Interview: Abir Mukherjee, author of the Wyndham & Banerjee series
Abir Mukherjee may be walking around a dripping London madly accusing people of nicking his umbrellas, while he’s really forgotten them at his mum’s place or on the tube, but when it comes to talking about his books, one immediately sees a method in his madness.
I met the 45-year-old Scottish-Bengali writer at a cafe near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Over coffee and cake, he spoke about the merry success of his historical detective series and the sorry state of world affairs. The Wyndham & Banerjee books, set in Raj-era Calcutta of the 1920s, feature English cop Captain Sam Wyndham, and his Indian sidekick, Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee. Or Surrender-not, as his British superiors are wont to call him. Book 4 is done, he is working on Book 5 now.
The stories, steeped in the history of the time, are also rollicking adventure tales that keep the pages turning. So while Sam and Surrender-not are haring around Calcutta solving murders and preventing attacks, the Swadeshi movement gathers force in the background, luminaries like Subhas Chandra Bose and Chittaranjan Das make an appearance, and powerful viceroys and puppet princes hold court.
The first title, A Rising Man, won the CWA Endeavour Dagger for best historical crime novel of 2017, while the third, Smoke and Ashes, was chosen by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 Best Crime & Thriller Novels since 1945.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a good man upholding a bad system. A system that he doesn’t believe in. And I read a lot of fiction, like Gorky Park (set in Moscow, by American author Martin Cruz Smith). There’s also the Scottish writer Philip Kerr, who wrote a series about a detective called Bernie Gunther, who is a good man in Nazi Germany.”
In Abir’s books, the good man doing the Raj’s dirty work is Sam Wyndham, but also Surrender-not, who is constantly grappling with his British job and his Indian conscience. And there’re both him, said Abir.
“They’re just parts of my personality. Sam, even though he’s English, is basically my cynical Scottish side, in terms of his worldview... really depressed, whisky-infused, hopefully not opium-infused forever... and then you have Surendranath, who’s actually more optimistic; he also has my Bengali legs. I wanted to look at that period through the eyes of these two men so that I could see much more of the spectrum.”
The son of Bengalis who immigrated to the UK in the 1960s, Abir grew up in Glasgow, and currently lives in London with his wife and two sons. A chartered accountant by training, and a student of economics from the London School of Economics, he works part-time in finance, and devotes the rest of his time to writing.
“When I turned 40, I decided to cut back on work and do the writing seriously. Though when I told my colleagues that, they said, oh we thought you were already working part-time.”
Mukherjee cracks his quips with a serious face, much like the humour in his books, which pop up in unlikely places. Like when Sam encounters the infamous plaque at Calcutta’s Bengal Club -- ‘No dogs or Indians beyond this point’ -- and Surrender-not remarks, “...the British have achieved certain things in a hundred and fifty years that our civilisation didn’t in over four thousand…We never managed to teach the dogs to read.”
When Mukherjee sat down to write his fourth, he was all set to tackle the classic British crime novel trope -- the locked room mystery. “It was going to be my homage to Agatha Christie... where a body is found in a room which is locked from the inside. But I have been very depressed and angered by everything that’s going on in the world, and in Britain. So I couldn’t just write my little locked room mystery. As an author, and just as a person, I had to write something which spoke to what is happening in the world.”
Mukherjee is distressed with Brexit, with the rhetoric coming from the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and with the rise of populism in many parts of the world, USA and India included. He describes Britain’s messy attempts to leave the European Union rather colourfully. “I think Brexit is like punching yourself in the face repeatedly for three years! And who knows how much longer we’re going to keep punching our face.”
Even so, he pointed out, it’s still “a very British, moderate form of madness. It’s not fascism in the way that we’re seeing in other parts of the world. We’re not setting up internment camps for people who don’t have the right passports or the right pedigree.”
So, Book 4 became something more than a murder in Assam in 1922, with a flashback to London in 1905. “It struck me that the east end of London, which is now full of Bangladeshi Muslims, 100-120 years ago was full of Eastern European Jews. They settled in the same streets that Bangladeshi Muslims now live in, doing the same jobs…. And the British press reacted exactly the same way that they now react to Muslims. You can take a paragraph from a newspaper written in 1905, change the word ‘Jew’ to ‘Muslim’, and the same paragraph you could find in a paper today – about their foreign religions, their funny ways, the ways they are changing Britain. That’s why I wanted to set half of the book in east London, in Sam’s past, when he was a young constable. I wanted to point out a few things. Today, if you put aside the aberration of the Labour Party having their issues with Jews, the fact is, the Jews are integrated. They have their own culture, but they are British. It takes a while to do that but Britain did that.
“Britain has a very decent track record of accepting other people and integrating them. I prefer to be an optimist and remind people of the better sides of their nature. It’s a reminder of who we are, hopefully. And it’s a lot of dead bodies.”
Exactly, why the bodies, when what he’s really interested in taking a relook at history?
Because he’s Scottish, it turns out.
“There are many traditions in crime fiction. There is the Agatha Christie tradition – very English, a country house... then you have the American hard-boiled gumshoe detective, then you have the Scottish tradition, which is the crime novel as social commentary, what we call tartan noir. It was started by William Mcilvanney in the 1970s. He wrote a book called Laidlaw, which was ostensibly a crime novel, but on chapter 1 you know what the crime is and who did it. The rest of the book is really about the city of Glasgow, its people and its problems. He was the inspiration for people like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid... that’s the tradition I grew up in. So when it comes to issues that I want to talk about, to me it’s natural to write a crime novel about it.”
Read more: The gore conundrum
For the rest of the series, Abir has a path in mind, he wants to get to the Bengal Famine of 1943, which is about 20 years from where the story stands now.
“People in this country (the UK) don’t know that at a time when the Holocaust was happening in Europe, three million people were dying in India, of a man-made famine done on the watch of the British. And the man we are taught to venerate in this country (Winston Churchill) could be held at least partially responsible for this. It’s airbrushed from British history. Yet my father would remember skeletons walking into the streets of Calcutta and dying. So it happened. This was my urge to write. My intention was to essentially tell the stories that the British don’t tell. I could write a history book, but no one would read it. If you want to reach people, you have to write crime novels. You’ve got to get them subtly, you know,” he grinned, before beginning to search frantically for his umbrella.
One wonders who he pinned the blame on this time.
(Death in the East will be published in November by Penguin Random House India)
Samhita Chakrabortyis an independent journalist.