1033 respondents, 95% stated that all authors should have the right to write characters from ethnicities different to their own. Yet, according to 86% of respondents, there is currently “a climate of fear in the industry around issues of cultural appropriation and voice”.

The fact is that authors are sometimes vilified for writing characters hailing from backgrounds other than their own, with some accusing them of taking the spotlight away from more authentic voices. In some cases, this is justified, particularly where authors have been lazy in their research, indulging in stereotypes and otherwise being disrespectful to the truth of the community they are portraying.

Yet there are also numerous instances of books where authors have been successful writing characters outside of their ethnicity or lived experience. Examples include The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, or Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, both of which won the Booker Prize.

So how do authors avoid accusations of cultural appropriation? In my project, I attempt to provide a detailed answer to this question, covering such areas as carrying out good research, avoiding stereotypes, and using sensitivity readers where appropriate.

Ultimately, we have to remember that fiction is about creating stories, and stories, by their very nature, are peopled by characters who are not necessarily like us. Writers must have the license to write whatever inspires them. In 2019, Booker-prize winning author Bernardine Evaristo, a black woman, voiced her opinion that it is ridiculous to demand of writers that they not write beyond their own culture.

Most of us would agree with this sentiment.

Free Event: 7pm, UK time, Dec 7th – You can attend an event where I will present the results from this project and launch a free PDF guide. Register here.

Inside India #28: The forgotten fallen – Soldiers of the subcontinent in WW1

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.

In the city of Ypres, some 125 km out from Brussels, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is etched with fifty-five thousand names. Fifty-five thousand fallen soldiers. Of those, four-hundred and forty are the names of soldiers from the subcontinent.

In the autumn of 1914, soon after the commencement of WW1 hostilities, it was Indian jawaans who bore the brunt of the German advance at Ypres; it was Indian infantrymen who helped stop the Germans in their tracks. Indian soldiers similarly distinguished themselves at Gallipoli, and in multiple engagements against the Ottoman Empire across the Middle East.

All in all, over one point three million troops recruited from the subcontinent served in the war, of which seventy thousand perished and almost the same number were wounded.

Attribution: Wellcome Images, CC 4.0

And yet, a century later, out of all those who are remembered for their valiant efforts during the Great War, the Indians are invariably the last to be praised, their contributions glossed over or completely forgotten.

In this respect, the recent Sam Mendes film 1917 generated something of a furore. Following its release, the actor Lawrence Fox stirred controversy by commenting on “the oddness in the casting” of a Sikh soldier in the film. He was duly called to account, and, in fairness to him, duly apologised: “Fellow humans who are Sikhs, I am as moved by the sacrifices your relatives made as I am by the loss of all those who die in war, whatever creed or colour.”

In my personal opinion what should have astonished Fox is the not that an Indian was shown fighting with the British, but the fact that more Indians were not shown. In some ways, this is symptomatic of the way we teach history in the West, and the way that the subcontinental contribution to the Great War (and the contribution of other minorities and foreign fighters) has been neglected as a matter of course.

For the Indians themselves, the war was a genuinely confusing time.

Transported from villages and towns from across the vastness of the subcontinent, usually from the lowest rungs of society, they found themselves bogged down in trench warfare, unable to grasp the language or the culture of those who commanded them, invariably the very men who were sending them charging to their deaths. If they survived for any length of time, they were battling freezing cold, terrain alien to their upbringing, unpalatable food, and an enemy they could not fathom. And all for a country and a cause that was not even their own.

And yet they fought with the courage of proverbial lions. The Sikhs, who made up twenty per cent of the Indian force, particularly distinguished themselves with their bravery and willingness to throw themselves into the fight – for little more than personal honour. The Gurkhas too – both those from Nepal and those born in India – became known for their valiant acts of heroism. Together, these fighting men earned a significant number of military honours, including several Victoria Crosses. (The first Indian to earn a Victoria Cross was Sepoy Khudadad Khan, at the First Battle of Ypres in October, 1914. Khan led his machine gun team in the face of a brutal German onslaught. His entire team was killed and he was left for dead, but survived, and managed to crawl back to his regiment despite severe injury.)

