Friday, 12 January 2018

BOOK CLUB: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

“Calcutta ... Our Star in the East. We’d built this city ... where previously there had only been jungle and thatch. We’d paid our price in blood and now, we proclaimed, Calcutta was a British city. Five minutes here would tell you it was no such thing. But that didn’t mean it was Indian.”

A Rising Man is grounded in a very specific time and place: Calcutta, 1919. This is a time, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when the “Quit India” movement was beginning to gain momentum. When calls for violent uprising were clashing with Gandhi’s approach of non-violent noncooperation. When the British were doubling down on their control with an oppressive set of laws called the Rowlatt Acts.

And in the midst of this, a senior British civil servant is found murdered in the ‘wrong’ part of town, with piece of paper stuffed in his mouth inscribed with a subversive slogan.

A Rising Man is the first book in a planned series and Mukerjee introduces two main characters: Captain Sam Wyndham, scarred from his experiences in the trenches and the death of his wife, and newly arrived in India and Detective Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, known (because British tongues can’t manage anything too complicated) as Surrender-Not.

Here Gillian E Hamer, JJ Marsh and Catriona Troth talk about how the book affected them. Please join in in the comments section below!

How do these two characters work as a pairing? And what do you think of Mukherjee’s choice to make the outsider, Sam, his point of view character?

(GEH) I loved both characters! In a kind of Morse and Lewis vibe they worked off each other really well, with touches of humour and subtle sarcasm as they grew to know each other. Both were professional, and yet the reader knew early on that Banerjee was always going to be the unsung hero that saved the day. I think Wyndham knew that Banerjee was going to be a life-long partner, and that his local knowledge and expertise would always make an outsider’s job easier.

I think having Wyndham as the central character worked really well because we saw Calcutta through his eyes, and the highs and lows of the city resonated with us from his British perspective which we understand as Westerners ourselves.

(JJ) They are the classic team. Initially awkward, rubbing each other up the wrong way on occasion but both have much to offer and by dint of mutual respect - one assumed, one earned - they achieve a harmony and understanding I would happily read and enjoy as it develops.

Sam as POV is vital to my own appreciation of this book and this time. He's cognisant but not comfortable with the assumption of British superiority and challenges the status quo as who might have been a 'modern man' for the times.

(CT) I fell in love with both of these characters at first sight, and that affection has only deepened with reading the second book in the series (A Necessary Evil). Surrender-not's wry sense of humour and his patient tolerance of Sam is irresistible. He's one of those apparently secondary characters that actually give the book its heart and soul.

I think that Mukherjee's choice of Sam as the point of view character firstly gives him an 'all access pass' that simply wouldn't be possible for Surrender-not, given the restriction imposed by social hierarchies. Sam will also notice things that a local would simply take for granted, which gives us a eyes and ears in this unfamiliar world.

Mukherjee takes you down into the streets of Calcutta, from the stinking gullees of Black Town and the opium dens of Tiretta Bazaar, to the poky guesthouses for the itinerant British, where “the mores of Bengal were exported to the heat of Bengal,” the maroon-painted colonial neo-classic buildings of the Imperial civil service and the exclusive clubs of the rich.

Does Mukherjee successfully evoke Calcutta in the early 20th C for you? Any descriptions that particularly strike you?

(GEH) Yes, I thought the sense of location was excellent. I loved how we discovered the city through an outsider’s eyes as Wyndham was clearly unprepared for Calcutta. I thought it was a very clever tool to use Annie Grant as our guide to the city, and I particularly liked the descriptions of the glitz and glamour of the bars and hotels they frequented being next door to some of the poorest slums. The contrast is meant to shock us and it does. And yet her explanation of how these stark differences were normal to the locals and how the different colours and castes were treated within the complicated layers of society was well researched by the author but came across very naturally.

(JJ) 100%. Not that I'd know, but his sense of alienation, endangerment and sheer confusion at this indescribable city thrusts the reader right into the middle of the heat, traffic and politics. The opium den is a curtain drawn back on a twilight environment, but I found dinners at the boarding house grimly familiar and entertaining in a gritted-teeth fashion.

(CT) I thought the detail was extraordinary, without ever being heavy handed. I had a film playing in my head the whole time I was reading - in full technicolour and surround-sound.

This is a world of strict hierarchies, where everyone is kept firmly in their place. How did Mukherjee convey the manners of the period?

