Fiction book reimagines sensational Rajabai Clock Tower suicide cases of 1891

Updated: 18 November, 2020 07:57 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

In her debut book, a writer spins a tale inspired by the sensational Rajabai Clock Tower suicide cases of 1891

As a child, Nev March wanted to do everything her brother could — a chance to go out with her friends, for instance. Once she graduated to college, she finally began protesting. Her parents' answer was always no, and the explanation was often given in the form of, "Remember the Godrej girls." Over a phone call from New Jersey, March tells us, "It was a sort of code word to say that in good families, bad things also happen."

The Godrej girls her parents were referring to were Bachubai and Pherozebai Godrej who were found dead at the foot of the 280-ft Rajabai Clock Tower in 1891. Bachubai, 20, was the wife of industrialist Ardeshir Godrej, who co-founded the Godrej Group, and Pherozebai, 16, his sister. Having grown up in a Parsi household in Mazgaon in the '70s and '80s, March always thought that the case was fairly recent. It was only in 2016 when she stumbled upon an article on the Internet where she learnt of the over-a-century-old, unsolved case that caused a stir in the city, and Bombay's Parsi community, in its entirety. And that's also where the seed of her debut novel lay.

Time for a Bombay mystery

Murder in Old Bombay (Minotaur Books) is a work of fiction that is rooted in the happenings of 1891. Two women, Bacha and Pilloo, fall from the university's clock tower. Adi Framji, the widower of Bacha, strongly believes it wasn't a case of suicide. And a newspaper report about it moves captain Jim Agnihotri, an Anglo Indian ex-cavalryman, to approach Framji and solve a case that is about to take him places. For March, thinking about Ardeshir's perspective — the industrialist was 22 years old when he lost his wife, and never remarried — inspired the narrative. "He was a private person. So, I thought about what if he hired a detective and found closure. He could've solved the case but not revealed it to anyone else," March tells us.

Getting the novel published was hard work, but serendipity struck, too. After moving to America in 1991, the author spent over two decades working in pharmaceuticals but bringing out a novel was always the dream. With her mind occupied with her characters, she was determined to have it published — self-publishing being the last resort. She wrote to 90 literary agents, finding little success until January last year when Jill Grosjean came onboard. While the agent started pitching the manuscript to publishers, March received an email that set the ball rolling in an unexpected direction; she won the Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Contest, which comes with a publishing contract. "I had submitted the book in a couple of contests and forgotten about it. I immediately forwarded the email to Jill saying, 'Yikes!'" she recalls ecstatically.

For the reader, March explains that she wanted to create an experience of watching the mystery unravel while sitting on captain Jim's shoulders. She does succeed in doing so; you traverse through the south of the city — Ripon Club, the mansions of Malabar Hill, Grant Road and more — meeting icons like Cornelia Sorabji, the first female graduate from Bombay University and a reputed lawyer, along the way. March resurrects the days of yore and the notion that all fiction is autobiographical.
The fodder for her descriptive imagery stems from childhood. So, somewhere in the 400-pager, when Agnihotri takes a horse ride, March revisits the sound of a carriage on gravel. "Gravel road makes a little crunchy noise," she says, adding, "I have a fondness for all these locations [mentioned in the book]. I used to live in Dockyard Road. We had the Irani bakery, the Polson butter factory, and even an ice factory close by. I have distinct memories of walking down those pathways with the yellow lamplight falling on the water."

March isn't done with captain Jim yet. There's sequel in store — in addition to four other manuscripts — which she promises will start with a murder, be a bigger mystery and more exciting. "Actually it might be in the genre of thriller and not mystery. I'm not very good with sticking with a genre," she says.

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First Published: 18 November, 2020 07:13 IST

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