A NECESSARY EVIL by Abir Mukherjee

Reading Abir Mukherjee’s “A Necessary Evil” was a fine balancing act between dying to know what happened next, and dreading the approaching end of the book.

This absolute cracker of a novel is a fine and worthy successor to Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel “A Rising Man“, and it is with great pleasure that the reader re-acquaints him/herself with Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta, his wonderful assistant Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee, and the lovely Annie Grant, who has captured Sam’s heart, but doesn’t seem to return the compliment.

Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel took place almost entirely in Calcutta, and though the action in “A Necessary Evil” begins in the city, the heart of imperial India, in June 1920, it quickly moves to the princely state of Sambalpore in the state of Orissa. The crown prince of the state is murdered in Calcutta, in the presence of Sam and Surrender-not, and so the duo heads to his state to try and find out who murdered the flamboyant but popular young prince.  And why.

Calcutta is but a fleeting presence in this novel, though a powerful one.

Sam, a troubled man after his experiences during the First World War, sometimes heads out at night for the opium dens of Calcutta:

“At night, though, Tangra transformed itself into a hive of shebeens, street kitchens, gambling house and opium dens.  In short, it housed all the things that made living in a sweltering, crumbling metropolis of several million people worthwhile.”

Since the murder victim is from one of the semi-independent princely states that were outside British colonial jurisdiction, there is a noted reluctance on the part of the British powers-that-be to follow up on the murder, for reasons of political expediency.

Sam is a caring man, but cynical about the trappings of Empire:

“That was the things about viceroys, they might assume the mantle of demigods, but in truth, since the time of Lord Curzon, the only thing that’s really mattered to any of them is to keep the plates spinning until they can move on.  No one wants to be remembered as the man in charge when the music stooped- the man who lost India. But that wasn’t my concern.  Everyone has their own priorities.  The Viceroy’s was the avoidance of anything that might rock the ship of state; mine was getting to the truth, and I wasn’t about to give up on this case now, just because the Viceroy might deem the results unpalatable.”

Through a clever slight of political hand Sam and Surrender-not go to Sambalpore for the prince’s funeral, Sam in a private capacity and Surrender-not as the official representative of the Imperial Police.

The wonderful Surrender-not is an intelligent, perceptive young man who went to Harrow with the prince, speaks flawless and eloquent English, but is hopelessly tongue-tied in the presence of women.

“Of course Surrender-not wasn’t his real name…His parents had named him Surendranath: it meant king of the gods: and while I could make a fair stab at the correct Bengali pronunciation, I never could get it quite right.  He’d told me it wasn’t my fault.  He’d said the English language just didn’t possess the right consonants – it lacked a soft “d,” apparently.  According to him, the English language lacked a great many things.”

Mr. Mukherjee’s descriptions of the glittering, bejewelled pomp and circumstance of princely India are glorious, with cremations and coronations and palace intrigue and zenana politics all on dazzling display.  Despite all the trappings of princely India, from the eunuchs to elephants, from jewels to private trains, Mr. Mukherjee never falls into cliché-dom.  There is enough intrigue and danger and dislike swirling around the palaces and forts to keep Sam & Surrender-not busy, and the reader enthralled.

It would really not be nice of me to reveal much more about the plot of this thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery, so suffice it to say that the 2 policemen have to unravel a clever, complicated skein of intrigue.

There are twists and turns, there is elegance, there are moments of pure horror, there is thwarted love – all the components of a great, historical read.

Thoroughly recommended.

For the record, I bought the book myself, and was not asked to write this review.

Published in 2017 by Harvill Secker, you can order the book now, by clicking on the link below:

A RISING MAN by Abir Mukherjee

What a fabulous book “A Rising Man” is.

And what a prodigiously talented writer Mr. Mukherjee is. 

A murder mystery set in Calcutta in 1919, this is an absorbing page-turner from the very word go.

From the first moment you meet the narrator, Captain Sam Wyndham and his endearing deputy, Sergeant “Surrender Not” Banerjee, you know –  you just know – that this is a duo that was meant to be.  And that they will have many more adventures together.

Sam Wyndham arrives in Calcutta, emotionally drained after the horrors of World War 1.  He has seen such dreadful sights and experienced such loss, that his view of Calcutta, and India, and his fellow Brits is understandably jaundiced.  Sam is not a believer in the supremacy of the British in India, and he is a rare, compassionate man in a system that discourages such emotions, especially towards Indians.  

“There’s a special arrogance to be found in the Calcutta Englishman, something you don’t find in many other outposts of empire.  It may be born of familiarity.  After all, the English have been top dog in Bengal for a hundred and fifty years, and seemed to consider the natives, especially the Bengalis, as rather contemptible.

