HOWEVER BRIEF THE visit, I always make it a point to stroll down to Marylebone village, just off Oxford Street in London. It has a quaint High Street, very much like Hampstead, full of rather attractive shops. My reason for going there is to visit Daunt Books, a bookshop that is full of character.
I am aware that it is becoming increasingly unappealing to patronise small bookshops because they charge the full cover price of books. Buying from Amazon, which offers hefty discounts and saves the bother of carting the books across the city, is so much more appealing. Yet, London would be a poorer place if it wasn’t for bookshops such as Daunt—I am told they also have a branch in Hampstead.
It was while browsing through the Crime Fiction section that I realised that the third volume of Abir Mukherjee’s Captain Sam Wyndham series had been published. I had read the earlier two volumes, A Rising Man and A Necessary Evil, and was awaiting Smoke and Ashes.
I wasn’t disappointed. Set in the turbulent Calcutta of the 1920s, it is centred on two detectives of the Imperial Police: the opium-addict Wyndham and his Cambridge- educated Bengali colleague Surrender-not (Surendranath) Bannerjee. Amid the chaos and excitement of Gandhi’s Non- Cooperation Movement and the visit of the Prince of Wales to the city, this volume straddles the world of nationalist politics and imperial duplicity. Important nationalist figures such as Chittaranjan Das and his chief lieutenant Subhas Bose feature prominently, as does Lord Taggart—whose name at least is borrowed from the legendary police chief of Calcutta, Sir Charles Tegart.
Compelling works of fiction based on India’s past are increasingly becoming rare, especially those that combine a good story with a large measure of historical accuracy. I can think of the works of John Masters, JG Farrell and, of course, Paul Scott as among the greats. Among Indian writers in English I can only think of Manohar Malgonkar—his novel based on the life and death of Pratap Chandra Bhanj Deo of Bastar is memorable. I was once given a copy of Azadi by Chaman Nahal that I found very interesting. Alas, I have not read his other works. Abir Mukherjee isn’t quite in the big league as yet, but he has all the potential of getting there. Perhaps I should also have mentioned Amitav Ghosh, but maybe he belongs to the realms of literature rather than popular fiction—the genre I am concerned with.
Why, it may well be asked, are British writers (and Mukherjee is London-based) so much better at historical fiction than our home- grown writers? Why don’t we have an Indian Wolf Hall? To extend the point, why doesn’t Bollywood produce a half-decent historical film where there is sufficient attention given to historical details, as opposed to an exclusive preoccupation with grand choreography? Some of the ‘history’ in Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Padmaavat (2018) makes you want to squirm.
Here I return to my pet theory on narrative history. In Britain, the reading of history is popular and extends far beyond universities for the very simple reason that there is a class of popular historians outside academia. Their main objective is to both maintain accuracy and tell the story of the people involved. In India we have got into the dreary habit of believing that all history is about impersonal forces and regulated by ‘modes of production’. Compare James Tod’s pioneering work on Rajput history with the works of some of our professional historians. The latter often serve as cures for insomnia.
The double tragedy is that we have inflicted this dreariness on our schoolchildren through textbooks that kill all interest in the subject. Even our museums that have such impressive collections specialise in bad lighting, indifferent display and awful signage. Attempts to make museums more interesting have not succeeded. Indian museums are not centres of education; they are still regarded as the proverbial jaadughar. No wonder India lacks a sense of history—a reason we also seem to revel in conspiracy theories such as believing that Jawaharlal Nehru’s decisions were a consequence of falling for Lady Mountbatten’s charms and Aurangzeb was somehow an epitome of enlightenment, rather than a bigot.
Yet, all these distortions can’t explain why Abir Mukherjee’s novel doesn’t feature in the Book Review pages of publications that still believe reading is a habit worth encouraging. Are reviews reserved for authors ‘we’ know? No wonder most of the fiction published in India gets forgotten within a week of its launch.