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The Degradations of Empire – Los Angeles Review of Books

AT THE BEGINNING of Abir Mukherjee’s A Necessary Evil, the second installment in his historical crime series, narrator Captain Sam Wyndham and his Indian colleague Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee are fresh off the politically explosive unraveling of a British senior official’s murder in 1919 Calcutta (A Rising Man). Without a moment’s respite, they dispatch themselves to the remote and wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore to investigate another murder — this time, the assassination of Prince Adhir, heir to the Maharaja’s throne. Wyndham and Banerjee arrive at the Sambalpore train station and are promptly led out of their transport to the court residency, “a waiting Austin that looked like it might have been the oldest car in India,” Wyndham observes. “A faded Union Jack hung limply from a metal rod on the bonnet. A native driver stood beside it, polishing the headlights with a grimy rag.”

Such potent object lessons in the degradations of empire are all over Mukherjee’s novels, if you know where to look for them. In A Rising Man, Wyndham strolls across a “pristine lawn” toward the “White Town” “mansion” of British Police Commissioner Lord Taggart where “the scent of English flowers hung in the air. Roses and foxgloves, truly England in a corner of a foreign field, though more than just a corner, an acre or two at least.” Or, again from A Necessary Evil, Wyndham scrutinizes the British flag being lowered within the gates of the residency compound, “[its] rusted metal pulley creaking as [a native] pulled on the halyard rope. As for the flag itself, the thing had more holes than a golf course.”

These sly and sharp-eyed observations of Wyndham’s are no accident. A former Scotland Yard detective, devastated widower, and traumatized veteran of World War I who ships off to join the Bengal Imperial Police Force in Calcutta in search of a fresh start, Wyndham is thoroughly disillusioned with, and at times outright embittered by, the spoils of empire both at home and abroad. “[T]he days were empty,” Wyndham tells us at the beginning of A Rising Man, “and the nights populated by the cries of the dead, which nothing could extinguish.” Wyndham is also an opium addict, pursuing a regimen of self-medication throughout both of Mukherjee’s novels in spite of the increasing risk it poses to his life and career. Yet where another author might seem to be checking hard-boiled boxes, Wyndham’s addiction to a drug so historically vital to the flawed imperial project becomes, in Mukherjee’s books, not only a reliable psychological device for broadening Wyndham’s character, but also a source of nail-biting suspense.

In A Necessary Evil, Wyndham conceals a “travelling opium kit” “with a silver lock in the shape of a dragon’s head” in his luggage on the train between Calcutta and Sambalpore. “It was a compromising possession for a police officer,” Wyndham tells us, “even one who was technically on holiday […] I realised then that I’d packed it because I couldn’t bear to be parted from it. The recognition hit me like a punch in the face.” This becomes one of many suspenseful pleasures in A Necessary Evil. Captain Wyndham’s opium case goes on to become a certified gun-on-the-mantelpiece, never failing to remind us on the one hand of Wyndham’s mastering need, on the other the fragility of British “moral superiority” in India. When it’s finally discovered, the moment disarms, yet never in the way you’d think.

Mukherjee is adept at multifaceted, slow-burn plot manipulations. Indeed, another component that sets the Sam Wyndham novels apart from their historical crime counterparts is their stately, careful pacing. Both novels are packed with incident and intrigue — terrorists are shown to be reasonable humanitarians; assassinations plots are launched against motorcades, funeral processions, and tiger-hunting parties on elephant back; the Imperial Police Force buckles beneath the wear-and-tear of endemic corruption — yet never in a way that sacrifices historical verisimilitude or character development for the sake of a thrill. This is especially true of A Necessary Evil, the detective novel’s answer to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. (Not to mention J. G. Farrell’s Troubles, the first book in Farrell’s “empire trilogy,” followed by the British-occupied India sagas The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip, to which Mukherjee’s books so far bear more than a passing resemblance.) All in all, A Necessary Evil is a less gripping novel than its sinuous predecessor, but damn if it doesn’t do atmosphere well.

While A Rising Man riffs on the political thriller, A Necessary Evil has a Bengal Gothic vibe. After Wyndham and Banerjee step fatefully onto the decrepit floorboards of that “waiting Austin” that will ferry them into the heart of Sambalpore where British imperial law holds no sway, they’re privy to a dynasty in opulent decline. Sambalpore’s Maharaja, “grey-haired and crumpled in a Savile Row suit and a starched white shirt whose collar hung loosely round his thin neck like a noose waiting to be tightened,” presides over a viper’s pit of concubines, eunuchs, and political climbers, with only his wastrel bon vivant of a son, Prince Punit, to continue his legacy. The cloistered whispering of the harem, infected by the sinister, Iago-like figure of the Maharaja’s spiritual advisor, Dewan, disguises a hunger too potent to name. Suspects in the assassination of the Maharaja’s sons are publicly executed by elephants bedecked with “golden cuffs around [their] ankles, each studded with three short blades.” The principal plot line of A Necessary Evil has Wyndham and Banerjee navigating these buffets of ancestral gloom to get to the bottom of who among the Maharaja’s advisors and subjects orchestrated the death of Prince Adhir and why — and who among them may be next. Spoiler alert: It has something to do with the path to the throne.

