We talk to Abir Mukherjee about his path to publication, colonial India and his Debut Crown shortlisted novel, A Rising Man.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
I’ve been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember – everything from Biblical history onwards. I love exploring the truths behind the stories that have been handed down through the generations and I’ve a particular interest in facts or theories that challenge received wisdom.
How did the initial idea for A Rising Man come about?
I think, in part, it came about as a search for my own identity. My parents came from India and as a British Asian, I felt that understanding the period of British rule in India was important to understanding more about who I was.
Unfortunately, the Raj period isn’t really taught in British schools, at least it wasn’t when I was at school. In fact, I learned more about German history in the nineteen twenties and thirties than I did about British history in the period. My impetus to write this book came from a desire to tell the story of a time and place which I felt neither British nor Indian sources did justice to.
At the same time, I didn’t want to write a history book, but rather a thriller that would tell its own story, set against the backdrop of that historical period. So I came up with the idea of sending a British detective to Calcutta in 1919, who goes to India in search of a fresh start after surviving the Great War. I wanted to look at the period through the eyes of an outsider, who by virtue of his wartime experiences, is as detached from his British compatriots as he is from the Indians.
In terms of theme, I wanted to explore the effect of empire on both the rulers and the ruled, and in particular, what happens when a democratic nation subjugates another, both in terms of the impact on the subjugated peoples, but just as importantly, on the psyche of the people doing the oppressing. As part of my research, I read George Orwell’s Burmese Days and his essay, Shooting an Elephant which was based on his time as a policeman in Burma. Both give an insight into the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system. I think it’s an area that’s been relatively unexamined over the last seventy odd years.
The book is set in colonial Calcutta – what attracted you to that particular place and period?
I find the period of British rule in India a particularly fascinating place and time, unique in many respects and one that’s been overlooked, especially in terms of crime fiction. I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and Britain, and it was a time that saw the best and the worst of both peoples.
I made a conscious decision to set the series in Calcutta, not just because it was the place my parents came from, but it’s a fascinating city, unique in many respects and in the period that the series is set, it was the premier city in Asia, as glamorous and exotic a location as anywhere in the world. But it was a city undergoing immense change and it was the centre of the freedom movement, a hotbed of agitation against British rule. The history of Calcutta is the history of the British in India. Their presence still cries out from its streets, its buildings and in its outlook.
It would have been harder for me to write authentically while setting it in another Indian city. While I know Bombay and Delhi quite well, I don’t speak the language. Also, I don’t think either city had the same hothouse atmosphere that Calcutta had during the period.
Historical research: a pleasure or a chore?
An absolute pleasure.
Sometimes the whole idea for the plot comes out of the research. I knew I wanted to set my second novel, A Necessary Evil, in one of the Indian princely states, so I began reading as much as I could about them. As part of my research, I came across the story of the Begums of Bhopal, Muslim queens who ruled the kingdom of Bhopal for most of the period between 1819 and 1926, despite staunch opposition from powerful neighbours and male claimants. The British East India Company also opposed female rule in Bhopal until the Begums quoted Queen Victoria as their model and inspiration.
As I researched the period, I found that these women, and others like them in other kingdoms, seem to have been very influential and somewhat forgotten by history. Often, while the maharajahs became debauched, it was the maharanis and princesses who became the true keepers of the traditions of the kingdoms. I found this fascinating and wanted to make it a part of my story.
Did your research turn up anything unexpected?
A whole lot of things – some of them quite curious, such as the fact that to this day, the Calcutta police wear white uniforms while almost all other police in India wear khaki – to much more important things, like fingerprints. The world’s first fingerprint bureau was established by the Calcutta Police in 1897, almost five years before Scotland Yard set up its Fingerprint Branch. The two men who developed the system of fingerprint classification, the Henry System, which is still used in most English speaking countries, were two Indians, Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. One was a Muslim, the other was a Hindu. The man who got the credit though was their boss, Edward Henry, who was later knighted and went on to be one of the greatest commissioners of Scotland Yard.
