I had the good fortune of meeting Abir Mukherjee (and his wife, Sonal) last April in New York City at The Edgar Awards. Within a few minutes of chatting with Abir and Sonal, I knew I could talk with them both for hours on end, preferably over a cold beverage. Or two. He’s a Scotsman, by the way, who lives in London now and I learned a thing or two (I’m so clueless) about the large Indian community that calls Scotland home.
On the big giveaway table outside the banquet hall after the Edgars wrapped up was a copy of the second entry in Abir’s fine series. I grabbed it. I read it. I dug it. It’s smart. It’s written with crisp, elegant prose. It’s visceral. It deals with issues big and small. And it’s led by a terrific protagonist. A full review follows. In the meantime, I pinged Abir with a few questions via email and he was kind enough to respond with thoughtful takes. If I’m not mistaken it’s the first time we’ve had a mention of elephant penis on the blog and its deployment in one of the answers is exactly the kind of spot-on, sly humor you’ll find in A Necessary Evil, too.
Question: British rule of India—the British Raj—lasted from 1858 through 1947. How did you settle on this particular period after The Great War as the time when you wanted to set your books? Clearly the war was when the relationship started to change, but was there a fair amount of analysis that went into choosing the right timeframe?
Mukherjee: Thanks Mark for inviting me onto your blog.
For me, 1919, immediately after the Great War, just seemed to be the right time to start the series. There were some overarching reasons for this – the shock of the war – the way it made people question the foundations of the societies they lived in; and the promises made during wartime to colonies such as India with regard to self-government which were reneged upon despite the large numbers of colonial troops who fought and died in the name of liberty. But there were also some specific events which occurred in India in 1919 which made it the perfect starting point for the series. It saw the enactment of the infamous Rowlatt Acts which replaced the state of emergency which had been in place during the war. Among other things, the Acts forbade the gathering of native crowds above a certain size and allowed the British to arrest and hold Indians without charge for extended periods. It was seen by many Indians as a slap in the face, especially after the sacrifices they’d made for the Empire during the war. Then in April 1919 came the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in which British and Gurkha troops mowed down an unarmed crowd of men, women and children in the city of Amritsar. It was that act, more than anything that had come before, which made many Indians including Gandhi, realise that Home Rule within the Empire on a model similar to Australia or New Zealand, was not realistic and that the only alternative was a struggle for full independence.
Question: And along the same lines, how did you develop the Sam Wyndham character, particularly deciding on his status as a World War I veteran and all his personal baggage? How did you dial in his attitude toward India and the local populations and his role as police captain in Calcutta?
Mukherjee: I’ve always been fascinated by the predicament of a good man upholding a corrupt or evil system. To that end, I’m a huge fan of the works of Philip Kerr and Martin Cruz Smith who have their respective detectives Bernie Gunther and Arkady Renko working for totalitarian regimes. But as far as I was aware, no one had written similar novels about a detective working for the more nuanced, but still morally compromised, British Empire.
Sam comes to India a jaded cynic, a survivor of the Great War that has claimed his wife and his friends. He’s of that first generation of modern men, unwilling to swallow the preconceived notions his superiors might have about the natives, and like many of the best fictional detectives, he’s a natural contrarian, a fish out of water.
I think Sam has a chip on his shoulder against the British upper classes whom he blames for his war experiences. He sees the same type of people in charge in India and his natural reaction is to side against them, almost as an act of spite.
Having said that, he still retains some of the prejudices of the era. Despite himself he’s shocked at the thought of a European woman falling in love with an Indian, even if he is the son of a maharajah. And he’s still an Englishman, which means he’s emotionally constipated, unable to pursue a relationship with a woman he’s attracted to or to confide his feelings to anyone, especially not a native such as his subordinate officer and the closest person he has to a friend, Sergeant Banerjee.
Question: India, to an outsider, seems like such a complicated place and A Necessary Evil, by taking us to an independent state with its own layers, complications, politics, and internal politics. I mean, it seems like such a daunting task to try and wade into this multi-layered world and get it right. How did you go about it? Were you daunted? Or just determined to learn?
Mukherjee: To be honest it always felt more interesting than daunting. Being someone whose parents hailed from India, and having visited the country many times both as a kid and as an adult, I was already familiar with some of the history. However, the world of the maharajahs and the princely states was something I knew little about and it fascinated me.
In the early twentieth century, the Indian maharajahs were among the wealthiest men in the world, revered as gods by many of their subjects. Many were descended from warrior kings, but during the Raj they were effectively paper tigers with little real power. As a result, a lot of them became feckless and debauched, spending their money on palaces, harems full of concubines and fleets of Rolls Royces.
As I did my research, I found them to be truly remarkable characters, semi divine and yet also part of the cosmopolitan jet-set of their day. Some were playboys, others were international cricketers. They were the most colourful of men and there are some wonderful stories about them, ranging from one maharajah who had his swimming pool filled with Dom Perignon to celebrate the birth of a son and another who made a gift of a golf bag to his British adviser, though he failed to mention that the bag was made from the skin of an elephant’s penis.
