The Last King of Burma
A Malabar House series short story
This short story is one of three marking the publication of The Dying Day on July 8, the second in the Malabar House series, described by Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger winner, M.W. Craven, as “The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India.’ Find out more here. The first book in the series, Midnight at Malabar House, is currently shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Sapere Books Historical Dagger. To access all three stories and a competition to win both a box of crime fiction bestsellers and have your name as a character in the third book in this series, simply join Vaseem Khan’s newsletter here. Newsletter registrants will also receive a FREE digital book, in due course, with 50 articles about India’s past, present, and future.
The two-storey bungalow on Nepean Sea Road had been used as a safe house during the freedom struggle. Surrounded by tall trees whose branches wound around the overhanging portico verandas and knocked on shuttered wooden windows, it had once been owned by a family that had made its fortune in the cotton trade, before the Independence movement had reignited a latent patriotism. Victory had proved bittersweet. The Muslim dynasty had fled to the newly-created Pakistan just months before Nehru took the helm of the reshaped India.
The man who had purchased the home from its departing residents now lay dead in a copper-bottomed bathtub on the upper floor.
Persis, called to the scene shortly after arriving at the nearby Malabar House station that morning, was led through the house by Mohan Kher, personal aide to the murdered man.
Kher, dressed in a chalk-striped grey suit and tie, cut a tall, slender figure, an urbane man in his forties, a hint of grey at the temples, a sharp chin, and wire-framed eyeglasses. His polished Oxfords clacked loudly on the wooden staircase. A trio of smudged white lines across his brow hinted, incongruously, at a recent visit to the temple.
‘The mali found the bodies,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘He telephoned me.’
They arrived on the second floor. Kher led her to an open doorway, paused for a moment with a hand on the frame, then entered.
The white man lay in the tub, head lolled back, one fleshy arm hanging limp over the side, the water opaque with blood. His name, she knew, was John Maxwell. She judged him to be in his fifties, a haggard face, made more so by death, a short beard, and greying hair.
His throat had been cut. She felt something uncoil in her guts.
She turned to Kher, who had blanched, his gaze held by the body.
‘Tell me about him.’
He shuddered, then turned to her. Grief darkened his features.
‘He was a great man. One of those Scotsmen who came to India as a boy and spent most of his life here. He worked for Burmah Oil. We both did. We were posted in Rangoon until the Japanese invasion in ’42. We were forced to abandon everything we’d built – our homes, the company – and trek across the jungle to Assam. From there we made our way down to Calcutta. In time, Burmah Oil gave John a position in the Bombay office.’
‘And you went with him?’
‘I’ve been his aide for almost two decades. He was more than my employer. He was my friend.’ He glanced again at the body, and then, in a whisper, ‘He saved my life on the road from Burma. And now…’ He waved a helpless hand at the greying slab of flesh.
She heard a clatter behind her and turned to find Blackfinch arriving with his young assistant, Mohammed, trundling a large, boxy case.
The Englishman greeted her awkwardly. ‘Persis.’
The stiffness between them flushed her insides with an uncomfortable heat. It was her own fault. She should never have stepped over the invisible line that kept whites and Indians apart in the new India. Now, like soldiers who had fought an indecisive skirmish, and didn’t know whether to return to their respective trenches or re-engage, they were at a loss. That they were forced to routinely work together was all but unbearable.
She introduced Kher. ‘Archie Blackfinch is a criminologist with the Metropolitan Police in England. He’s currently helping the Bombay police set up a forensics laboratory. I asked him here to examine the crime scene.’
Kher looked perturbed, then nodded. ‘In that case, perhaps I should show you the second body?’
The woman was young, in her early twenties, dressed in an olive sari, dark-skinned, and pretty.
She lay on the floor of the kitchen, the front of her sari soaked in blood, sightless eyes staring at the gently rotating ceiling fan.
‘Her name is Laxmi Vyas. She is – she was – the housekeeper.’
‘She lived here?’
‘Yes. In a downstairs room. She joined the household six months ago.’ Kher shook his head sadly. ‘Do you think it was a burglary? Or do you think they came for him?’
He blinked. ‘Nationalists. The ones who won’t rest until every foreigner leaves India.’
The theory had some truth to it. Even now, three years after Independence, tens of thousands of Brits stayed on in the country. Some had known no other home; others could not imagine returning to the cold, wet suburbs of the old country. Here, like Maxwell, they were burra sahibs, little emperors, waited on hand and foot by their former subjects.
