A despairing plea from a widower leads a recuperating officer in British India into dangerous adventures to reach the ultimate prize—a sense of belonging.
Our featured author, Nev March, takes us a world away to the culturally rich tapestry and darkly mysterious backdrop of 19th century India. Nev’s passion for historical research and a diverse cast of characters is well evidenced in her debut novel, Murder in Bombay.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: What was the inspiration behind Murder in Old Bombay?
A: As a child I’d heard of ‘the Rajabai Tower Mystery’—the tale of two Parsi girls who fell from Bombay University clock tower in broad daylight. Though these were ruled suicides, 90 years later I heard this as a cautionary tale to warn girls that danger is ever present.
Researching these events, I learned that the husband of one of the victims was Ardeshir Godrej, who went on to become a famous entrepreneur and inventor. At the time of his wife and sister’s deaths, he was a 22-year-old law student. He never remarried, so I thought he must have been deeply in love with his young bride.
How does a young man recover from such a blow? An intense and private man, this must have been traumatic. From his remarkable achievements in later life, I wondered whether he’d hired a detective to solve the mystery of his wife’s death. The trial and acquittals of those accused were splattered over newspapers for months, so Ardeshir would not want more publicity… that was the start of my imaginings. What sort of man would he hire as private detective? At the time, British army officers often retired to take up private employment. So, I invented a young soldier recovering from injuries, disenchanted with the army and longing for a family of his own.
Q: Tell us how you handle the balance required in integrating a real-life event into the tapestry of a fictional murder mystery (i.e., taking liberty with the facts to accommodate the progression of the plot).
A: Many events in my book are based on fact—the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny which left resentment simmering within many Indians, the patchwork of self-ruled Princely States within British controlled India, the tragic deaths of the two girls.
I took some liberties with history in the plot: Karachi and Lahore were not attacked in 1891-92 as I’ve described but my plot is based on 1891 skirmishes in the Hunza and Nagar Princely states and the 1897 tragedy at Saragarhi. Published notices of Victoria Cross awardees describe many skirmishes between Afghan and British troops, before and after the second Afghan war of 1882. Until 1896 when the Durand line was drawn as the border between India and Afghanistan, the north-west Frontier Province of India was dangerous wilderness. Therefore, while fictional, history informed my plot.
The Parsi tradition of marrying within the community is very real, although in recent decades there are many more marriages of Parsi youth to non-Parsi spouses. In India, Parsi women who marry out still suffer disadvantages—their children aren’t considered Parsi. (In other parts of the world they are accepted.) Many of my aunts and uncles did not marry at all, because of this taboo. When women married out of the community—like tragic beauty Ruttie Petit who married Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan—they often became estranged from their families. So that part is based on fact.
Q: What historical characters make appearances in your chapters?
A: Only one historical character is named: Lord Harris, Governor General of Bombay makes a brief appearance at the end of the story.
The editor Tehmtan (Tom) Byram is based on Behramji Malabari, a Parsi reformer who advocated later marriages, was against infant marriage and lobbied to allow widows to remarry. Editor Jehangir B Murzban of the Jam-e-Jamshed Newspaper was another such reformer. These thought leaders wrote that the high number of maternal deaths was caused by early marriages and asked couples to avoid having children until the wife was over 20. In the era before birth-control, that meant allowing the bride to remain in her parent’s home until a suitable age, or keeping celibate–not an easy task for a young married couple! In my book I cite this to explain why both married girls were virgins when they died.
Q: Is Prince Akbar based on a real person?
A: No, he is not. Akbar is loosely based on a number of Indian princes who squandered their wealth or were cruel to their people. There’s the tale of Maharaja of Alwar, Jai Singh Prabhakar, who was exiled after numerous excesses. He is said to have purchased six Rolls-Royce cars to clean streets, after he was slighted at the car showroom in London. Other rulers like the Nizam of Hyderabad amassed incredible wealth. Some extorted horrific taxes even during times of famines. However, many rulers like Digvijay Singh Jadeja of Nawanagar and the Gaikwad of Baroda were benevolent, promoting education and uplifting the poor.
