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