Question: Wyndham’s obsession with opium—was that an element you had in mind from the get-go? And there’s some highly technical business about opium and how best to ingest it, how did you go about researching all the opium business? Don’t incriminate yourself, just wondering.
Mukherjee: I’m not sure exactly where Wyndham’s opium habit came from. All I can say is that it was in the earliest drafts of the first book and so I guess it was already part of him when he came into my head. I’m a great fan of flawed heroes, and Sam’s opium addiction is just the most obvious outward sign that he’s a damaged man.
As for research into opium, I have mooted a trip to distant lands to find out first-hand about such things, all in the interests of art of course, but my wife wasn’t particularly enamoured by that idea. We had a chat and we decided that I wasn’t allowed to do things like that.
Therefore my research has had to be purely deskbound. I found a fascinating book called ‘Opium Fiend’ by Steven Martin, an American who spent many years in Thailand and the neighbouring countries, who started out as a collector of opium related artifacts – pipes, tools and other paraphernalia – before dabbling in opium smoking and eventually and becoming a hoeless addict. The book was a treasure trove of information on everything from the rituals around opium smoking to the impacts of addiction and the process of kicking the habit.
Question: Did you know going into A Necessary Evil that you wanted to say something about the history of females running/administering Indian kingdoms?
Mukherjee: I didn’t. When I started out, all I knew was that I wanted to set a novel in the wonderous world of the Indian maharajahs. It was only during my research that I came across evidence of the important roles, almost whitewashed from history, played by the women of the courts – the princesses and maharanis – who often maintained the traditions and culture of the kingdoms while the maharajah galivanted around the world. As soon as I stumbled on it, I knew this is what I really wanted to write about.
Most of the time their impact was behind the scenes, but in several high-profile instances, they were rulers in their own right. The kingdom of Bhopal, for instance, was, for the best part of a century, ruled openly by women, and they were not Hindu, but Muslim. In today’s world the fact that a century ago, Muslim women were ruling kingdoms might come as a bit of a shock to many people.
Question: I’ve heard you talk about the moral issues of one country imposing or imparting its values and beliefs on another. How has your view of the issue changed, if at all, as you have researched and wrote?
Mukherjee: I set out to write about this period, partly because many people in the UK have this notion that British rule in India was somehow benevolent, or if not completely altruistic, then that it had redeeming features. This is the ‘at least we gave them the railways’ argument. The truth is, British rule in India was oppression, and as in all cases where one people oppresses another, I believe it was evil. This is a very hard idea for a lot of British people to accept, brought up as we are, to believe that we are a moral nation which tends to be on the side of the angels.
The question I wanted to ask in the books was, how does a moral, Christian people, justify the oppression of another race, both to outsiders, but more importantly to itself? I wanted to explore the impact of colonialism, not just on the subjugated peoples, but on the psyche of those doing the oppressing, especially the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system. And what I found was that a lot of them were thoroughly disillusioned by what they were doing in the name of empire. This, I suppose, was the greatest surprise. It seems a lot of those carrying out the task of empire were scarred by it.
As for the railways, I’d have some sympathy for that argument If they actually went where the Indians wanted them to go. They didn’t. They were, at heart a means of exploitation and control, used to transport India’s natural resources outward, and to move troops quickly across the country. The most damming evidence for this is that the Indian princely states, those parts of India that were nominally independent, were never allowed to build broad-gauge railways as the British were scared they’d be used as tools of insurrection.
Question: On a personal basis, how has diving into this work changed your connections or feelings about India? How often do you get there for research and what goes through your head as a Scottish citizen?
Mukherjee: I’ve always had a love of India, however writing about it has made me look deeply into its history during the colonial period. As you might expect, I’ve found that the history of that time is not black and white, but rather far more nuanced than I’d imagined. While the period of empire is indeed a dark one, there were many instances of personal friendships between Brits and Indians which I find uplifting. The relationship between the Scots and Indians is even more nuanced, with the Scots, themselves often the victims of militarized brutality only decades earlier, suddenly becoming the instruments of oppression as part of the colonial endeavour.
At the same time, the Scots looked on empire differently from the English, and their role in bringing the Enlightenment to India is often overlooked.
As a Scot of Indian origin, my feelings are complicated. I feel a sort of cultural schizophrenia when I contemplate the relationship between my two homelands. There are parts of their shared history that are hard to accept without feelings of guilt, but at the same time there is much to revel in.
Question: As a fiction writer, what’s the best thing about having been trained and worked as an accountant? You have such a clean, precise writing style. Care to attribute your writing approach to all that time around spreadsheets?