Q: How about Ranjpoot—is it a real place?
A: Ranjpoot is based on the princely state of Balasinor near Ahmedabad, which had Muslim rulers and a female regent till 1882. The capital-city is based on Hyderabad, the gorgeous palace of its Nizam. The princely states have unique cultures and history, but were hotbeds of intrigue and political maneuvering. Reading Cornelia Sorabji’s books brought me some incredible true stories which served as my inspiration.
Q: Over the course of writing a book, plot changes and even twists often emerge. Sometimes these are even driven by the very characters whose actions we believe we are controlling as their creator. Was this the case for you?
A: The middle section of my book was really hijacked by Captain Jim. It contains two rather dramatic adventures while Captain Jim chases down a lead in Lahore and gets stuck in the middle of a civil war. While some see these as a detour to showcase the divergent landscapes of India, they are essential to resolving the romantic sub-plot. So while I didn’t quite plan these detours, they turned out to be invaluable in the end.
Q: There’s also an element of romance in your debut novel. Tell us about it.
A: Yes, the subplot is a ‘doomed romance’ between mixed-race Captain Jim and Diana, the daughter of the aristocratic Framji Family. Captain Jim wants a family—reflected in his affection for the Framjis who treat him as a trusted friend, and his adoption of a group of waifs on his journey. The sub-plot also echoes this, as he falls for Diana’s classy charm and spunky courage–but socially, she’s out of reach. She’s English-educated, widely read, and full of surprises, some good, some not so good. Ultimately—oh wait, you have to read the book to find out more!
Q: Murder in Old Bombay depicts 19th century Indian society as misogynistic. Was this actually the case? If so, what appeal will this hold for 21st century female readers who advocate for equality?
A: Traditional societies are often misogynistic—I can cite many examples. In 2014, when Malala Yousoufzai got the Nobel Prize, the Tariq Khattak, editor of the Pakistan Observer, a Karachi newspaper said, “She is a girl — a normal, useless type of a girl. She’s nothing special, nothing in her is special at all except they are selling what the West would buy happily.”
Sati (the practice of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) was banned by British law in 1830s, but continued to be practiced in secret. In India, widow remarriage was rare before written into law in an 1856 Act. India has been called the ‘rape capital’ of the world for the outrageous number of crimes against women. Female infanticide has resulted in a lopsided sex ratio: In 2018, India had 943 women to every 1,000 men. Where are the millions of missing girls?
While my affection for India is plain in the descriptions of places and people in my book, a writer’s job is to hold up a truthful mirror, no matter how painful that picture might be, and propel both men and women to advocate for more equality.
Q: What is the overarching theme of this novel, and how do/will you identify themes for future works?
A: In my novels I explore essential truths. To feel a truth is so much more persuasive than hearing it. If one hears an argument, one usually counters with our own experience. However, to feel it brings emotion, so that this story is our own experience, and we are more likely to accept it. These truths are the human experience, the way we navigate the world. Bringing an essential truth to someone elevates their thinking, so that they will behave differently in their own worlds.
In Murder in Old Bombay, I portrayed the plight of women, who, regardless of wealth, are imprisoned by social attitudes. I also touched on the intrinsic unfairness of discrimination.
In my next book two themes are intertwined. First, an immigrant’s journey from delight through disenchantment. A pair of immigrants must work together to foil a terrible disaster—yet are they willing to pay the final price for a society that sees them as insignificant? Second, my story is set in a period of conflict between haves and have-nots—during the gilded age, an era of social injustice. If entrenched interests resist change, can democracy survive? Is it worth saving?
Q: You left a successful career in business to pursue your passion for writing about history. What lessons from that prior occupation have been instrumental in influencing how you do research, how you craft suspense and how you structure/organize your writing schedule?