Sam doesn’t like Calcutta that much, nor does he buy into the whole colonial grandiloquence that has fashioned this city on the humid banks of a river.

“I set foot on the soil of India on the first of April, 1919.  All Fool’s Day. It seemed appropriate…

Pitching up in Calcutta for the first time without the assistance of drugs is not a pleasant experience.  Of course there’s the heat, the broiling, suffocating, relentless heat.  But that’s not the problem.  It’s the humidity that drives men mad…

Calcutta – we called it the City of Palaces.  Our Star in the East.  We’d built this city, erected mansions and monuments where previously had stood only jungle and thatch.  We’d paid our price in blood and now, we proclaimed, Calcutta was a British city.  Five minutes here would tell you it was no such thing.  But that didn’t mean it was Indian.

The truth was, Calcutta was unique.”

Calcutta is an integral part of this novel, both its geography as well as its social mores.

Take Dalhousie square, for example.  On his first visit to the iconic Writer’s Building, Sam passes Dalhousie Square with its fenced-off pool:

“Dalhousie was too big to be elegant.  At its centre sat a large, rectangular pool the colour of banana leaves.  Digby had mentioned that in the old days, the natives would use it for washing, swimming and religious purposes.  All that stopped after the mutiny of ’57.  Such things were no longer to be tolerated.  Now the pool stood empty, its bottle-green waters shimmering in the afternoon sun.  The natives – the ones we approved of, at any rate – now suited and booted in frock coats and buttoned-down collars, hurried around it…signs in English and Bengali warning of stiff penalties should they be tempted to revert to their base natures and go for a dip.”

No sooner has Sam arrived, than he is tasked with solving the murder of a British official.  The authorities want the murderer to be found as quickly as possible, mainly to show that the British cannot be trifled with, but Sam’s training as a Scotland Yard detective is somewhat at odds with the British agenda.

In “Surrender Not” Sam finds an intelligent, eloquent, impeccably spoken, well-educated assistant, and their relationship of trust and mutual respect is definitely at odds with the prevailing climate in Calcutta.

Surrender Not is an intriguing character, a perfect foil for Sam, who has to pick his way through the class and colour-ridden minefield that is colonial India.

There are moments when you, the reader, are embarrassed by the sheer crassness of the colonial Brit:

“Digby laughed. “you see what srt of people we’re dealing with here, Wyndham!  That’s the vanity of the Bengali for you.  Even the bloody coolies lie about their age!”

Banerjee squirmed.  “If I may, sir, I doubt vanity has much to do with it.  The fact is, the railways impose a policy of retirement at the age of fifty-eight.  Unfortunately, the pension provided to native Indians is generally too meagre for a family to live on.  By lowering their ages on the forms I beleive the men hope to work for a few years more and thus provide for their families just that little bit longer.”

Sam also has to pick his way through the tortuous relationship both the British and the Indians have with Anglo-Indians such as Annie Grant, a young lady who handles the sneering insults at her mixed race with great dignity.  She, of all people, has no illusions about the nature of colonial rule in India:

“I’m sorry”, she said…It’s just that I’ve seen it happen.  Nice middle-class chaps from the Shires, they come out here and the power and the privilege go to their heads.  All of a sudden they’re being waited on hand and foot and being dressed by a manservant.  They start to feel entitled.”

Along with the mystery of who has committed the two murders he is investigating, Sam gets a crash course in the current political climate in India, mainly through the interesting character of Benoy Sen, a patriot, an intellectual and exactly the kind of Indian to infuriate the colonial overlords, and – not surprisingly – interest Sam, even though he does get exasperated by him:

“This isn’t a political discussion,” I said. “Just answer the question.”

Sen laughed, thumping his hands down on the table.  “But it is, Captain!  How could it not be? You are a police officer,  I am an Indian.  You are a defender of a system that keeps my people in subjugation.  I am a man who seeks freedom.  The only type of discussion we could have is a political one.”

God, I hated politicals.  Give me a psychopath or a mass murderer any day.  Compared to a political, interrogating them was refreshingly straightforward.  They were generally all too eager to confess their crimes.”

“A Rising man” is a wonderful read.  A murder mystery, wrapped up in India a century ago, and introducing a detective duo that one hopes will return quickly to solve another crime.

Unstintingly recommended.  (And, by the way, neither Mr. Mukherjee nor his publisher, Vintage, know that I blog)

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TABLE by MADHUMITA MUKHERJEE

Disclaimer – if indeed there is a need for one: I was sent this book by the publishers, and asked to review it.