She recalled the strife-ridden years of the Quit India movement, the vehemence with which many had pursued the ouster of foreigners, the violence directed towards them, despite Gandhi’s pleas. There were still hardline elements who believed in forcibly cleansing the country of the remaining vestiges of empire.
‘Too early to tell,’ she replied. ‘Did he have any enemies?’
‘He had rivals. I wouldn’t call them enemies.’
‘John was the key figure for Burmah Oil in a lawsuit against the British Government. In the retreat from Burma, British soldiers were ordered to set fire to our oilfields to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy. Burmah Oil contends that we should be duly compensated. The British government disagrees. The legal battle has become a bitter affair.’
‘You believe this murder was orchestrated by the British government?’ She allowed incredulity to modulate her tone.
‘The British so hate to lose, don’t they?’
The idea seemed far-fetched and she could not take it seriously.
‘I’d like to see the rest of the house.’
In Maxwell’s study, she found a photograph of him as a younger man, a red-faced son of empire posing beside the carcasses of a trio of leopards, a shotgun cracked open in the crook of his elbow.
A search of his desk turned up little of value.
‘I take it he wasn’t married?’
‘He was a widower,’ replied Kher. ‘His wife died in Burma.’
‘No. They were childless.’
‘He never remarried?’
‘No. He loved his first wife very much.’
Blackfinch entered the room. ‘Banerji has certified the deaths.’
She nodded. The prim and unlikeable doctor, with his sallow face and prissy bow ties, was as efficient as he was uncommunicative. Or perhaps that had more to do with the fact that she was the force’s only female detective. Engaging her in conversation seemed to make him gag, as if he’d gargled with bitter-gourd juice.
‘We’ll need the post mortem to confirm,’ Blackfinch continued, ‘but, by my estimation, they were both murdered with a large-bladed knife. She was stabbed at least six times in the chest and stomach. His throat was cut. No sign of the weapon and, frankly, no other forensic artefacts at this time.’ He reached up and touched his spectacles. His green eyes blinked behind the round lenses. ‘I think our burglar came in over the compound wall late last night, entered through an unlatched door at the rear of the house, stumbled across the maid in the kitchen, killed her, then came upstairs. My guess is Maxwell was dozing in the tub, didn’t even realise anything was amiss until the killer had slit his throat.’
He articulated the gruesome scenario as if reading out a report of the day’s cricket.
She directed herself to Kher. ‘Can you tell me if anything of value is missing?’
‘I can try.’
Half an hour later, they had completed a search of the house.
Going through Maxwell’s wardrobe, she discovered a wallet in the pocket of a blazer. Inside, a few hundred rupees in cash, and a folded receipt, stamped with the crest of a prominent Bombay jewellery store: Premlal & Sons. The receipt indicated that Maxwell had purchased – and collected – an expensive diamond ring just days before his death.
On the receipt was the inscription he had asked to be engraved on the ring.
Her Hindi was good but this was more formal. Sanskrit.
She handed the slip to Kher. ‘Do you know what this means?’
‘“We die to be reborn.”’ He all but whispered the words.
A strange thing to inscribe on a ring. And why had Maxwell, a Scot, chosen Sanskrit? She pondered the words, then said, ‘Why would a widower buy a diamond ring?’
His lips pursed. ‘This must be for Miss Matilda.’
‘John had been courting a woman for the past year. I hadn’t realised that he’d decided to marry.’ He seemed perturbed that his friend had kept such a decision from him.
‘The ring isn’t here.’
He handed back the receipt. ‘Perhaps our killer took it?’
‘What else did he take?’
Kher contemplated the question. ‘There were a pair of solid silver engraved thabeik bowls. They were the only items we managed to leave with when we abandoned Burma. They were exceedingly valuable.’
‘Who knew about the bowls?’
‘It was no secret. John would use them as props when retelling the story of our escape. Perhaps his killer came to steal them, and the murders simply… happened.’
It was as good a theory as any. But questions continued to nag at her. ‘I’d like to speak with his intended fiancé.’
Matilda Harrison was in her late forties, an austere-looking woman, impeccable in a yellow cotton wrap dress falling to just below the knees. Her blonde hair was styled into victory rolls – a hangover from the war years – and her cheeks were rouged. She could not have been called beautiful but there was a forced elegance about her that spoke to a certain sense of determination.
They met at a restaurant in Nariman Point.
As the lunchtime service clattered around them, Persis waited while the woman ordered a martini. This wasn’t the venue she would have chosen to break the news of a loved one’s demise, but Harrison had declined to step outside.
She explained the reason for her visit, observing the woman’s reaction. A freezing of the features, a tremble of disbelief, and then the realisation that this unusual woman in a khaki uniform had told her nothing but the terrible truth.
