Review of “A Rising Man” by Abir Mukherjee

The British Raj (literally, “rule” in Sanskrit and Hindustani) was the name for colonial domination of the Indian subcontinent by the British Crown from 1858 to 1947. The path for the Raj was paved by the East India Company (EIC), which was originally formed to trade in the Indian Ocean region, but ended up seizing political control of large parts of the Indian subcontinent.

By 1803, at the height of its rule in India, the EIC had a private army of about 260,000—twice the size of the British Army, ruling large areas of India with the “help” of its private armies. Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, as well as exposure [read: bad international press] of the EIC’s ignominious mistreatment of Indians who were in its power; its use of slave labor; the company’s promotion of the opium trade to enrich themselves at the cost of the lives of so many non-whites; and its actions leading to the starvation deaths of millions of people, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown’s assuming direct control of the Indian subcontinent. The official government machinery of British India, now called the British Raj, assumed the EIC’s governmental functions and absorbed its navy and its armies.

Luxury in the British Raj: Calcutta’s memorial to Queen Victoria, 1921 via PA Images Archive

The plot of this historical fiction crime novel set in India in 1919 exposes the psychological scaffolding that supported the Raj. As one character explains to the protagonist:

“For such a small number [150,000 British] to rule over so many [300 million Indians], the rulers need to project an aura of superiority over the ruled. Not just physical or military superiority mind, but also moral superiority. More importantly, their subjects must in turn believe themselves to be inferior; that they need to be ruled for their own benefit.”

The Indian psyche had been groomed for the Raj not only by the EIC; India has a rigid caste system which is among the world’s oldest form of surviving social stratification, as Isabel Wilkerson explains in her 2020 book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Wilkerson defines caste in a way that will certainly resonate with readers of this book about the Raj:

“an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoriting the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.”

There are many deleterious repercussions of a caste system, the one most salient to this novel being that the ruling class comes to believe in its own superiority, leading to even more dehumanization of those over whom it rules. Moreover, as a character explains, “anything that threatens that fiction is a threat to the whole edifice.”

Thus, when a murder is committed and the victim is a “sahib,” a term referring to any white European on the Indian subcontinent, and worse yet, the body is found in “black town” (the name for native Indian areas), the matter is extremely sensitive. So much so, that Detective Inspector Captain Samuel Wyndham, newly arrived in Calcutta, doesn’t quite understand why he has been given the case.

Sam has two subordinates assigned to help him: Detective Sub-inspector John Digby, an obnoxious white racist who resents not being in charge himself, and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, dubbed “Surrender-not” by Digby who couldn’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce Banerjee’s first name. Sam, who thinks he is better than the coarse Digby, nevertheless is clueless about the racism inherent in deliberately mispronouncing someone’s name; the messages it sends; and the toll it takes on members of discriminated groups.

The circumstances of the murder suggested an assassination of a senior British official by native terrorists. The detectives had to tread carefully. Just the previous month, the Rowlatt Acts had been passed in response to increased unrest by Indians. The Acts allowed the British to lock up anyone suspected of terrorism or revolutionary activities. They could hold prisoners for up to two years without trial.

As Sam doggedly investigated in spite of having his life endangered, he came to see that the murder was very much related to controversies over race, class, and the question of independence, as well as the “artificial construction of presumed supremacy.”

Evaluation: This book, the first in a series of crime novels featuring Wyndam and Banerjee, won a number of awards, as have the sequels. I appreciated the way the author deftly wove insights about the Raj Era in India into the plot. But I detested most of the characters – certainly all of the British characters, including the protagonist Sam Wyndham. Sam could not shed his own prejudices, even while (sometimes) acknowledging them. Although Sam was in charge of both Digby and Banerjee, he treated the repugnant (but white) Digby with respect, while he treated “Surrender-not” as an inferior. About that disparity, he seemed to have no self-awareness. I find it hard to enjoy spending the time required to read a book when I don’t like most of the people in it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Pegasus Books, 2017

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