This is the second of Historia’s interviews with writers shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Crown awards. Abir Mukherjee’s Smoke and Ashes, set in India in 1921, was listed in the Sunday Times list of 100 Best Crime novels since 1945 and is shortlisted for the HWA Gold Crown Award.
Smoke and Ashes is your third Wyndham & Banerjee novel; what’s different about this one?
This is definitely the paciest, most thriller-like novel in the series so far. It’s 1921 and Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force. He finds himself in a tight spot when he stumbles across a corpse in an opium den. When he then comes across a second body bearing the same injuries, Wyndham is convinced that there’s a deranged killer on the loose. However, revealing his presence in the opium den could cost him his career, and what he doesn’t realise is that there are bigger games afoot.
The action is set against Gandhi’s non-violent freedom struggle of 1921, which transformed the freedom movement from a talking shop of upper middle-class intelligentsia in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi, into a national mass movement of farmers and peasants. It saw a nationwide general strike which lasted for over twelve months and rocked the British administration to its core.
Into that maelstrom, the British Government decided to send Edward, the Prince of Wales, to India on a goodwill mission, which was a shame for both him (he hated Indians) and for the Indians, who received him either with apathy or, on occasion, full scale riots.
In the book Wyndham meets not only the prince, but also some of the greats of the Indian freedom struggle, such as CR Das and Subhash Chandra Bose, men who even now are revered in India, but whom very few British people have heard of.
How did the idea for Smoke and Ashes come about?
I got the idea for the book while sitting on the bus, reading my Twitter feed. I came across a tweet which mentioned certain actions of the British military in India, which had been kept hidden for almost eighty years. Immediately I knew I wanted to write about it.
Research: is it a pleasure or a chore?
It’s an absolute pleasure. I don’t think anyone who writes historical fiction would do so if they weren’t a little bit fixated on researching their particular period in history.
Did your research for Smoke and Ashes turn up anything unexpected?
Just how close the British administration in India came to collapse in 1921. The authorities were terrified by Gandhi’s mobilisation of the masses in peaceful protest. They had never encountered a threat like it, and never truly came to grips with it. The events of 1921 really marked the beginning of the end of British rule in India. After that, independence was just no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
Were you conscious of any modern-day parallels when writing the book?
The year-long protest saw many Indian members of the bureaucracy, the police, army and other government services resign their positions. Many people lost their livelihoods, and their families were forced into penury. It was very much a war of attrition between the authorities and the strikers. As such, it reminded me a lot of the miners strike of 1984–85 and the hardship faced by mining communities in the face of government hostility.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Writing a novel is a long, arduous process. At the beginning you’re driven forward by the excitement of putting pen to paper and the novelty of it all. However, if you’re like me, that novelty wears off after the first twenty thousand odd words, and you find yourself having to do the hard work of writing the next sixty to a hundred thousand words, while having to do the day job and dealing with all the pressures of life. At the same time, there’s a constant niggling at the back of your head as to whether what you’re writing is any good.
My advice would be to keep up that slog, try and find some time each day to write – even if it’s just two or three hundred words – otherwise it’s very easy to let things slip.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
I think the best novels are those that capture our imagination so that we feel like we’re almost living the story. To that end, a good historical novel can transport the reader to the time and place where the book is set. It can help history come alive for the reader by personalising it.
What’s more, in terms of numbers, there are many people who might balk at reading non-fiction history but who’d happily read historical fiction for the action and adventure.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
Book four in the series, Death In the East, is launching on 14 November. It follows on immediately from the events of Smoke and Ashes and sees Wyndham go off to an ashram in Assam in search of a cure for his opium addiction. However it’s also a bit of a departure for me, because part of it is also set in Sam’s past, among the Jewish immigrants in the East End of London in 1905.
The book began as my tribute to Agatha Christie. I wanted to write my version of the classic locked-room mystery, but as I was writing, I became troubled by the current situation in the UK, especially the growth of anger and extremism and the erosion of tolerance and decency. I find this fear and intolerance hard to reconcile with the Britain I know and love.
Suddenly, while writing a book set in India, I felt I needed to write something which reflected my Britain: one that is far from perfect, but one which still stood up to the likes of Oswald Mosley and rejected Enoch Powell. I wanted to remind people what history shows us: that when intolerance and hatred raise their heads, the vast majority of decent British people take a stand against it.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
That’s a tough one. I might cop out and just quote C J Sansom, who called it “Mukherjee’s best book yet.”
Okay, so that’s four words, but it’ll do, won’t it?