That’s it !

 

This début novel is an interesting read, which kept me involved until the end, as I read on with growing interest, keen to find out what happens, all the while hoping for a happy ending.

But…No, no, I am absolutely not going to spoil the plot for you, so worry not.

Suffice it to say that the narrative covers the years 1990-1999, and charts the friendship and relationship between a young London based NRI, Abhimanyu, known throughout as Abhi, and his Calcutta based friend Uma.

(Hey, it is written as Calcutta throughout by the author, so I am not being politically incorrect)

They are both doctors (as is the author) so there is a lot of medical speak throughout the book, and much of the story line takes place in and around hospitals.  The couple never physically meets in the book, and the whole narrative takes place via the exchange of letters.  At times, to be honest, this technique jarred, especially when you know that they had well and truly entered the email era.  Why would you write when you could email, was often my rather cynical reaction, but this issue is addressed, late in the book, when Abhi admits to preferring hand written letters to emails.

I like the book, and I am full of admiration (and not a little envy) for a first-time novelist, but there are a few very mild comments, which I hope will be taken in the right spirit.

At times, the “dialogue” seems a little stilted.  I realise these 2 young people who are writing to each other are very clever young people, but all the same, sometimes the writing does seem somewhat stiff :

 

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Or take this, when Abhi is telling Uma about a trip to Italy :

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Doesn’t ring true, in the way that other parts of the book do.

 

This extract, below, however, sounds as though it is written with genuine feeling :

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Or this moment, when her college romantic hopes are dashed :

 

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I think when the author speaks with her own voice, from the heart, she is at her best.  When she is trying to impart knowledge to we the reader, she sometimes sounds a little artificial.

I very much look forward to Ms Mukherjee’s next book, and hearing more of her perceptive and intelligent voice.  For she is without question an intelligent narrator.  I want to hear more from her.

Published in 2013 by Fingerprint, the paperback costs Rs 195.

If you wish to buy and read this book, it couldn’t be easier. Just clink on one of the links below :

 

DELHI DURBAR by SUNIL RAMAN & ROHIT AGARWAL

This week, New Delhi officially turned 100 years old.

On 12 December 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, in front of maharajahs, rajahs, princes, and thousands of British and Indian citizens, King George V made an announcement that would have major repercussions for India.

The capital city was going to be moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

And thus New Delhi would come into existence as an imperial city.

Fast forward 100 years, and New Delhi 2011 chose virtually to ignore the centenary.

Mutterings about the rights and wrongs of celebrating imperialism masked the plain fact that the venue for the 1911 Durbar, Coronation Park, is a shambles, renovation work incomplete, deadlines missed.  This is not the place to discuss how a city can be years behind on deadlines, with no outcry and no accountability – but just remember that some projects for the 2010 Commonwealth Games are still languishing unfinished.

So, Delhi, thank goodness for Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal.

They have written a lavishly illustrated book about the 1911 Durbar, which as a stand alone event –  with or without the moral issues of colonialism – deserves to be commemorated.  The Durbar happened.  It is a fact of history. It brought New Delhi into being.  It was an event of long-lasting historical importance.

And more than anything else, it was an utterly fabulous, glorious expression of all that was best in royal and imperial India  –  ceremony, pageantry, clothes, jewels, titles, fanfares – and this lovely book brings out the full flavour of it all.

The authors, both passionate, hands-on historians, do not debate the rights or wrongs of spending a mind-boggling fortune on the Durbar.  They do not  enter into the politics of Delhi vs Calcutta.  They simply recount the amazing, dazzling story of how a dusty area of north India was transformed into a tented city, and became home to one of the most fabulous gatherings ever in India – the first time all the ruling prices came together.

The scale of the Durbar is staggering, even 100 years later :

“A temporary tented city was to be set up, spread over 45 sq miles. It was to last over a week, see around 150 ruling chiefs, feudal lords and zamindars in attendance, along with officials, and witnessed by at least 100,000 ordinary people. The 1911 Durbar was to be the most expensive and the most ambitious Durbar ever organized and, as it happened, over 900,000 pounds sterling were spent on it…

…Spread over 25 sq km, the Durbar Camp was to have 475 separate camps, with a total of 40,000 tents. Each camp was to be a city in itself, with arched entrances, gardens and enclosures. Apart from the King’s Camp, there were provincial camps headed by British Governors or Lt. Governors, camps of the Maharajahs and Princes, and the Government of India Camp.

All the tents were carpeted, furnished, warmed with stoves, and lit with electric bulbs.
Every Indian chief was to have his separate camp, which was like a mini city with all amenities, including a bazaar.