Mukherjee: That’s a good question! I think having a career in finance has definitely impacted the way I write, if not the content. Twenty years as an accountant has instilled a certain discipline in me, and as such, the process for writing is generally the same for each of my books: I decide on a topic I’d like to explore, do my research, then turn the germ of an idea into a five to ten page plan. It’s only after I’ve done the plan that I actually start writing.
But it’s not just the planning. I spent a few years of my career writing due diligence reports, and if I’m honest, I learnt a lot about sentence and paragraph structure, as well as how to write concisely from those days.
Question: What did it mean to you for the first book in the series, A Rising Man, to have been named a finalist for The Edgar Awards this year?
Mukherjee: It was something I never expected. The thought that people in the United States would ever read, let alone enjoy my work and even consider it for such a prestigious award was truly humbling. And even though it didn’t win, just being able to attend the awards ceremony in New York with my wife was wonderful. It was a way of saying thank you to her for putting up with all the long hours I’d spent locked away writing while she looked after the kids. We both had a great time, and I think it’s fair to say, we both fell a little in love with the USA.
Abir Mukherjee’s website
By the way, that’s the cover of the UK edition above. Here’s the cover in the USA:
Here’s a good mix for a compelling mystery: atmosphere, smooth writing, spot-on wit, troubled characters, a twisty but credible conspiracy, politics, greed, and a chance to ponder weighty little historical (or present day) issues like colonization.
Abir Mukherjee’s A Necessary Evil is the second in the series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham, who is dragging around a whole bunch of issues from his time as a soldier in World War I. Mukherjee’s first first, A Rising Man, was a finalist for The Edgar Award (best novel) earlier this year. The setting is 1920 India. Captain Wyndham’s partner is Sergeant Banerjee, who goes by the nickname Surrender-Not.
A Necessary Evil kicks off with a bang, the assassination of a prince who is heir to the throne of the wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore. (The novel, Mukherjee tells us in the highly informative Author’s Note, was inspired by the tale of the Begums of Bhopal, a dynasty of Muslim queens who ruled the Indian princely state of Bhopal from 1819 to 1926.) Riding in the back of a Rolls Royce, the prince is shot twice. Both shots hit the prince squarely in the chest. “For a few seconds, he just stood there, as though he really was divine and the bullets had passed straight through the rain. Then blotches of bright crimson blood began to soak through the silk of his tunic and he crumpled, like a paper cup in a monsoon.”
As Calcutta policeman, Wyndham and Surrender-Not do not have ready access to follow leads to Sambalpore, which clearly wants to control and manage its own investigation. Working themselves into the middle of the action in Sambalpore takes some work—and their journey and management of the bureaucracies gives Mukherjee plenty of opportunity for technicolor dollops of enticing scene-setting, all driven by Wyndham’s jaded, war-weary and empire-weary view.
“Walking into Howrah station was akin to entering Babel before the Lord took issue with their construction plans. All the peoples of the world, gathered under the station’s soot-stained glass roof … Howrah station was like a watering hole in the savannah, where all animals from the highest to the lowest were forced to congregate cheek by jowl, the one place in the city where an Englishman, by necessity, had to confront India at its rawest.”
Aromas, colors, conditions, food, weather. In Mukherjee’s hands, it’s armchair time travel on every page. (And it’s not overdone. Mukherjee deals these cards only as needed.)
The investigation finds Wyndam and Banerjee/Surrender Not far from home, exploring a closed society and quite literally in the middle of palace intrigue and a longstanding battle over Sambalpore’s diamond mine. Wyndham tries to discern the difference when Indians, including Surrender-Not, walk the “conversational tightrope between speaking the truth and what they thought we wanted to hear.”
Imbued throughout the story is the brittle and at times wicked relationship between an occupying power and its indigenous people. We are privy to Wyndham’s uncertainties about the state of affairs, and his personal rejection as “rubbish” the notion that white man is superior. But those he encounters, of course, treat him like the British officialdom that he is; after all, “an Englishman abhors sharing his intimate thoughts.”
Wyndham has another secret—his need for regular access to opium. The “O,” as he calls it, helps him feel the “secrets of the universe.” And helps him think through the investigation. And deal with post-war issues, including the haunting loss of his young wife.
Respectful but never befuddled, Wyndham makes for a compelling tour guide protagonist as he encounters concubines, eunuchs, churches, lies, women of certain means, women of certain power, and Indian mysticism. He is jaded about most things in life and particularly wary of “mumbo-jumbo,” but his soul hankers for truth and he needs to discern fog from fact.
Fresh from the fog of war, Captain Wyndham’s time in India is clouded by confusion and uncertainty over the prickly relationship between an empire and the country it has subsumed. Everywhere he goes in the matter of the dead prince, Wyndham seeks answers and the clarity they can deliver. As to the bigger questions, uncertainty reigns. That sense of confusion leads perfectly into the third installment of Mukherjee’s series. I have a hunch there will be more of the same. It’s titled Smoke and Ashes.