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Scottish-Bengali crime writer Abir Mukherjee on his 'cultural schizophrenia'

Insider-outsider perspective: Abir Mukherjee.

Abir Mukherjee uses India’s painful struggle for independence as the backdrop for his Sam Wyndham detective stories.

white 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.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

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 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 Surrender-Not 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)

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.