A: After two decades in a corporate career, I’ve learned to organize my time and materials—my files, research sources, and promotional assets. What surprised me is the amount of planning: I write from a well-researched, detailed outline. Market research helps me find information, as well as solicit input from critique partners. I needed to find my tribe, building partnerships with early readers, writers and advocates of my writing. My marketing skills were needed to create pitches, query letters, and then to promote my book.
To keep honing my skills, I allocate time between 1) Sprints to focus on writing 2) Teaching/coaching 3) reading craft books/courses. Learning to build suspense with emotion and pacing is something I keep working at. Teaching creative writing helps keep the energy flowing. I enjoy the conversation, the flow of ideas to catch glimpses of opportunity, dramatic scenes, intriguing contradictions!
Q: Aspiring authors often lament that they just can’t find the time to write. Based on your own experience, what’s your response to that?
A: I’ve learned that life and art cannot be separated, they co-mingle, informing each other. When I’m distressed I usually cannot write. But my emotion finds its way into a scene, building great dialog.
Composer Ludwig Van Beethoven was deaf, broke and isolated for his final years, fighting a bitter legal dispute over his nephew. All this he poured into writing the most beautiful music ever created.
When I’m writing the first draft, I write obsessively. Scenes haunt me even during sleep. While editing and revising phases I go through periods of intense doubt, chopping and tweaking until a chapter ‘works’. Then I have a fallow phase where I work on short stories, editing older work, or submit to magazines. However, when family medical issues pull me away, I tend to drop everything and just focus on family. Being a writer means one has to toggle between life and art. Each feeds the other.
Q: Writing is a solitary craft. Do you allow anyone to read your work while it’s still in progress or do you make them wait until you have typed THE END?
A: For Murder in Old Bombay I wrote continuously for four months, barely taking the time to eat. When the draft was complete, I presented a chapter each week to my critique group. For my most recent book, I shared three chapters at a time with my agent each week, so we got the first draft done in three months—this after I had researched and agonized over the outline for 15 months!
It was the first time I allowed someone to see my work while it was still evolving. Jill, my agent was the perfect partner, offering support and propelling me with excellent questions, pointing out gaps so I could flesh out the evolving plot. I usually end up modifying the outline as I work so getting input helped. This new process allowed me to have a more balanced life than when I was writing Murder in Old Bombay, much better for my sanity!
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I’m claustrophobic—can’t stand tight spaces! I didn’t realize this until I got special permission to go up into Bombay University’s Rajabai Tower where the original events in my book happened in 1891. The tower has been closed to the public ever since. On a sweltering hot day, as I climbed up 200 steps, my elbows touching stone on either side, the ceiling only a foot above my head, the only thing that kept me going was that there was no-one behind me. I could turn around if I panicked. So I didn’t. It was terrifying, but I managed to get all the way up to the gallery door, following the lady guard who I had been assigned.
Then tragedy struck. I asked the female guard to open the door. Blushing, she said, “They didn’t give me the key!” I guess University officials decided to “save me from myself!” So, after that torturous climb, I didn’t see the gallery the two girls fell from, but learned that I am claustrophobic!
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’m working on a sequel set in 1893 Chicago, where twenty-seven million Americans will visit the Columbian Exposition that summer. Captain Jim sets off to investigate a murder at the World’s Fair. When he doesn’t return, Diana travels into unknown terrain in search of him. Chicago hosts the first Parliament of World Religions that summer, while at the same time, the World Convention of Anarchists has assembled. What could possibly go wrong? When this pair of young immigrants discovers a possible plot to blow up the World’s Fair, the stakes rise–everything they care about is at risk, even each other.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Writing is such joy! I’d dreamed about having a career as an author for decades—to have it finally happen, to be living it, has been such joy. I’m deeply grateful to all that helped me: My friends who read my work over the years, my husband who said, “we can manage on one salary,” my fabulous critique group, and MWA who launched my career with the Best First Crime novel award, thank you!
I’ve been amazed at the welcome Murder in Old Bombay has received, and getting readers glowing emails and reviews! It tells me that when you speak from the heart, it reaches the recesses within other souls, and finds a home there. I’m so grateful.