A Necessary Evil

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Necessary Evil, Abir MukherjeeWritten by Abir Mukherjee — Reading this fast-paced police procedural is like a trip back in time to the British Raj, mid-1920. Calcutta-based Imperial Police Force Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee – whom Wyndham insists on calling Surrender-not – find themselves embroiled in a complicated and politically tricky investigation.

An old school acquaintance of the Sergeant’s, Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore, is visiting Calcutta to attend the formation of a Chamber of Princes, another in His Majesty’s Government’s urgent stratagems to dampen the population’s growing sentiment supporting Home Rule. While Wyndham and Banerjee are riding in a car with the Prince, he tells them he’s received death threats back home in the form of anonymous notes. Practically on cue, a man dressed in the saffron robes of a Hindu priest steps out and shoots him dead. The two policemen investigate and find the attacker, who commits suicide rather than be taken.

Further steps in the investigation, it seems, will have to take place in Sambalpore, but as one of the larger and more important Princely States, Sambalpore is administered under the auspices of the Maharajah, not the colonial government. The Sergeant’s acquaintanceship with the prince provides an excuse for the pair of them to go to Sambalpore for the funeral and – strictly unofficially, of course – see what they can find out.

In an author’s note Mukherjee says there was an actual princely state of Sambalpur southwest of Calcutta, with a several thousand-year history. It was notable as a place where both diamonds and coal were prevalent, commodities that figure in the plot. Carbon in its various forms has made the fictional Maharaja of Sambalpore the fifth richest man in India, enabling the lavish lifestyle Wyndham and Surrender-not enjoy as his guests.

Sambalpore is also a center of the worship of Lord Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu. The English word juggernaut, which refers to a merciless and unstoppable force, derives from the temple cars used in worshiping Jagannath and metaphorically in this novel, to the forces that ally to secure Sambalpore’s future.

As a first-person narrator, Wyndham is perceptive and charming. At times he plays his clueless Englishman card, as in the sobriquet for his sergeant. He good-naturedly criticises their peon for not managing to master English, despite years of service, never turning that linguistic mirror on himself. The only issue he seems unable to get past is the idea of an Englishwoman involved with an Indian man. Meanwhile, he’s adopted some local customs quite whole-heartedly, including the rituals and pleasures of opium-smoking.

Wyndham’s cultural blind spots are a clever narrative device for Mukherjee, who uses them to inform us about cultural, political, and religious matters that impinge on the investigation. An example is the impossibility of the men’s interviewing the Maharaja’s wives or concubines. Here Wyndham is aided by his would-be lady-love Annie Grant, who asks the questions for him.

Annie is just one of the distinctive and interesting characters Mukherjee has created, and you find yourself rooting for Wyndham’s success, despite his awkwardness in dealing with her. His competition is formidable, though, including Prince Adhir’s younger brother Punit, the soon-to-be Maharaja.

The first wife of the ailing Maharaja believes Wyndham to be a seeker of truth (like one of Mukerjee’s own favorite fictional detectives, Byomkesh Bakshi, revealed in this interview), and tells him that once he’s found it, he should be satisfied. He isn’t though, hoping in addition for justice and (in the case of Annie and Punit) for the truth to be other than it appears. The Maharini counsels him that justice is a matter for the gods.

As the plot unfolds, the complexity of Sambalpore palace life, the royal family, and the ambitious civil servants is spread out before you, and it is difficult to see how matters will resolve. Yet, time is short. The English diplomat stationed in Sambalpore, who has a deliciously gossipy wife, is determined to get rid of him and Surrender-not, and if he gets word to the Viceroy, the two policemen will be on the next train north to Calcutta.

A Necessary Evil follows on from Abir Mukherjee’s debut, A Rising Man. For something more modern set in India, you could also try Vaseem Khan’s The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 5 Stars


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