In Murder in Old Bombay, debut author Nev March transports readers to 19th-century India as her sleuth, Captain Jim Agnihotri, investigates a crime inspired by a real-life mystery. In this essay, March explores how the tragic death of two Parsi women and the shadow of a mutiny loom large over her novel.
History is ever present in our lives. As a teen living in Mumbai, people sometimes asked me, “Are you Muslim?”
I’d reply, “I’m Parsi.”
“Ah!” My interlocutor’s eyes would light up with understanding.
India is a comfortable mix of religions (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Baha'i, Zoroastrianism and more) and regional groups. Many know that Parsi Zoroastrians are descended from medieval Persian refugees who took shelter in India.
The travails of my tiny community impacted decisions both big and little. Major decisions included the expectation that girls would marry within the community. It also impacted minor decisions, like traveling alone. Among other stories, the death of the Godrej ladies in 1891 became a cautionary tale in our family.
An 1891 postcard circulated to build support for a petition to the high court shows Bacha Godrej and Pilloo Kamdin, and the Rajabai Tower where they died. Image courtesy of the author.
The well-to-do Godrej girls were sisters-in-law. The elder, Bacha Godrej, was the 20-year-old bride of 22-year-old law student Ardeshir Godrej. His 16-year-old sister, Pilloo Kamdin, was married, but had not been sent to her sasuraal (her husband’s home). That afternoon, they’d climbed 200 steps up the university clock tower. On a sunny afternoon, first Bacha, then Pilloo dropped to their deaths. An altercation was witnessed between some young men in the hour before their death, but lack of evidence led to an acquittal. With no answers, a frenzy of conjecture and outrage erupted.
For the survivors of the tragedy, life was never the same. Devastated by the loss of his bride, Ardeshir Godrej threw himself into his work and is now famous as the inventor-founder of the global conglomerate Godrej Enterprises. He did not remarry. Despite two petitions to the high court, each with tens of thousands of signatures, the mystery of Bacha's and Pilloo's deaths was never solved. While researching my novel Murder in Old Bombay, I found a letter to a newspaper editor written by that widower, Ardeshir Godrej, and resolved that this would be the inciting incident to launch my detective’s quest. As my novel opens, Captain Jim Agnihotri recuperates in a hospital bed and reads about the case in the newspapers. Inspired by Sherlock Holmes, he’s puzzled at the odd circumstances. When he reads widower Adi Framji’s fervent letter to the editor, he becomes determined to solve the mystery.
Thomas Henry Kavanaugh being disguised during the Siege of Lucknow, Indian Mutiny, 1857. National Army Museum, London.
Other aspects of the history of 19th-century India drove the events in my plot. Although the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny occurred 30 years before the events in my novel, that slaughter would be still in living memory at the time. In that first disorganized bid for India’s independence from Great Britain, Indian soldiers (sepoys) in Bengal, Cawanpore (now Kanpur) and Jhansi rebelled, killing many of their white officers. In response, Bombay regiments marched north to quell the rebellion. In the 1890s, the mutiny would have been vivid in people’s memory, from the burn of defeat to a confusion of divided loyalties. These simmering resentments form the backdrop of Murder in Old Bombay and influenced its plot twists.
Within my Parsi community, the ever-present danger to women became codified in that simple phrase, “Remember the Godrej girls!” a century after their deaths. It resonates even today, in the outrageously high number of crimes against women. Alas, we find that historical fiction isn’t historical at all, and may not be entirely fictional.