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Extract: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

A Rising Man is the debut crime novel by Abir Mukherjee and the first in a new series starring Captain Sam Wyndham and ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee.

India, 1919. Desperate for a fresh start, Captain Wyndham arrives to take up an important post in Calcutta’s police force. He is soon called to the scene of a horrifying murder. The victim was a senior official, and a note in his mouth warns the British to leave India – or else.

With the stability of the Empire under threat, Wyndham and Sergeant ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee must solve the case quickly. But there are some who will do anything to stop them…

Read on for an extract from A Rising Man!

A Rising Man
Abir Mukherjee


Wednesday, 9 April 1919

At least he was well dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best.
        I coughed as the stench clawed at my throat. In a few hours the smell would be unbearable; strong enough to turn the stomach of a Calcutta fishmonger. I pulled out a packet of Capstans, tapped out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled, letting the sweet smoke purge my lungs. Death smells worse in the tropics. Most things do.
        He’d been discovered by a skinny little peon out on his rounds. Almost scared the life out of the poor bugger. An hour later and he was still shaking. He’d found him lying in a dark dead-end alley,what the natives call a gullee: hemmed in on three sides by ramshackle buildings with the sky only visible if you craned your neck and looked straight up. e boy must have had good eyes to spot him in the gloom. Then again, he’d probably just followed his nose.
        The body lay twisted, face up and half submerged in an open sewer. Throat cut, limbs at unnatural angles, and a large brown bloodstain on a starched white dress shirt. Some fingers were missing from one mangled hand and an eye had been pecked out of its socket – this final indignity the work of the hulking black crows who even now kept angry vigil from the rooftops above. All in all, not a very dignified end for a burra sahib.
        Still, I’d seen worse.
        Finally there was the note. A bloodstained scrap of paper, balled up and forced into his mouth like a cork in a bottle. That was an interesting touch, and a new one to me. When you think you’ve seen it all, it’s nice to find that a killer can still surprise you.

A crowd of natives had gathered. A motley collection of gawkers, hawkers and housewives. ey jostled and pushed ever closer, eager to catch a glimpse of the corpse. Word had spread quickly. It always does. Murder is good entertainment the world over, and here in Black Town you could sell tickets to see a dead sahib. I looked on as Digby barked at some native constables to set up a cordon. They in turn shouted at the crowd and foreign voices jeered and hurled insults back. The constables cursed, raised their bamboo lathis and struck out left and right, gradually forcing back the rabble.
        The shirt clung to my back. Not yet nine o’clock but the heat was already oppressive, even in the shade of the alley. I knelt beside the body and patted it down. The inside breast pocket of the dinner jacket bulged and I reached in and pulled out the contents: a black leather wallet, some keys and loose change. I placed the keys and coins in an evidence bag and turned my attention to the wallet. It was old and soft and worn and had probably cost a fair amount when new. Inside, creased and dog eared from years of handling, a photograph of a woman. She looked young, in her twenties probably, wearing clothes whose style suggested the picture had been taken a while back. I turned it over. The words Ferries & Sons, Sauchiehall St., Glasgow were stamped on the reverse. I slipped it into my pocket. Otherwise the wallet was pretty much empty. No cash, no business cards, just a few receipts. Nothing to point to the man’s identity. Closing it, I put it with the other items in the bag and then moved on to the ball of paper in the victim’s mouth. I pulled at it gently, so as not to disturb the body any more than necessary. It came out easily. Good quality paper. Heavy, like the sort you fi nd in an up-market hotel. I flattened it out. Three lines were scrawled on one side. Black ink. Eastern script.
        I called to Digby. He was a lean, blond son of the empire; all military moustache and the air of one born to rule. He was also my subordinate, not that you could always tell. A ten-year veteran of the Imperial Police Force and, by his own reckoning at least, well versed in dealing with the natives. He came over, wiping the sweat from his palms on his tunic.
        ‘Unusual for a sahib to be found murdered in this part of town,’ he said.
        ‘I’d have thought it unusual for a sahib to be found murdered anywhere in Calcutta.’
        He shrugged. ‘You’d be surprised, old boy.’
        I handed him the scrap of paper. ‘What do you make of this?’
        He made a show of examining both sides before answering. ‘Looks like Bengali to me . . . sir.’
        He spat out the final word. It was understandable. Being passed over for promotion is never easy. Having that promotion taken by an outsider, fresh off the boat from London, probably made it worse. But that was his problem. Not mine.
        ‘Can you read it?’ I asked.
        ‘Of course I can read it. It says: “No more warnings. English blood will run in the streets. Quit India!”
        He handed back the note. ‘Looks like the work of terrorists,’ he said. ‘But this is bold, even for them.’
        He was probably right, for all I knew, but I wanted facts before jumping to conclusions. And more importantly I didn’t like his tone.
        ‘I want a full search of the area,’ I said. ‘And I want to know who this is.’
        ‘Oh, I know who this is,’ he replied. ‘His name’s MacAuley. Alexander MacAuley. He’s a big noise over at Writers’.’
        Digby looked like he’d just swallowed something unpleasant. ‘Writers’ Building, sir, is the administrative seat of government for Bengal and a good part of the rest of India. MacAuley is, or rather was, one of the top men there. An aide to the Lieutenant Governor, no less. Makes it look even more like a political killing, doesn’t it, old boy?’
        ‘Just get on with the search,’ I sighed.
        ‘Yes, sir,’ he replied, saluting. He surveyed the scene, and sought out a young native sergeant. Th e Indian was staring intently up at a window overlooking the alley. ‘Sergeant Banerjee!’ Digby shouted. ‘Over here please.’
         The Indian turned and snapped to attention, then hurried over and saluted.
        ‘Captain Wyndham,’ said Digby, ‘may I present Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee. He is, apparently, one of the finest new additions to His Majesty’s Imperial Police Force and the first Indian to post in the top three in the entrance examinations.’
        ‘Impressive,’ I said, partly because it was, and partly because Digby’s tone suggested he thought otherwise. The sergeant just looked embarrassed.
        ‘He and his ilk,’ continued Digby, ‘are the fruits of this government’s policy of increasing the number of natives in every branch of the administration, God help us.’
        I turned to Banerjee. He was a thin, fine-featured little chap, with the sort of face that would look adolescent even in his forties. Not at all the mug you’d expect on a copper. He looked at once both earnest and full of nerves, and his slick, black hair parted neatly on one side and round, steel-framed spectacles gave him a bookish air, more poet than policeman.
        ‘Sergeant,’ I said, ‘I want a fingertip search implemented.’
        ‘Of course, sir,’ he replied in an accent straight off a Surrey golf course. He sounded more English than I did. ‘Will there be anything else, sir?’
        ‘Just one thing,’ I said. ‘What were you staring at up there?’
        ‘I saw a woman, sir.’ He blinked. ‘She was watching us.’
        ‘Banerjee,’ said Digby, stabbing a thumb in the direction of the crowd, ‘there are a hundred bloody people watching us.’
        ‘Yes, sir, but this lady was scared. She froze when she saw me, then disappeared inside.’
        ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Once you’ve got the search underway, you and I will go over there and see if we can’t have a chat with your lady friend.’
        ‘I’m not sure that would be such a good idea, old boy,’ said Digby. ‘ There are some things you should know about the natives and their customs. They can be very funny about us questioning their ladyfolk. You go barging over there to interrogate some woman and before you know it you’ll have a riot on your hands. It might be better if I handled it.’
        Banerjee squirmed.
        Digby’s face darkened. ‘Is there something you wish to say, Sergeant?’
        ‘No, sir,’ said Banerjee apologetically. ‘It’s just that I don’t think anyone will start a riot if we go in there.’
        Digby’s voice quivered. ‘And what makes you so certain of that?’
        ‘Well, sir,’ said Banerjee, ‘I’m fairly sure that house is a brothel.’

