Mark Twain is coming to Bombay. That is big news for some of the who’s who of the bustling city, though few seem to have read him, including the British. He is arriving with his wife, Olivia, and daughter, Clara. The young American trade counsel, Henry Baker, therefore, is in a bit of a tizzy.

There are two critical puzzles in this gripping zigzag tale located in the labyrinth of working class Bombay. One is the murder of a young woman, Casi, newly-married second wife of a labour supervisor with a following among migrant workers in the sprawling mills of the city. The second seems loaded with a diabolical mystery.

That is, on the night he arrives, Mark Twain vanishes into the blue! He had a sleepless night, apparently. And the side of his bed was still warm when a shaken Olivia, Clara and Henry discover that he has disappeared, wearing the same clothes as yesterday.

In this fascinating murder mystery and detective fiction, in the fictionalised, pulsating and bustling backdrop of Bombay in 1896, Mark Twain arrived by ship with the dense smell of the saline waters in the air, while fisher-folks with their head-loads of fish created the rhythmic orchestra of everyday life and labour in the dock. He checks in at the iconic Watson Hotel, and has to go to a lavish party held in his honour, on the day he arrives, after a long journey. On his way to the hotel, he soaks in the atmospherics, jotting down notes in his blue and red diary. He seems highly pleased with all that sees and absorbs in this iconic city.

The party will have no rope tricks, but it will have the works. the best of wine, a short play and poem, erotic dances by nautch girls who have arrived all the way from Punjab, magicians, a solo and sorrowful European violinist ‘escaping assassins’ from Russia or Serbia, and suspected to be a spy, dholaks and shehnai, and crafty thieves in disguise who will take away the yellow tie from your neck, and you would be stunningly clueless. The host is a prosperous man, Cowasjee Bengalee, and he has invited the fashionable glitterati, the stinking rich, the miscellaneous lackeys of the British, top cops, and all those who matter in the city. This is a gala feudal spectacle in a huge bungalow with an army of servants rushing in and out.

Henry Baker is besotted with the beauty and grace, the deep, subtle and mischievous intelligence of Maya Barton, an Anglo-Indian woman who knows her mind. She is a strongly independent and rooted woman, almost revolutionary, far ahead of the times, a secret magician, an intuitive detective, an elegant woman of substance.

She once accompanied the Bombay Sappers regiment to Waziristan, near the Afghanistan border. She had then sneaked into the Afghan capital, Kabul, to meet with a British woman doctor, Lilias Hamilton. Later, the doctor’s book, ‘A Vizier’s Daughter: A Tale of the Hazara War’, spoke about the clandestine visit. “That had set off a full-fledged diplomatic crisis – she was accused of acting in British interests, and of even being a spy – and things calmed down only because the Amir was engaged in a conflict with another tribe.”

She also arrives in the grand party as a magician and a thief, in camouflage, steals Baker’s watch and tie, and also the famous diary of Twain, leaving the British superintendent of police present there in great embarrassment. She radiates charm.

The prologue of the book is an expression of her character. Written with a certain nuanced lucidity, the author describes a morning breakfast scene in a restaurant with Maya reading the newspaper, and a restless Henry thinking about astrology. “He wanted to engage Maya in warm, animated conversation about various things, but the newspaper was an inky black and white wall between them, and Maya’s attention was held by the story of a girl’s murder in the native part of the city… Bombay Gazette, January 20, 1896: Shocking Murder in Native Lodge – Brings Old Fears Back.”

“I know the girl,” said Maya. “Her voice quivered. The curtains behind her flapped with the sea breeze, and the gentle morning light turned her hair a golden brown. Her eyes looked blue and misty. The usual defiance from her face was gone.”

“‘She was to work in the mills too, but she’d read of the girls’ school in Mazgaon. That’s how I met her…’ She tapped on her arm rest, and stared at Henry, her eyes ablaze. ‘It’s an open and shut case,’ the tapping following her every word,’ this man, Tuka, the husband, did it.’”

“A breeze lifted the thin gauze curtain, and a tendril of hair danced fitfully across Maya’s forehead, distracting Henry for some moments… Every time the curtain moved, the light shifted too, and her hair flashed a burnished gold, and seconds later, turned a warm honey colour.”

After breakfast, Henry wanted to go out with her. She is now following up on Casi’s murder. She says sorry, leans forward, her hand on his arm, and kisses him on his cheek. “She rubbed her cheek in wry amusement, and Henry knew it was his beard. He liked keeping it neat and pointed, the latest fashion, and now he wondered if that was a good idea. Maya’s face was flushed as she made a show of putting on her hat and gloves, and he drew his breath. The red in her cheeks heightened the strange blue of her eyes.”

Henry has to prepare for Mark Twain’s visit the next day. The January sunshine filtered through the bamboo blinds and he had forgotten how frozen and chilly New York and Chicago would be at this time of the year. Maya was distracting her and he had urgent work to do, make the right connections, in this new city which he liked.

One of the things he wants to do is introduce electric fans here where candles and petro-lamps were still in use. “He lifted a hand to his cheek, where her lips had alighted briefly, only moments ago, and felt a sudden happiness flood him.”

In the party, the nautch girls create a hypnotic spell on the audience, swaying, sinuous and graceful. “The dancers, there were four of them, wore bright skirts with mirrors that caught the light from everywhere, the lamps, and the jewellery the women wore. The silver in their long dark braids glittered and flashed, and as they advanced, singing, clapping their hands, and dancing in perfect rhythm to the music, the lights slowly and gently dimmed… Everyone looked on mesmerized.”

Mark Twain is untraceable. The Casi murder case has spilled over in the working class area. Tuka’s arrest has led to flash strikes in the mills. There is no evidence found against him. Another suspect is found murdered. A mysterious magician casts a spell. Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, based in Pune, is a headache for the British. Besides, the illegal opium trade and underground mafia are flourishing.

It’s a complex world out there in 1896. ‘The Kidnapping of Mark Twain: A Bombay Mystery’, Anuradha Kumar’s riveting book has a twist in the tale in every corner we turn. The language is crafted and discreet, the characters etched out, the microscopic details of the period meticulously documented, and the literary finesse brilliant. Between the murders and kidnapping, it’s certainly more than a thriller.

Anuradha Kumar lives in New Jersey, USA. She has studied history in Delhi University and lived in Mumbai for a decade, where she worked with the ‘Economic and Political Weekly’ (EPW). Here stories and essays have appeared across the Indian and western media, and in literary journals.

As Aditi Kay, she has written three bestselling works of historical fiction: ‘Emperor Chandragupta’, ‘Emperor Vikramaditya' and ‘Emperor Harsha’. She has also written ‘It Takes a Murder’, ‘The Hottest Summer in Years’ and ‘Back to the City: Mumbai Stories’. This is her 11th book.

The Kidnapping of Mark Twain: A Bombay Mystery

Anuradha Kumar

Speaking Tiger

Pg: 330

Price: Rs 499