In Conversation Books

‘Subtext makes a good book’: Abir Mukherjee

Go-between: More forgiving of both cultures.   | Photo Credit: Nick Tucker

Abir Mukherjee is the author of the acclaimed Wyndham series of crime novels, the first of which, A Rising Man, won the 2017 CWA Daggers award for best historical crime novel. The latest in the series, Smoke and Ashes, is just out. Set in the last few decades of the British Raj, the books see British detective Samuel Wyndham team up with Surendranath “Surrender-not” Banerjee to solve murder cases in 1920s’ Calcutta, upholding the law even as he questions the ethics behind what he’s doing. The son of Indian immigrants, Mukherjee grew up in Glasgow, but now lives in London with his wife and two sons, where we met up for a chat. Excerpts:

Much of the subtext in the books involves the impact of Empire on India, and the process of Independence. What made you tackle that?

Part of what I want to do is discover what it was about both these peoples that made such a momentous freedom struggle possible. Say what you want, but there has to be something good in both societies that allowed a phenomenon like Gandhian protest to work more or less peacefully. But I also want to write because neither what is taught here nor in India chimes with what I feel in my bones, and what I know from my interactions with both British and Indian people as the truth. The fact is that the history is much more complicated.

Do you think crime novels lend themselves better to exploring these nuances?

Absolutely! I chose to write a thriller instead of a history book because I wanted people to actually read it (laughs). I wanted to explore a period in history which we don’t understand — or have wilfully misunderstood. And a detective is great for that; he can access all levels of society, dealing with princes and prostitutes and everyone in between, making him a perfect medium for social commentary.

How can popular fiction authors tackle these issues?

The trick is not to preach — especially in this country. The story I’ve always wanted to tell is of the Bengal famine of 1943. I can’t do that yet for many reasons. But I think it’s a burning issue which goes to the heart of who we are as a British nation. If we cannot accept that we are flawed and fallible then we are lying to ourselves.

Subtext is key: the first book is set in the week of Jallianwallah Bagh, but the action takes place in Calcutta. So the history is there and you can see it, but it’s not the story. The fact that Surendranath, despite being more intelligent, better educated, and richer than Sam is still second to him because of his skin colour tells the important stuff. You need to give people a great story, but it’s what you do with the subtext that makes a good book.

You’re at work on your fourth novel in the series, and you’ve signed a contract for a further fifth. Can we assume that book about 1943 isn’t as far away as you once thought it was?

Perversely, 1943 feel feels further away now than it did five years ago. What I really want to do now is write a book about the immigrant experience of my parents, like Man Called Ove. It’s timely, given it’s about how this country deals with foreigners.

Tell us more about Wyndham and Banerjee — what were the main inspirations behind the two men?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a good man upholding a corrupt system, and the toll that it takes. For me, Burmese Days (by Orwell) is the quintessential book of Empire because that’s the one that looks at what it was really like if you were a small colonial official who had a brain and used it. Both of them are parts of me.

Wyndham’s dry humour is his way of dealing with what’s around him, and that’s the acerbic, gallows humour that I grew up with. He channels that questioning, that hypocrisy and that scepticism that comes from being between two different cultures.

Banerjee not only has my Bengali chicken legs, he has that optimism, the side that believes things can improve... As I grow older, Wyndham grows and Banerjee decreases unfortunately, but there you have it (laughs).

The city of Calcutta also acts as a major character in your books. Why did you choose to set the books there?

Calcutta is very different to anywhere else I’ve been — where else are you going to get a riot because the Book Fair has ended a day early? The level of cultural discourse there is like nowhere else on earth: and yet there’s tremendous poverty, and a tremendous lackadaisical attitude towards things.

It’s very hard to put it in words — I have a romantic view of Kolkata which lasts for approximately three minutes after I land there. But it’s special to me because there are certain parts of me that only fit there, and I have no idea why that is.

At the time of the books, in 1919, it was the richest city in Asia — and to me it will always be one of the greatest cities in the world.

It can be very easy to use history as a superficial layer, which is something you’ve managed to avoid. How was the research process? And how do books like yours challenge popular perceptions of the past?

I don’t write with confidence, but what I do have confidence in is my research — I love it. I think being between the two cultures means I’m more forgiving of both. And that can help you in a way because you aren’t painting in absolutes, but in grey. It also means you get shot down by fringes on both sides, but the vast majority of readers want to be challenged.

About that lack of perspective — obviously Brexit is looming over our heads, but even before the Referendum you had a YouGov poll where 59% of people said they believed the Empire was a force for good. Of course they think that — that’s the only side of the story that we tell in this country. It’s best if we don’t look in Pandora’s box — just say it was all good and we gave them the Railways.

I’ve got no time for people in India who think things were better under the British, which is just mental. At the same time it did give us things. You and I are having this conversation now in London because of Empire and how it’s affected our lives.

My father came to this country in the 60s when there was huge amounts of racism — but he stayed because this country gave opportunities that he would never have had back home.

If there’s a problem with Britain, it’s to do with class and the access to opportunities, not race.

The interviewer is an independent journalist who writes on art, culture, and politics.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 3:07:34 PM |

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