Clear directions were given to officials that nothing be done that was contrary to Indian customs. Cows managed by Brahmans ensured the supply of fresh milk to each camp. separate hospitals, a separate magistrate, and a separate police system ensured the independence of each camp under the overarching control of the British administrators.”

This is the story of a unique event, and the authors tell it with unbridled enthusiasm and love for their subject matter.  There are plans and drawings, articles and ads from the newspapers of the day, bills, receipts, and wonderful, absolutely gorgeous photographs to accompany the story of how the Durbar was conceptualised, planned, and carried out.

The ruling Indian princes needed careful handling, so that there would be no clash of egos in their comings and goings and dealings with the King Emperor.  There were sensibilities galore to be accommodated.  There were logistics on a massive scale to be handled.

And so the days of spectacle and pageantry flowed on smoothly and almost perfectly choreographed.

But there was the occasional headache.

The durbar tent burned down a few days before the event.

Her Majesty the Queen didn’t want the King to ride an elephant in procession – “Elephant Snubbed” was the wonderful newspaper headline.

And then there were problems with the tent for a royal dinner one night :

“The banqueting tent offended against the elements of sanitary science in the matter of ventilation; and it must be added as a warning for future occasions that being very long, very narrow and low, it presented neither a dignified nor an inviting appearance.”

For me, though, the biggest treat in the book is the photography.  Wonderful black and white photos  –  and even a startling, very early colour photo – bring to life the sheer gorgeousness of this extraordinary event.

Delhi, and every lover of history, can thank Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal for this well-written, super well-documented book.

Published by Roli Books and just Rs 495 for an attractively bound hardback.

If you would like to buy the book, after reading this review, nothing could be easier.  Simply click on the link below :

STATE OF WONDER by ANN PATCHETT

Even if I describe this book as “lush” and “sensuous” and every other such adjective, I am still not sure whether this would fully convey the evocative, over-powering descriptions of the heat and colour and humidity and darkness of the Amazon, the main backdrop against which this wonderful story unfolds.

As we journey with the intrepid Dr Marina Singh from snowy Minnesota, to Manaus, and then ever further into the heart of the Amazon, we feel the heat, we share her insect bites, we share her terror of snakes, and we are as puzzled as she is by the mystery awaiting her. The writer conjures up the sense of primal fear of the stifling heat and unknown sounds, of the wildlife, the dangers, even of the tribal people with their endearing yet inexplicable behaviour.

The book is a carefully composed series of contrasts which somehow mirror each other, and are cleverly inter-woven.

Marina is –  as her surname would imply – of Indian extraction.  Her mother was American, from the windy, snowy mid-west state of Minnesota. Her father was from the steaming, crowded Indian city of Calcutta.  Her parents go their separate ways when she is a baby, and she only sees her father intermittently after that.  As a rather scared child she saw him in India on occasional trips, but the crowds and noise and heat overwhelmed her.  As an adult, and all though the book, she sees her late father in her nightmares, screaming out loud in her terror of losing him again.

The nightmarish dreams of India are reflected by the reality of her days –  a dangerous, sometimes life-threatening trip up the Amazon, to try and track down a missing colleague from Minnesota.

Marina doesn’t lack for courage in the new, unfamiliar world of the Brazilian rain-forest.

She faces up to her demons when she meets up with her old university professor, the extraordinary Dr. Annick Swenson.

She  faces up to the real nature of love and possession, in her relationship with the endearing little boy Easter.  Although deaf and dumb, Easter is a pivotal character, binding together with his trust and love Marina, her missing colleague Anders, Annick, and the flakey young couple Barbara and Jacky Bovender, who live in Annick’s home in Manaus, and don’t really do much else.

Annick Swenson is larger than life, and totally believable for it.  Searingly intelligent, fearless, passionate about her work, unsentimental, abrupt to the point of rudeness, she towers above everyone in the novel, and is the central figure from which all the closely interwoven threads of the story emanate.

There are moments of pure adrenalin pumping fear, and there are serious moral choices to be made.  The decision as to whether one should leave tribal societies untouched or interfere is a leitmotiv throughout the book.  Marina cannot imagine not helping the tribal people when they are in pain, but by so doing, she intrudes into a system that has worked –  albeit with deaths and pain and suffering –  for centuries.

The end is surprisingly happy – on one level –  though the reuniting of one family is at the cost of ultimate betrayal.

Read this wonderful novel for the story, which is gripping, and for the descriptive prose, which is luscious.

Printed by Bloomsbury, the paperback costs £11.99.

If you would like to buy the book, simply click on one of the links below – couldn’t be easier :