Mumbai mystery

The discovery of a long-lost detective novel, written by an Indian author in the 1920s and recovered by a Princeton professor, is a great caper in itself, writes James Langton

A sacred burial site or dakhma in Bombay, India, now Mumbai, circa 1890, is the setting for Chevalier’s Sexton Blake detective novel. Alinari Archives / Getty Images
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“At last I have you, ‘Chaiwala’.” A sardonic smile played across the normally enigmatic features of the distinguished history professor from Princeton, New Jersey.

Just hours ago, all had seemed lost, but now, triumphant, he held in his hands the dusty manuscript that would surely contain all the answers to the great mystery.

Not just the fate of the legendary British detective Sexton Blake, but to an even greater enigma; the man he had chased across continents and down so many blind alleyways.

Phiroshaw Jamsetjee Chevalier, the elusive Parsi known to some on the mean streets of Bombay as “the teaboy”.

Or something like that. When telling the story of how Gyan Prakash, the Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University in New Jersey, came to discover a long-lost 1920s detective novel and brought it back into print, it is only too easy to slip into the argot of the potboiler.

Indeed, it is hard to say which is the more dramatic, the plot of the thriller, as conceived by the mysterious Chevalier/Chaiwala, or the story of its discovery and restoration.

So let us begin at the beginning. Back in 2001, Prakash was researching what was to be his acclaimed history of the city, Mumbai Fables. It was a particularly dreary day in the British Library, leafing though dusty imperial correspondence relating to the Raj.

Looking for relief elsewhere in the catalogue of the Orient and the Indian Office’s European files, Prakash noticed one entry that stood out amid so much tedium. Described as a novel and published in 1927, its title was The Tower of Silence.

Intrigued, Prakash called the manuscript up from the archives and began to read. Within a few pages, as he puts it, he was “hooked”.

A version of the opening pages of The Tower of Silence later began the first chapter of Mumbai Fables, as a way of embracing the spirit of the city and its people.

It is impossible to avoid being gripped by both accounts. On a cloudless day, an aircraft approaches Bombay’s Malabar Hill. It circles for a while, then drops, seemingly on a collision course with the ground.

At the last moment, a flare falls from the plane, illuminating the target; the forbidden burial Dakhma, or Tower of Silence, where the Parsee faith leaves its dead to be picked clean by vultures.

A camera shutter opens and closes, a split second of sacrilege.

The flight is an act of journalistic prurience, with a photographer for a London pictorial magazine commissioned to capture the gruesome interior of the tower for the first time.

Such a desecration of the purity of a holy site causes outrage across the Parsee community. And so, vengeance must be taken on those responsible.

But now there was mystery within mystery. For the London copy of The Tower of Silence ended at page 169, at the height of the duel of wits between the elusive Parsee vigilante known only as “Beran” and the famous British private eye and his cheerful Cockney sidekick “Tinker”.

For Prakash, the challenge was not just to locate the missing chapters but to uncover the story of Chevalier.

In the end, the latter was to prove an easier task than the former – after many dead ends, the denouement of The Tower of Silence was recovered in Mumbai’s Secretariat Library, only the second copy known to have survived of 100 that Chevalier had self-published.

The author proved more elusive. Even his name was uncertain. Chaiwala or Chevalier?

Prakash speculates that because the French singer Maurice Chevalier had just made it big in Hollywood, the writer had adapted it as a nom de plume.

But then, why was the name of the publisher listed as Chavalier & Co – with a letter “a”? And why, in fact, was Chavalier & Co not registered in trade directories as a publisher of books, but an import and export agency?

One thing was clear: the author was a Parsi, the ancient Persian-based faith that follows the teachings of Zoroaster, an Iranian prophet whose birth date is uncertain. Parsis had settled in India over 1,000 years ago, with the largest community in Mumbai.

Their numbers were not large, but their influence under the British Raj – as merchants, members of the professional classes, even restaurateurs – was considerable, although it has greatly declined in the decades following independence.

Following a long, cold trail, Prakash unearthed a series of addressees for his man in crumbling directories. There was no record of his birth or death. Official record keepers in the Parsi community would throw up their hands at his inquiries, usually employing the phrase “like looking for a needle in a haystack”.

Eventually a search of the Bombay University Calendar uncovered a few slender facts. He had matriculated from the Tutorial High School in the city in 1914, having moved there with his family from Pune – then the hill station known as Poona – a year earlier.

From there, he enrolled at Wilson College, the city’s oldest university, studying logic and French and graduating with a BA in philosophy in 1922.

The records of Wilson College added a little more flesh to the bones, revealing “Chaewala”, as he was registered, as an enthusiastic participant in the college’s literary society, giving talks on topics as diverse as “The Gods of India” to “English humourists of the 18th Century”.

In 1918, he opened a debate on “It is the man that makes the woman?”, organised by the Zoroastrian Brotherhood. A decade later, the records show he wrote Pussyfoot, a Gujarati play, under the name PJ Chevalier. The text has not survived.

The same Secretariat Library that held the complete version of The Tower of Silence also has a slim volume of his poetry. In 1929, he announced as a candidate for the Bombay Municipal Elections, although his name does not appear on either the list of winners or losers. And here the trail goes cold.

While Prakash still has no idea of what happened to Chaiwala/Chevalier – did he die, did he emigrate? – he now has a much greater sense of the man.

“One sense I have about him is that he was a driven man. He tried a great variety of things – poetry, literature, a play. He even tried politics and ran a not-very-successful import-export business. “I think above all, he was driven above by a desire for literary recognition.”

For Prakash, the fascination with Chevalier is that he was a man of his time, and therefore of many parts. He was a Parsi, and an Indian, but also an educated man, familiar with the culture and customs of Imperial Britain and would have felt a sense of belonging in all these worlds.

“He was both Chaiwala and Chevalier,” as Praskash puts it. A man of letters who prided himself on his knowledge of world affairs. The novel shows an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of 1920s Britain, a place he almost certainly never visited. His protagonist, Sexton Blake, was popular through a series of films and radio serials (unlike Sherlock Holmes, Blake was not the creation of a single author).

Even the plot of The Tower of Silence was, a Prakash puts it, “ripped from the headlines”.

In 1923, a London weekly, The Graphic, published a photograph of Parsi dead in a dakhma, the circular raised structure used as an open-air grave site, provoking outrage, leading to an apology from the publisher and a promise to destroy the negative.

As to whether Chevalier’s manuscript is any good – well, that’s a matter of personal taste. It is what might be called a “ripping yarn”, whose creakingly archaic text carries a plot that hurtles along like a car with no brakes.

It is filled with unintentionally hilarious non sequiturs. In a chase, Blake pauses to consider if he should use “a fatal ju-jitsu move that he had learnt in Argentina, the effects of which he had never dared try until now”.

Both Blake and Beram can instantly master any disguise or language. At one point, to the confusion of the reader, both men confront each other, each perfectly disguised as the other.

There are poisonous snakes in hidden compartments, hypnotised rats and deadly spiders. Blake is nearly sacrificed by tribesmen on the Northwest Frontier. Things are so confusing that at times the author has to break away from the plot to explain exactly what is going on.

But the book – which Prakash admits did need some serious editing – is full of charm and rattles along with great pace, ending in a life and death climax at the top of one of the dakhmas.

With the 80-year-old manuscript intact and edited, Prakash has found a publisher for The Tower of Silence. It hit Indian bookshops under the Harper Collins imprint last month and plans are underway for a UK edition. You could call it a happy ending.