Murder in Old Bombay: A Mystery
The Indian city of Bombay, renamed Mumbai by the government in 1995, is one of those international cities, like Shanghai and Istanbul, that is drenched in romance and intrigue. So much so that its exotic locale is irresistible to Western readers in search of escape.
Murder in Old Bombay, set in the coastal metropolis in the early 1890s, offers just such a welcome pandemic respite. It is an easy, comfortable read, with some meandering, which picks up speed in the last half of the narrative.
In addition to its locale, what sets this tale apart from many mysteries are its point of view and perspective.
The central character, Captain Jim Agnihotri, is the illegitimate son of an unknown British father and a Hindu mother, raised in a Christian orphanage. He makes a successful, bootstrap career (literally) in the British army, rising to the rank of captain before his combat wounds and post traumatic stress send him into early retirement. In a light-hearted plot device, he is a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s new detective, Sherlock Holmes.
The other characters at the focus of the narrative are neither Hindu nor Muslim, but a family of Parsees—Zoroastrians whose forbearers migrated to India from Persia (today Iran), where they were (and still are) persecuted. As the book unfolds, two of the clan’s young women are found dead of separate falls at the base of a university clock tower.
The cross-cultural pollinations of the victims and the sleuth are what make the story unique.
As the Parsee patriarch observes to Captain Jim, who has been asked to investigate the deaths, “Like us, you’re in between, or both. Neither fully English nor fully Indian.”
Personally, this is familiar territory for the author, Nev March, who is herself a Mumbai native and a Parsee, an immigrant and longtime resident of New Jersey. The manuscript of Murder in Old Bombay won the 2019 Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Novel Award.
Still hanging over the book’s events, more than 30 years later, are memories of the convulsive military mutiny of the 1857, called the Sepoy Rebellion. In it, rank and file Hindu and Muslim soldiers rose against their British officers and those Indian soldiers who remained loyal. The bloody, doomed revolt took thousands of lives on both sides, and prompted the British government to take control of the colony from the East India Co.
At the time of the death of the two young women in Murder in Old Bombay, the government was still consolidating its hold on its most populous colony—what are today the nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. A handful of nominally independent states were still ruled by maharajas. The book’s title notwithstanding, a good chunk of the action takes place in and around the Punjab region, as well as in one of these minor princely states.
One intriguing plot element that almost passes under the radar and is largely unexplored is emblematic of British colonial policy and history. In the book and in real life, poor Indians were kidnapped, enticed, rounded up, and sold as indentured servants—essentially slaves. They were then transported to the other side of the world to work the sugar cane fields in the colony of British Guiana—today the nation of Guyana—in South America.
The purpose of this practice was as much political as economic. The introduction of the poor Indians diluted and undermined resistance to British rule on the part of indigenous Guyanese and the freed African slaves. In the book, responsibility for this virtual slave trade is assigned to villainous Indians.
In fact, seeding ethnic and religious division was a pillar of British colonial policy, first developed and perfected in Ireland centuries before. It became a staple of governmental policy in other European colonies since.
In this time of heightened awareness of racism, and related historical accountability, one nagging aspect of Murder in Old Bombay undermines its considerable enjoyment. But it is no small thing.
Even in lighter literary fare, what Graham Greene liked to call “entertainments,” politics and ideology are present, if only in their underlying assumptions.
In fiction, readers tend to identify with the narrator, or the main character. In this case, Agnihotri is a man of divided racial and national loyalties. Yet since he identifies as white, and with the ruling British Raj, readers are likely to adopt his point of view. At least, white, Western readers.
This is no coincidence. In the Acknowledgments, Murder in Old Bombay author Nev March writes that, as a youth, reading Rudyard Kipling—the poet laureate of British imperialism—“left an indelible impression upon me.” An ancestor, she notes, served in the British army during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.
Thus, Agnihotri is portrayed as heroic, principled and romantic as he fights against the primary villains of the novel. By contrast, these Indian nationalists are painted as violent fanatics who want their country to be independent from England, at all costs.
The problem—the primary contradiction—is that the neophyte detective is on the wrong side of history. It would take more than 50 years after the book’s title murders for the nonviolent leadership of Mahatma Gandhi to end British rule.