(GEH) I may have touched on this a little in the previous answer as Annie Grant was a very clever character as she saw things from both sides, and understood how these barriers worked. She was mixed race and gave a no nonsense account of how it had become accepted that English men brought over to run the country would consort with local women, but how the children of those unions were never fully accepted into society. The author showed through Annie his real feelings about society at that time, but didn’t shy away from the brutal manner of the period in either tone or language. We also saw the complex hierarchies of the police and military and who has the power and makes the decisions. I found this extremely interesting and liked the fact that the central characters did their best to stay true to their values.

(JJ) That is one element of the book which made me continually uncomfortable. The privilege and entitlement of the British colonials made my toes curl, even with the historical perspective. Mukherjee uses his brush lightly, embedding the appalling injustice and arrogance as part of the scenery. The caste system also has a walk-on role, but is still significant. I found the social strictures artificial and outdated yet evidently functional.

(CT) I agree with Jill that it can make for very uncomfortable reading - and so it should! To give just one excruciating example, Surrender-not  - a police sergeant - is forced to wait outside a club when Sam goes inside to interview someone because of a sign that declares ‘No dogs or Indians beyond this point.'

We tend to view this period from the point of view of the British Raj (through stories such as The Far Pavilions or The Jewel in the Crown). Was there anything about the different slant that Mukherjee brings to the story that surprised you or made you change your view of the British role in India?

(GEH) Yes, you’re right. Anything I’ve read or watched on TV has always been from an English perspective, along with a rallying cry for the might of the empire! Here the author makes you think about the real people of India, who watched as their city exploded into a kind of London suburb before their eyes. Some, like Banerjee, were able to find a foothold within the new regime, whereas many were simply left behind and forgotten. I think the treatment of these people by the British, particularly the police and military, was the most shocking for me.

(JJ) The articulate, wholly justified and determined rebellion against British rule from a complex and divided society is something I appreciated learning more about, especially the nuances of political and geographical reactions. Mukherjee keeps our attention on the plot narrative while providing an informed and opposite-of-airbrushed context. Learning by stealth.

(CT) I knew a little bit about the later stages of India's struggle for independence, but this early period was new territory for me. The sheer brutality used in suppressing the Free India movement  and the contempt shown for the legitimate aspirations of the Indian people was a sharp jolt to the conscience.

For all the seriousness of the underlying themes, A Rising Man is rich with humour (particularly in the relationship between Sam and Surrender-not). What was your favourite moment of humour?

(GEH)   I think it was the subtle sarcasm and the way Banerjee gently mocked Wyndham without him even sometimes being aware he was the centre of attention. Along with the mutual respect, I liked the fact there was often a glint in the eye of one or other of the characters. One moment that sticks in my mind was how Banerjee tried to protect his boss when they were forced to visit the local brothel in the course of their enquiries.

(JJ) Sam and Surrender-Not have so many whipsmart interactions but the one that stuck with me is when Surrender-Not explains his nickname. It's a moment which encapsulates the whole book for me. Intelligence, underestimation, gentle criticism, humour and yet still the nickname sticks.

(CT) There is such a warm humour in the interaction between Sam and Surrender-not that it's hard to pick out individual moments. Also, it's a while since I read A Rising Man, and it was a library copy, so I can't refer back! I do know that my absolutely favourite interaction between Sam and Surrender-not came in A Necessary Evil. (You can read about it in my interview with Abir Mukherjee.)

Is Mukerjee successful in blending the Crime and Historical Fiction genres? Is Crime Fiction a good way of exploring a less-well-known time and place like this?

(GEH) I thought it was a perfect blend to be honest, but then I am a fan of mixed genre books – particularly crime and historical which I’ve written myself. You have the excitement of the murder enquiry, and yet learn so much about the period, and in this case the country, where the story is located. It adds another level of interest for me, as I love reading both genres anyway. This is the first book I’ve read in the series, or by this author in fact, but I’m already looking forward to rejoining Sam and Banerjee on another case in the future.

(JJ) This blend is a new one for me and I confess I tend to study periods of history and politics without the distraction of narrative. However, I found this book a compelling read for the tension of plot and drama, whilst absorbing the hintergrund as think-about-that-later. That said, the time and place, not to mention characters, have stuck in my mind far more powerfully than the story. I'll be reading much more Mukherjee in future.

(CT) I think it works extremely well. What better way to examine any society than through the often cynical eyes of a policemen? And having the main plot of the book revolve around solving a crime distracts us from the fact that we are actually absorbing a fascinating history lesson!

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