A silence yawned between them, and then Harrison lifted her glass and drained it.
‘John’s dead.’ It was not a question, merely an affirmation of fact.
Persis allowed a moment. ‘May I ask you a few questions?’
Harrison looked at her sharply. ‘It’s usual to offer condolences.’
She ignored her. ‘How long had you known him?’
Harrison took a deep breath, composed herself. ‘Almost a year. We met in Bombay, at a bridge game organised by mutual friends. We hit it off. Two Scots, two widowers. We had a lot in common.’
‘How did you lose your husband?’
‘He was a soldier. He served as a recruiting sergeant in the Punjab, raising Indian regiments. In the end, they shipped him off to war. He never came back.’
She said this matter-of-factly. Old wounds. The woman’s composure was remarkable. Having weathered the initial shock, her distress seemed to have evaporated. Intriguing.
‘Did John propose marriage?’
This earned her another sharp look. ‘What business is that of yours?’
She took out the receipt and handed it to her. ‘He purchased what looks like an engagement ring. It appears to be missing from his home.’
She continued to stare at the slip of paper. ‘Oh, John,’ she murmured. A tremor shook her shoulders. She still hadn’t wept, Persis noted. A woman in control of her emotions. Or was there something more to it? ‘I hadn’t realised he was intending to propose.’
‘But you hoped?’
She grimaced. ‘At my age, what is left except hope, Inspector? To be frank, he’d been increasingly distant these past months. I half expected him to break things off, not… this.’
‘Do you know why he chose that inscription? It means “We die to be reborn.”’
The crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes crinkled. ‘No. But that was John. He always did have a dark sense of humour.’
Something about the inscription continued to bother her.
She made her way to the store where Maxwell had made the purchase, and found herself in conversation with the man who had sold him the ring.
‘Yes. I remember Mr Maxwell very well.’ The young man was more than an attendant. He was the youngest son of the store’s owner, immaculately dressed in herringbone tweed and two-toned shoes. A pencil moustache, Brylcreemed hair, and an acrid cologne that made her eyes water and felled flies in mid-flight. ‘A gentleman who knew his own mind.’
‘Did you suggest the inscription to him?’
‘No. He expressly asked for it.’
‘Didn’t it seem unusual to you? We die to be reborn? It hardly seems apt for an engagement ring.’
He gave her a condescending smile, flashing a set of white teeth. ‘Have you received a great many engagement rings, Inspector?’
She resisted the urge to wipe the smirk from his face. He seemed to notice her irritation, and coughed abruptly. ‘He told me that he’d chosen those words because they symbolised his union with the woman he intended to marry. In a sense, he was being reborn. He was leaving behind his old life, everything that he had been. I suppose he’d become somewhat possessed by romantic notions.’ He indulged in a cautious smile.
A sudden thought gripped her, as clear as a tolling bell.
‘Did he mention the name of his intended fiancé?’
‘Did you ask him?’
‘Yes. But he declined to share that information.’
The question seemed to perplex him.
‘What I mean is, why keep it from you?’
‘Well, I-I don’t really know.’
Malabar House was all but deserted.
She found Roshan Seth in his office, scribbling in a notepad, and in a rare good mood.
The superintendent had once been a rising star on the Bombay force before Independence had run a tank over his ambitions. Accused by rivals of pursuing his duty a little too zealously under the British, he was now sidelined to the force’s smallest station, ostensibly in charge of others similarly in bad odour.
She went over the details of the case.
‘What makes you think it wasn’t a random burglary?’
‘There’s something about it. Something too precise.’
He grunted. ‘Perhaps his aide is right? If Maxwell was picking a fight with the British government, he was asking for trouble. Losing such a case would set a terrible precedent. I mean, the powers that be would hardly wish the British army rendered answerable for its actions.’ His tone was dry.
‘It doesn’t seem credible. Even the British would baulk at having a man killed on foreign soil.’
He snorted, derisively.
Back at her desk, a peon arrived with Blackfinch’s initial findings from the crime scene, and a set of photographs taken by his assistant. Autopsies were scheduled for the following day, though she doubted there was anything more they could learn. The cause of death was not in any doubt. Blackfinch’s preliminary analysis had been thorough.
Her eyes flicked over his description of the wounds…
Blood on the fingers of the dead maid’s left hand. Blackfinch’s report stated that the blood came from cut marks on the fourth finger.
He’d speculated that she’d cut herself while cooking. But the cuts were fresh. What would she have been cooking that late at night? Why had she even been in the kitchen?