But I suppose the most surprising thing was the mentality of the revolutionaries who were espousing armed insurrection against the British. Some of them seemed to view it in almost chivalrous terms, even going to the lengths of sending letters to people they’d robbed to raise funds, informing them that they viewed the money they’d stolen as a loan, which would earn interest at five per cent per annum and would be repaid when India was free. I surreptitiously took a photo of one such letter on show at the police museum.
Antonia Senior, one of our Crown judges said, ‘Our shortlisted writers, although very different in subject and style, all share a talent for making the past holler to the present.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
While not strictly a parallel, one of the points I wanted to address was a feeling I have that in modern Britain, we tend to believe we are always on the side of the angels, and that as a nation, our actions are generally morally justified. I think that stems from our view of our own history – we dwell on our heroic resistance to Nazism during the Second World War – and yet we tend to forget the darker episodes in our past. I read a statistic recently that said that over fifty percent of Britons still feel the empire was a force for good. I wanted to draw attention to some of the forgotten history in order to challenge those sorts of views.
What was your path to publication?
I suppose it started as a bit of a mid-life crisis. I’m an accountant by profession and had spent the previous twenty years in finance. I was thirty-nine, hurtling towards forty and I thought, maybe there might be more to life than accounting.
Then I saw an interview with Lee Child on BBC Breakfast where he talked about how, at the age of forty, he started writing, and I thought, why not? I’d always wanted to write a book but had never had the confidence, and anyway, it seemed safer than other methods of dealing with my stage of life, like buying a motorbike and piercing my ear.
I started writing A Rising Man in September 2013 and a few weeks later I came across details of the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition, looking for new and unpublished crime writers. The judges were looking for the first five thousand words of a novel, together with a two page synopsis of the whole thing. The only other stipulation was that, in keeping with Harvill Secker’s focus on the best of international crime fiction, there be some ‘international element’ to the submission. By this point I’d already written about ten thousand words, and as the plot was set in Calcutta, it seemed as though what I was writing was tailor made for the competition, so I tidied up the first few chapters, wrote the synopsis and sent off my entry. I really didn’t expect to win.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
That’s a great question. Writing a novel is a long, arduous process. At the beginning you’re driven on 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 deal with 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.
The other thing I’d say is not to show your manuscript to anyone until you’ve finished the first draft. It’s important to get those words onto the page, and I think you can lose impetus by showing your half-finished work to people.
Do you have any favourite historical novelists?
I’m a great fan of historical crime fiction, especially those novels that have a good man upholding a system he doesn’t believe in. To that end, I’m a huge admirer of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, set in Nazi Germany, and Martin Cruz Smith’s detective Arkady Renko, who’s a detective in the Soviet Union.
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 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.
I’ve just handed in the first draft of the third book in the Sam Wyndham series, provisionally titled Smoke and Ashes. It’s set in 1921, the year that Gandhi launched his first large scale non-cooperation movement in India, promising independence within the year. The action is set at the tail end of that year, in the week prior to Christmas 1921, and sees Sam and his junior, Sergeant Banerjee investigate a spate of killings against the backdrop of rising tensions between the British and Indians and the arrival in Calcutta on Christmas Day of Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales.
I’ve also just signed a contract with my publishers, Penguin Random House, for another two Sam Wyndham books, and right now my head is full of ideas for killing people in novel ways!
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
You’ve left the toughest question till the end! I’ve thought about this for about half an hour and couldn’t come up with anything that was any good, but Ian Rankin called it, ‘A thought-provoking rollercoaster’ – which is only four words…or three depending on your view of hyphens.
A Rising Man won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition and is the first in a new series starring Captain Sam Wyndham and ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee. It is shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown. The second in the series, A Necessary Evil, is out now. Find out more about Abir on his website.