Wednesday, 8 February 2017

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Calcutta ... Our Star in the East. We’d built this city ... where previously there had only been 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.”

A Rising Man is set in Calcutta in 1919. This is a time, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when the “Quit India” movement was beginning to gain momentum. When calls for violent uprising were clashing with Gandhi’s approach of non-violent noncooperation. When the British were doubling down on their control with an oppressive set of laws called the Rowlatt Acts.

And in the midst of this, a senior British civil servant is found murdered in the ‘wrong’ part of town, with piece of paper stuffed in his mouth inscribed with a subversive slogan.

Like Leye Adenle in Easy Motion Tourist, Mukherjee has chosen an outsider to tell the story. Captain Sam Wyndham, scarred from his experiences in the trenches and the death of his wife, and newly arrived in India, doesn’t carry the same baggage at the old Imperial hands (though he is conscious of how easy it is to start absorbing their prejudices). He is still looking at things with a relatively open mind, seeing things that Calcutta residents – both British and Indian – might take for granted.

Every good fictional detective needs a sidekick, and Wyndham’s is Detective Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, known (because British tongues can’t manage anything too complicated) as Surrender-Not. English educated, intelligent and articulate, he is caught between ubiquitous Imperial contempt for ‘natives’ and his family’s disapproval of his working for British rule as part of the police force.

Thus the scene is set for an investigation continually hampered both by political infighting between civilian and military authorities, and by the distorting lens of colonialism and prejudice. What was a British civil servant doing outside a brothel in ‘Black Town’? Is his death really the work of terrorists and revolutionaries? And will Wyndham get to the truth before the military exercise their own brand of summary justice?

Mukherjee takes you down into the streets of Calcutta, from the stinking gullees of Black Town and the opium dens of Tiretta Bazaar, to the poky guesthouses for the itinerant British, where “the mores of Bournemouth were exported to the heat of Bengal,” the maroon-painted colonial neo-classical buildings of the Imperial civil service and the exclusive clubs of the rich, mini Blenheim Palaces sporting signs that declare ‘No dogs or Indians beyond this point.’ We hear the ‘cacophony of dogs, crows and cockerels’ that make up Calcutta’s dawn chorus. And we absorb the rigidly hierarchical attitudes that assign everyone a place and make sure they stay there.

This novel, shortlisted for the 2017 Jhalak Prize for fiction, will teach you a lot about British Imperialism. But it is also a damn fine thriller that keeps you turning the pages right to the very end. And, in Wyndham and Banerjee, sets up a promising partnership for future adventures.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Finding Takri by Palo Stickland, Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, Devil’s Porridge by Chris Longmuir

Avoid if you dislike: Eye-opening history lessons with your crime fiction

Perfect Accompaniment: Hilsa and a glass of whisky

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

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