A sudden burst of electricity arced in her stomach like trapped lightning.
The shape of an answer.
‘Tell me about her.’
The mali was a small man, with hoary, sunken cheeks, a shirt limp with sweat, and a dhoti wrapped around his narrow hips. He seemed confused and agitated at the unexpected interrogation.
‘Madam, I had nothing to do with Mr Maxwell’s killing.’
‘I haven’t accused you of anything.’
She understood the terror in his eyes. A poor man had much to fear from the city’s police. If a scapegoat was needed for the murders, he was the perfect fit.
She chose not to reassure him.
He lifted his bidi to his mouth with a trembling hand and sucked on it. Blowing the smoke skywards, he said, ‘She was a Dalit, like me.’
A Dalit. An untouchable. Gandhi had called them harijans, children of God. But for the majority of India’s Hindus, they remained at the bottom of the social pyramid, the lowest members of a caste system – technically, below the lowest rung – that stretched back into antiquity, codified by the British in official documents, the basis for ongoing strife and hatred in spite of the efforts of the Mahatma and, now, Nehru’s fledgling government.
Social engineering had made little impact on millennia of entrenched prejudice.
‘Did she have family?’
‘No. She was an orphan.’
‘Was she married?’
‘Was she seeing someone? What I mean is, was there a man in her life?’
His agitation increased. ‘Why are you asking me these things?’
‘You’re here almost every day. Tending the garden. You must have seen something.’
He refused to meet her gaze.
She reached out and touched his elbow, startling him. ‘Two people are dead. If you know something, you must tell me.’
She found Mohan Kher at the Cuffe Parade offices of Burmah Oil.
The building, as imposing as anything the British had built during their imperial project, was in keeping with the company’s stature. Founded in Glasgow in the late 1800s, the fledgling outfit had struck it rich after British warships moved from coal to oil, supplied via Burmah Oil’s Rangoon oil fields.
Kher sat behind an enormous desk that might have doubled as a dining table in a medieval castle. The office had belonged to John Maxwell and had all the trappings of a wealthy man, including a tigerskin hung on the wall, the tiger’s expression one of extreme surprise, as if it had not anticipated such an ignominious fate.
‘I’m working through John’s papers,’ said Kher. ‘It helps to keep my mind occupied.’
His face was drawn. He had lost some of the energy she had witnessed in him that morning.
‘Tell me about Laxmi.’
His pen missed a beat. He set it down and looked at her.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Laxmi. The housemaid. She was murdered too. Or had you forgotten?’
He chose not to reply.
‘She was a Dalit. An Untouchable.’
‘I believe that word is now considered impolite.’
‘Changing a name doesn’t change the reality. Not in the minds of those who refuse to acknowledge that there was ever a need for change.’
‘I’m not certain what you’re getting, Inspector.’
‘John hired her, didn’t he? Without consulting you.’
‘What of it? It was his house. A private matter.’
She waited a beat. ‘It couldn’t have been easy for a man like you. Interacting with someone like her.’
His face had turned to stone.
She tapped her forehead, indicating his own. The three white stripes had vanished, but she saw that he understood what she meant. ‘You’re a Brahmin. She was a Dalit.’
A silence stretched. ‘Are you suggesting I had something to do with this woman’s killing?’
‘“We die to be reborn.”’ If John Maxwell truly believed that his intended marriage was a way of being reborn, that it would mark a leaving behind of his old life, then he couldn’t have been intending to marry Matilda Harrison. She was a continuation of the life he already knew, a fellow Scot, a woman who shared his old sensibilities, his upbringing, his religion.’ She stepped closer. ‘You found out that Maxwell was intending to marry his maidservant. Laxmi. You couldn’t allow that. In a sense, she would have become your superior. The mistress of the house. A Dalit able to command a Brahmin? It was unthinkable.’ Another step. ‘Once you decided to kill her, you knew you had to kill Maxwell too. He’d never let it lie. He was besotted with her. In your mind, he’d betrayed you.’
He was breathing heavily now, blinking rapidly behind his eyeglasses. ‘Conjecture. It means nothing.’
She stepped closer, then leaned over and set down the package she had been carrying.
He stared at it as she’d placed a grenade under his nose.
Eventually, he picked it up and removed the brown packing paper.
Inside were two silver bowls, heavily engraved.
‘I ordered a search of your home. We found them hidden at the bottom of a wardrobe. You couldn’t bear to leave them behind. The last memory of a man who once saved your life on the Burma Road.’
Find out more about the Malabar House series at www.vaseemkhan.com