There’s a moment early on in Abir Mukherjee’s detective novel, A Rising Man, which shows just how much fun the 44-year-old Scottish-Bengali writer has been having writing the award-winning Captain Sam Wyndham series. It is 1919, and Wyndham, a former Scotland Yard detective finds himself in Calcutta — not an obvious choice after surviving The Great War, but only because it was slightly preferable to suicide. In the process of making enquiries after the ghastly murder of a Scotsman in Black Town, Wyndham and his Indian subordinate, “Surrender-not” (Surendranath) Banerjee find themselves reading the plaque screwed on to the gates of The Bengal Club: No dogs or Indians beyond the point. The detective is only beginning to get an inkling of how unsubtle the White masters of the land can be.Surrender-not notices Wyndham’s discomfort and says: “Don’t worry, sir. We Indians know our place. Besides, the British have achieved certain things in a hundred and fifty years that our civilisation didn’t in over four thousand…We never managed to teach the dogs to read.”
“When I first heard about it as a boy, I wondered why the British were trying to make dogs read! I think, sometimes, humour is the only way one can try and poke holes in that kind of pomposity, and make sense of the awful things that were happening during the British Raj,” says Mukherjee.
It’s noon in London, and our conversation has a very British beginning — we talk about the weather — it’s lovely there, while it’s pouring buckets in Mumbai. But we quickly move on to chatting about Calcutta, a city his father once called home, and the setting for Mukherjee’s police procedurals that have captivated the UK since his first novel, A Rising Man, was published in 2016. Blurbed a “thought-provoking roller-coaster” by Ian Rankin, it was shortlisted for both the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Gold and CWA Historical Daggers (which he went on to win), the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown 2017, and the Edgar Award for Best Novel 2017. Last month, Wyndham and Banerjee made their entry into the Indian market with A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil (2017), and the just-published Smoke and Ashes; Mukherjee is happy to see the books finally find their way to his second home.
“My father, an accountant, came to the UK in 1964. In 1978, four years after I was born, we moved to Hamilton, 10 miles from Glasgow,” says Mukherjee. He recalls a childhood spent in a pocket of “bhodrolok-dom” in west Scotland, thriving in a community of 60-70 Hindu-Bengali families who had immigrated there and found work as doctors, engineers and lawyers. “We’d visit family in Calcutta every few years and I hated it. But after I turned 15, I began to appreciate the city, and what it meant to be Bengali,” says Mukherjee.
Coming of age allowed him to see a metropolis that once had been the richest city in Asia; where traders from all over the world washed up on its shores, and a place that though dilapidated and damaged from years of neglect, still boasted of a thriving culture. “I have a romantic view of Calcutta and I set my story there because I speak the language and know the culture,” says Mukherjee. His novels bring alive Calcutta of the early 1920s, an era not quite golden but not without the sheen of prosperity — as each case proceeds, he offers a brief history lesson of how several magnificent landmarks came into being, of segregated neighbourhoods and communities whose secrets floated in the air like rumours, and how the reasons to commit murder remain unchanged, no matter where you go.
In two out of his three novels so far — A Rising Man and Smoke and Ashes — Mukherjee explores his ethnic community and Calcutta caught in the throes of the Indian Independence movement. “As somebody who straddled both worlds, and has a hyphenated identity, I find that the Scots and Bengalis are much alike: they both possess a strand of heroic and tragic failure. They’ve both got the same quick temper, the same emotional make-up, and the same feeling about the English: given their superior intellect, how have they been dominated by this external power? You can see how much of a chip on my shoulder I have, from both sides,” says Mukherjee, dryly.
Mukherjee’s words may sound harsh, but his writing clearly spells out his engagement with the culture of Calcutta and its residents. If the Italians have “la dolce far niente” or the sweetness of doing nothing, the Bengalis have “la lyadh”, the art of being lazy, or rather, elevating laziness to an art form — no matter how politically charged the world outside may be. In that climate, and in a city divided into White Town and Black Town, Wyndham and Banerjee must lean on each other and navigate through race, class, and their personal views of the Raj.
However, it wasn’t Banerjee but Captain Sam Wyndham who first emerged fully formed, quite out of the blue. “I’ve always been a fan of crime fiction, especially ‘Tartan noir’ that was started in Scotland by William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw in the ’70s, where the crime novel is a vehicle for social commentary. And one of the ideas that has really interested me is the idea of a good man upholding a corrupt system or something he doesn’t believe in, like the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith, or Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels set in Nazi Germany. I wondered why wasn’t anybody writing something similar and nuanced about the British empire, which no matter what people might say, was simply unmitigated evil. It’s because in the UK, much of it has been brushed under the carpet, and, some people actually think that the Empire was a force of good,” he says.
He knew that in order to tell the Indian side of the story, in a sense, he would have to devise a different tactic. “You can’t tell people what they don’t want to hear. So, I need people to buy into it by loving my characters, where the events are in the background. I began in 1919 because not only is it after the war, but it’s also the year the massacre at Jallianwallah Bagh took place. I’d love to get to the point of Independence, but the story I really want to tell British and American audiences is about the Bengal famine of 1943 — how their war hero, Winston Churchill, engineered a genocide of three million Bengalis. In the age of Brexit, if you want people to integrate, then you should know your own history,” says Mukherjee.
He’s currently working on the fourth book in the series, set in 1922. “I’ve been going annually, because I’m an accountant,” he says and laughs. A graduate from the London School of Economics, Mukherjee has worked in mergers and acquisitions for different companies for the past two decades; he would have remained just an accountant for another 20 years, if, at 40, he had not decided to begin writing his novel.
“I’d always wanted to be a writer but I never had the confidence. I wrote 10,000 words and kept it aside. Then The Telegraph in the UK and Harvill Secker, the publishing house, announced a crime writing competition in 2014. I thought, I’ve already done the work, so might as well enter it. I was absolutely surprised when I won,” he says. The success of A Rising Man eventually led to a five-book contract with Harvill Secker.
There are now talks of adapting the series for British television. “I think Calcutta lends itself fantastically to noir. I really love what Dibakar Banerjee has done with Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and I show clips from the film at meetings with production companies. Whenever it happens, it will be edgy, grime-y and just all-out noir,” says Mukherjee.