Abir Mukher­jee’s Raj-era de­tec­tive story, a thriller roundup and a glimpse of the lives of the lit­er­ary habitués of Lon­don’s Glouces­ter Cres­cent Books

Scot­tish-Ben­gali au­thor Abir Mukher­jee uses In­dia’s painful strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence as the back­drop for his de­tec­tive sto­ries.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by CRAIG SISTERSON

Awhite man scram­bles across the rooftops of Cal­cutta’s Chi­na­town, his head filled with four pipe-loads of opium, and in his hand a bloody knife. He’s so fa­mil­iar with death that the man now breath­ing his fi­nal ragged breaths on the floor above the opium den merely slowed his es­cape. Shots ring out nearby. He grips the mur­der weapon as he hides; he doesn’t want to con­front the po­lice search­ing the rooftops. They are his col­leagues, af­ter all.

Cal­cutta and all of In­dia is a pow­der keg as Christ­mas looms in 1921. A Lon­don-trained lawyer, Mo­han­das Gandhi, has taken lead­er­ship of the In­dian Na­tional Con­gress and in­ten­si­fied the push for in­de­pen­dence, en­cour­ag­ing non-vi­o­lent protest and civil dis­obe­di­ence against Bri­tish rule, re­sult­ing in gen­eral strikes, walk­outs and hard­ship.

“I do want peo­ple to learn from my books, but that’s not the over­all ob­jec­tive,” says au­thor Abir Mukher­jee, whose award-win­ning se­ries star­ring Cap­tain Sam Wyn­d­ham and Sergeant Sur­ren­der-not Ban­er­jee cen­tres on the dawn of three trans­for­ma­tive decades in In­dian his­tory. “Telling a good story al­ways comes first, oth­er­wise peo­ple aren’t go­ing to want to read it. But I find that his­tory is a great ta­pes­try, a great foun­da­tion on which to build a story.”

Mukher­jee’s fas­ci­na­tion, and some anger, with the last decades of the

Bri­tish Raj came to the fore when he be­gan writ­ing his first novel as his

40th birth­day loomed a few years ago. Work­ing as an ac­coun­tant in Lon­don, he’d grown up the child of Ben­gali im­mi­grants in Scot­land. “When peo­ple ask me what I am, my iden­tity is al­ways sort of hy­phen­ated,” Mukher­jee says. “I say Bri­tish-Asian, or, if you push me, I would say Scot­tish-Ben­gali, so it’s al­ways hy­phen­ated.”

That “sort of cul­tural schizophre­nia” gave him an in­sider-out­sider per­spec­tive on both the only home­land he’s known and his an­ces­tral home­land. As a young­ster, he learned to be cyn­i­cal and to ques­tion things, rather than au­to­mat­i­cally ac­cept­ing what he was told.

“Grow­ing up be­tween and within these two cul­tures, you see things from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. I would go to school and learn some­thing then come home and my fa­ther would say, ‘That’s not right’, and he’d give me an­other story. Half the time he’d be right, half the time he’d be wrong. So, from a very early age, I learnt that what­ever we’re taught isn’t nec­es­sar­ily true, that there are al­ways two sides to a story. I re­ally wanted to look at that when I started writ­ing.”

Mukher­jee al­ways wanted to write, but never thought he’d be good enough to be pub­lished. When he was “39 hurtling to­wards 40”, he asked him­self if there was more to life than ac­count­ing. “Which is a pretty deep ques­tion for an ac­coun­tant,” he adds with a chuckle. “It was a bit of a midlife cri­sis. Then I saw Lee Child on break­fast TV talk­ing about how he’d been over 40 when he started to write nov­els, af­ter los­ing his job. I just thought I should give it a go.”

He did know the kind of book he wanted to write. He’d loved crime fic­tion since a teenage friend gave him a copy of Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 clas­sic about a Moscow de­tec­tive dur­ing the Cold War. “I’ve al­ways been drawn to that niche, where you have a good man or woman up­hold­ing a sys­tem they don’t

He grips the mur­der weapon as he hides; he doesn’t want to con­front the po­lice search­ing the rooftops. They are his col­leagues, af­ter all.

be­lieve in,” says Mukher­jee. “I’d seen that in to­tal­i­tar­ian sys­tems; I’d never seen it done in the more nu­anced terms of the Bri­tish Em­pire. I had the idea of a Bri­tish de­tec­tive sent to In­dia af­ter World War I to ex­am­ine the is­sues of that pe­riod.”

Mukher­jee be­gan writ­ing and got 10,000 words into his tale only to make what he calls “the mis­take” of read­ing through what he’d writ­ten. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is just aw­ful’, and I put it in a drawer. Then life gets in the way: fam­ily, work, kids.”

In 2013, he spot­ted a com­pe­ti­tion in the Tele­graph, run by pub­lisher Harvill Secker, look­ing for new crime writ­ers. En­trants had to sup­ply the first 5000 words of a novel and a two-page syn­op­sis of the rest. “That ap­pealed to me be­cause I’m lazy and I’d al­ready done the work,” says Mukher­jee with a laugh. “I ti­died up the first 5000 words of what I’d writ­ten, spent a week writ­ing the syn­op­sis, sent it away and never ex­pected any­thing.” Three and a half months later, Mukher­jee found out he had won and Harvill Secker was go­ing to pub­lish his book. Which meant he now had to write it.

It was a steep learn­ing curve – Mukher­jee cred­its his ed­i­tor, Ali­son Hen­nessey, with teach­ing him to be­come a writer be­tween the first and sec­ond drafts – but when A Ris­ing Man came out in 2016, it quickly be­came a suc­cess. Set in 1919, on the same week as the Jal­lian­wala Bagh mas­sacre in Am­rit­sar, the first Sam and Sur­ren­derNot tale saw the pair in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mur­der of a se­nior Raj of­fi­cial, who had a note left in his mouth warn­ing the Bri­tish to leave In­dia.

Mukher­jee’s fa­ther didn’t live to see his son’s book come out, but he had ear­lier ques­tioned whether read­ers in the UK would want to read a book set dur­ing an un­com­fort­able pe­riod in Bri­tish his­tory. It turned out to be a “half the time” he was wrong. A Ris­ing Man won the His­tor­i­cal Dag­ger from the Crime Writ­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion in the UK and was short­listed for sev­eral other book awards.

Mukher­jee’s new novel, Smoke and Ashes, sees Sam and Sur­ren­der-not in­ves­ti­gat­ing a vi­cious mur­der set against the back­drop of Gandhi’s bur­geon­ing non-vi­o­lent protest move­ment. “That in­flu­ences the main ac­tion, be­cause the strands in­ter­weave, but the his­tory is al­ways se­condary,” Mukher­jee says.

His in­ves­tiga­tive duo is a trou­bled Bri­tish vet­eran and one of the few lo­cals in the Im­pe­rial Po­lice Force. “Sam is very cyn­i­cal, has the ex­pe­ri­ence of the war, and points out some of the hypocrisies and ridicu­lous­ness of Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ism. Sur­ren­der-not may have brown skin but he’s es­tranged from his rich fam­ily and is work­ing for the Bri­tish at a time when many are turn­ing against them. He has an in­no­cence that I have, that quiet voice say­ing, ‘What if?’, and that idea of be­ing In­dian but not In­dian.”

SMOKE AND ASHES, by Abir Mukher­jee (Harvill Secker, $37)

In­sider-out­sider per­spec­tive: Abir Mukher­jee.

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