A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

I grew up surrounded by historical fiction and action novels. Some of my fondest memories are linked to the time spent with words of Henryk Sienkiewicz or Bernard Cornwell as companions.

Abir Mukherjee's A Rising Man instantly caught my attention. The blurb reads:
"Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life or to deal with the ghosts which still haunt him, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.

A senior British official has been murdered, and a note left in his mouth warns the British to quit India: or else. With rising political dissent and the stability of the Raj under threat, Wyndham and his two new colleagues–arrogant Inspector Digby, who can barely conceal his contempt for the natives and British-educated, but Indian-born Sargeant Banerjee, one of the few Indians to be recruited into the new CID–embark on an investigation that will take them from the luxurious parlours of wealthy British traders to the seedy opium dens of the city."

The main protagonist is a man of his time; suffering from post-WWI trauma and grief from losing wife to Spanish Flu, he self-medicates with alcohol and opium, but above all - tries to find his footing in the new country and reality of 1919 Calcutta.
Through his eyes, we meet his co-workers and acquaintances: Inspector Digby - a hard man to like, Sarjeant Banerjee - a man who he will learn to rely on, Mrs Tebbit and the residents of her guesthouse, Sen - a suspected terrorist who embarked on a peaceful journey, and the cream of British society in India.

I enjoyed the mystery part of the story, which took me from the slums of Black Town to the mansions of British prominence in Calcutta, and anywhere in-between. From a personal point of view, I enjoyed following Sam through the investigation - he was not shying from asking uncomfortable questions and prying open doors that very prominent Brits would prefer to keep well shut. With invisible forces trying to manipulate the investigation, and the military's secret Section H looking for "easy win", Sam waded through dangerous territories. The case also forced him to choose between pursuing the truth and risking his newly-acquired career and allowing a man (with known terrorist connections and guilty of such crimes) to take the blame for a murder he most likely did not commit.

I cannot talk about this novel without addressing the setting.
The importance of it comes not from the flowery descriptions, but from the effect it has on the main character:
"Another torrid Bengal night. The humidity was suffocating. You could taste it in the air. Perspiration dripped off my body and drenched the bed. I'd open the window in an attempt to encourage some sort of breeze to circulate, but all it did was allow free access to the mosquitoes Mrs Tebbit insisted didn't exist. (...)"
"I sat back on the bed and, not for the first time, questioned what I was doing out here, in this country where the natives despised you and the climate drove you mad and the water could kill you. (...)"
"I felt a great heaviness. India was depressing me, as it appeared to depress pretty much everyone."
Mukherjee's Calcutta is almost a character in her own right. It's vibrant and scarred; it's burnt by the sun and desires of her inhabitants; it's old and tired, but also young and hopeful; it's dirty, it's loud, it's crowded, it's fascinating, and it seduced me.

If "fiction is the truth inside the lie", as a genre, historical fiction is "the lie within the truth" - it often is inspired by or uses past happenings and historical characters as a background or plot driver. Any fictional events and personage have to be seamlessly blended with the documented facts and cultural mould of the place to be believable and convincing; characters can be a way of distilling notions and events of a particular timeframe. Through Wyndham's eyes, we look at rising tensions between two countries on a backdrop of 1919 surge of self-govern will and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Sam may not have fully bought into the "Little England" mythos and British superiority. However, he still benefits from the Rowlatt Act and operates within the remits of widely accepted casual racism, the most obvious example being calling Sargeant Surendranath Banerjee by his nickname Surrender-Not (given to him since his name was too difficult to pronounce).
There is mistrust between Sam and Surendranath, reflecting the general mood in the clashing societies. As the investigation progresses, Banerjee shows himself as a competent officer, who saves Wyndham on a couple of occasions, and as a man who is willing to throw away his job, because he couldn't support the current state of affairs.
Sam's moral pursuits may not make much of a difference, but his determination to do the right thing in the face of obstacles makes him that much compelling. He even prevents young Sarjeant from quitting as his skills may benefit India in the future.

Despite the great distance that separates us from the remote past, one of the tasks the historical fiction takes on is to create a medium of intimacy with bygone cultures and peoples. Abir Mukherjee succeeded in just that and opened a window to a time long gone, yet one whose echoes and legacies are still loud today.



A Rising Man on Goodreads

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