But A Necessary Evil offers more than castle intrigue. At its heart, the novel and its prequel, A Rising Man, take the buddy-cop formula and turn it on its head in endless rotations. The never-sentimental and always-evolving relationship between Captain Wyndham and Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, “one of the finest new additions to his Majesty’s Imperial Police Force and the first Indian to post in the top three in the entrance examinations,” as his presence is tellingly over-explained by British toady Digby in A Rising Man, is what makes the books work as well as they do. Banerjee, “a thin, fine-featured little chap,” “earnest and full of nerves” with “slick, black hair parted neatly on one side and round, steel-framed spectacles [that] gave him a bookish air, more poet than policeman,” is the perfect foil to Wyndham’s hard-bitten, hard-drinking, and often over-confident man of action. This is particularly true of the circumstances — and there are many over the course of both books — in which Wyndham and Banerjee sideline their teamwork as policemen to come into confrontation over the forces that govern their lives: Banerjee’s reticence to stay on with CID after the British massacre of peaceful Indian protesters in A Rising Man; Wyndham’s trampling of devout, if regressive Hindi social mores in A Necessary Evil. After Banerjee saves Wyndham’s life in a marvelous action set piece in A Rising Man, he reflects,

I felt embarrassed. I was indebted to him, but somehow found it hard to say “thank you.” That was the thing about India. It’s difficult for an Englishman to thank an Indian. Of course, it’s easy enough to thank them when they do something menial, like fetch a drink or clean your boots, but when it comes to more important matters, such as when one of them saves your life, it’s different. The thought left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Although that bitterness leaves Wyndham sufficiently by the end of A Rising Man that at the beginning of A Necessary Evil he and Banerjee are sharing an apartment in Calcutta in an adorable platonic life-partner arrangement that recalls the best of Riggs and Murtaugh, they continue to clash and reveal one another, becoming a sort of best-case microcosm of colonial Indian-British relations. It’s a smart and expedient move on Mukherjee’s part toward illuminating the project central to both books (apart from just crafting a rip-roaring mystery): namely, dissecting the complex dynamic between oppressor and oppressed, which all too often cuts both ways. When Wyndham and, by extension, the British presence in India degrade the humanity of Indians, they are also, it turns out, degrading their own — a deadfall of imperialism that Mukherjee shows with uncommon compassion.

That isn’t to say Mukherjee’s novels are flawless. Certain figurative tics in the writing annoy (“next to the princes he appeared as drab as a pigeon in a field full of peacocks”) and the denouements of both books attain a kind of unfocused frenzy with the characters running here, now there. But they do paint a dynamic portrait of the toxic rise and decline of empire without ever being didactic about it, not to mention the fact that both books end on a note of melancholy irresolution, a bracing and effective turn in a genre prone to gift-wrapped ironies. As Mukherjee told The Asian Writer in an interview in 2016,

Really though, [A Rising Man] is about the different cultures in India during the period and the impact of colonialism on both the rulers and the ruled. In particular I wanted to understand 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. I think the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system were immense and it’s something that’s been relatively unexamined.

Mukherjee’s Captain Wyndham is, in the modern parlance, as “woke” as any white man in early 20th-century India could reasonably hope to be. He comes to see Sergeant Banerjee, more or less, as an equal; opens himself up to the sociopolitical epiphanies of a convicted terrorist; and falls for a beautiful Anglo-Indian woman, the elusive Ms. Grant, one of the only characters apart from Banerjee to carry over from A Rising Man to A Necessary Evil. From the cars to the flowers to the moth-eaten flags, Wyndham sees empire for the lie that it is. This makes him an intriguing embodiment of the intricacies and hypocrisies of the period — especially in Mukherjee’s hands, a Scottish-born writer of Indian descent.

Yet Mukherjee is always careful to recognize the limitations of Wyndham’s understanding and his empathy as a white man in India; no matter how doggedly Wyndham tries to see past his own bias and the dictum of British “moral superiority,” he still falls short in subtle ways. Just after Banerjee saves Wyndham’s life in A Rising Man, Wyndham wakes up in his boardinghouse bed to “what’s euphemistically called birdsong. It was more of a bloody racket.” Wyndham notes,

nine parts screeching to one part singing. In England the dawn chorus is genteel and melodious and inspires poets to wax lyrical about sparrows and larks ascending […] Things are different in Calcutta. There are no larks here, just big, fat greasy crows that start squawking at first light and go on for hours without a break. Nobody will ever write poetry about them.

That, like so much else of what Wyndham observes about India and its denizens, is a matter of perspective. As a British man in India, Wyndham feels he’s imprisoned. What hasn’t occurred to Wyndham yet is that, sometimes, the bars face in.

¤

Adrian Van Young is the author of The Man Who Noticed Everything and Shadows in Summerland.

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