A Rising Man

A Rising Man

Abir Mukherjee, Harvell Secker, London, 2016

Reviewed by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

I read A Rising Man close on the heels of more than half a dozen books on history and philosophy. The books were part of an exercise on research analysis assigned to my students at the Post-Graduate Course on Industrial design. The students had varying reactions to the set of readings. However, despite the fact that I was re-reading them, I found the ideas they set forth so compelling that, contrary to my usual practice, I ignored the piles of bought (and borrowed) un-read fiction lying around at home.

It was only when I was done with my readings that I picked up A Rising Man as a break from more strenuous mental activity, a trifle prejudiced by the blurb on the back cover. The indictment of the colonial experiment set out in The Case for India[1], Hind Swaraj[2], Being Different[3] and An Era of Darkness[4], among others, had made me even less than normally inclined to read what I thought was yet another one of the interminable books on the British Raj, with a white protagonist sniffing at stereotypical depictions of ‘the natives’.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. A Rising Man is many things, and certainly not stereotypical.

Set in Calcutta after the First World War, the book starts with a murder on the very first page. The historical detail is impeccable, the dialogues are witty and unexpected, the characterisation is spot-on, the plot is plausible, and the pace is swift. And it is precisely because Captain Sam Wyndham is white, new to Calcutta and to India that he gets away with scoffing at the pomposity of the British, either silently or outright. With an irreverent point of view about most things, architecture included—nothing is spared, the Government House, Victoria Memorial, Writers’ Building—this is no earnest do-gooder but a detective who can elicit a smile and think on his feet. Despite a British penchant for the understatement, his first visit to India brings ‘more than a degree of unease’ at the attitude of the typical ‘sons of the empire’. Reflections on how colonialism can be used to justify anything, even the most barbaric actions, make this book more than just a well-written crime thriller. After being treated to so many stereotypes of Indians in so many books and films, it is quite a treat to meet with such deft parodies of the typical British cast that peopled their Empire.

And the best lines are not reserved just for the hero. The Indians give back whenever they can, physically and verbally. They have both intelligence and spirit. My favourite piece of dialogue is the response by Sergeant Banerjee, Wyndham’s subordinate, to the obnoxious sign at the entrance to the Bengal Club – ‘No Dogs Or Indians Beyond This Point’.

‘Don’t worry, sir’, he said. ‘We Indians know our place. Besides, the British have achieved certain things in a hundred and fifty years that our civilization didn’t in over four thousand”… ‘Such as’? I asked. Banerjee’s lips contorted in a thin smile. ‘Well, we never managed to teach the dogs to read.’[5]

None of the characters are however, completely black and white; generally the villains too, seem to have a redeeming feature or two. And by making at least one of them not as brutal or biased as the majority, Mukherjee shows that even in a dark time, some of the British were human. There’s even a rather nice map of Calcutta in the beginning of the book. Architecture, history, humour and crime.

What more could one ask for!

[1] William James Durant, first published 1930, republished by Strand Book Stall 2007

[2] M.K. Gandhi, first published 1909

[3] Rajiv Malhotra, Harper Collins 2011

[4] Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Books 2016

[5] p. 87


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