In order to make it easier to recruit such able warriors, the British, eager to use India as a supply line for men and materiel, vowed to deliver the self-rule that the subcontinent’s leading political agitators had begun to demand in the first decade of the new century. It is because of this promise that men like Gandhi temporarily halted – or modified – their growing anti-colonial rhetoric in order to support the war.

But when the war ended the British proved themselves duplicitous.

Instead of self-government, Indians were rewarded with the Rowlatt Act, an onerous piece of legislation that gave the subcontinent’s colonial masters extraordinary powers to bring to heel the nascent revolutionary movement. The Rowlatt Acts directly led to many incidents of brutality against those who continued to protest peacefully against the occupation of their country, none worse than the murder of nine hundred unarmed souls at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar in 1919.

Perhaps this explains why the soldiers who made it back from the various theatres of war found little recognition or sympathy from their countrymen. They were deemed to have fought on the side of the devils, on the side of India’s oppressors.

And perhaps this too explains the lack of First World War memorials in the country, an absence that resonates all the more deeply as we gradually bring to light the great sacrifices made by Indian soldiers in that most terrible of conflicts.

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. 

Inside India #27: Ramanujan – The Man Who Dreamed of Infinity

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.

In 2016, a film entitled The Man Who Knew Infinity was released, to considerable critical acclaim. Starring Indian actor Dev Patel, it chronicled the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a mathematical genius whose work has been hailed as revolutionary by modern science, yet whose life had long remained shrouded in myth and mystery.

Even now, Ramanujan’s legacy remains a perfect blend of Indian spirituality and western modernity.

Picture attribution: Konrad Jacobs Creative Commons 2.0

Born in 1887 in Madras during British rule, Ramanujan initially did well in school, but later dropped out of college. A second stint at university also failed, due to Ramanujan’s penchant for focusing on mathematics to the detriment of all other subjects. 

Undaunted, he carried on pursuing his passion, making extensive scribblings in a series of now-famous notebooks, discovering numerous formulae, some already known to the mathematical world, some startlingly original.

Following the publication of an article in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society, Ramanujan began to correspond with renowned Cambridge University mathematician, G.H. Hardy.

So impressed was Hardy with Ramanujan’s unorthodox but brilliant work that he invited him to Cambridge.

Hardy, like many, was initially perturbed by Ramanujan’s habit of not providing proofs for his results. Unlike many others, however, he was willing to give the Indian the benefit of the doubt, saying, of Ramanujan’s results: “I had never seen anything in the least like them before. A single look at them is enough to show that they could only be written by a mathematician of the highest class. They must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.”

Ramanujan himself claimed that many of his results came to him in sleep, during dreams, given to him via the Hindu goddess Namagiri. He famously said, “An equation has no meaning for me unless it expresses a thought of God.”

During his years at Cambridge, Ramanujan forged an abiding friendship with Hardy, though Hardy, an atheist, never really came to terms with the Indian’s insistence that spirituality played a part in his genius. Ramanujan’s intuitive mathematical ability continued to astound the Englishman. One of the most famous anecdotes of their interaction comes from Hardy himself, a story of a visit he made to see Ramanujan in hospital. “I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavourable omen. ” No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”

(This is, of course correct. (1729 = 13 + 123 and also 93 + 103.) 1729 is now known as Ramanujan’s number.)

Never physically robust, Ramanujan was forced to return to India in 1919 due to protracted ill health – he died a year later at the age of 32. 

His mathematical legacy has grown with the passing years. During his short life, he independently compiled nearly four thousand results, many of them highly original; astonishingly, nearly all have subsequently been proven correct. His body of work has inspired many new areas of mathematical research, and his notebooks—containing summaries of his published and unpublished results – have been mined as a source of new mathematical ideas.

In 1976, Ramanujan’s so-called ‘lost notebook’ was discovered in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge.  More a collection of papers rather than an actual notebook, the sheets nevertheless contained some six hundred mathematical formulae discovered during the last year of Ramanujan’s life. The discovery was one of the most significant in the world of mathematics for decades. Some of the formulae have been found to be useful for calculating the entropy of black holes.

Among his many accolades, Ramanujan was the first Indian to be elected a Fellow of Trinity College.

One can only conjecture how many more contributions to the field he would have made had he lived longer.

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. 

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…

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

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.

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

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.’

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