An hour later, Banerjee and I stood outside the entrance to number 47 Maniktollah Lane. It was a dilapidated two-storey building. If there was one thing Black Town wasn’t short of it was dilapidated buildings. The whole place seemed to consist of these decaying, overcrowded dwellings, which crawled with humanity. Digby had made some remark about native squalor but the truth was they possessed a vibrant, wretched beauty not dissimilar to Whitechapel or Stepney.
         The house had, at one time, been painted a cheerful bright blue, but the paint had long ago lost the battle against unrelenting sun and monsoon rain. Now only a few pale traces lingered, streaks of watery blue on mould-covered grey-green plaster a fading testimony to more prosperous times. In places the plaster had fallen away, exposing crumbling orange brickwork and weeds sprouted from cracks. Above, the remains of a balcony jutted out like broken teeth, its iron railings strangled by foliage.
         The front door was little more than a few gnarled, ill-fitting planks. Here too the paint had faded, revealing dark, worm-eaten wood beneath.
        Banerjee raised his lathi and rapped loudly.
        No sound came from inside.
        He looked at me.
        I nodded.
        He rapped on the door again. ‘Police! Open up!’
        Finally a muffled voice came from inside.
        ‘Aschee, aschee! Wait!’
        Sounds. Feet shuffling towards us; then someone fiddling with a padlock. e thin wooden door rattled and finally opened a crack. A shrivelled old native with a shock of untidy silver hair stood stooped like a question mark in front of us. Tanned skin, parchment thin, hung off his stick-like frame, so that he looked like some fragile caged bird. The old man looked up at Banerjee and smiled a toothless grin.
        ‘Ha, Baba, what do you want?’
        Banerjee looked to me. ‘Sir, it may be easier if I explain to him in Bengali.’
        I nodded.
        Banerjee spoke but the old man appeared not to hear. The sergeant repeated himself, this time louder. The old man’s thin brows knit tightly together in confusion. Gradually his expression changed and the smile returned. He disappeared and moments later the door opened fully. ‘Ashoon!’ he said to Banerjee and then, turning to me, ‘Come, sahib. Come. Come!’
        He led the way, shuffling down a long, darkened hallway, the air cool and heavy with the scent of incense. We followed, our boots echoing on polished marble. The interior was tasteful, almost opulent, and a stark contrast to the building’s shabby exterior. Like walking through a Mile End doorway and finding yourself in a Mayfair townhouse.
         The old man stopped at the end of the corridor and ushered us into a large, well-appointed drawing room. Elegant rococo sofas were interspersed with oriental silk reclining cushions. On the far wall, above a chaise longue upholstered in red velvet, a bejewelled Indian prince on a white charger stared out stoically from a framed painting. A large green punkah, the size of a dining table, hung stiffly from the ceiling and light streamed in from a courtyard outside.
         The old man gestured for us to wait, then quietly disappeared.
        A clock ticked in another room. I was glad for the respite. It had been over a week, but it still felt like I was acclimatising. It wasn’t just the heat. There was something more. Something amorphous and indefinable. A nervousness that manifested itself as an ache at the back of my head and a queasiness in the pit of my stomach. Calcutta itself seemed to be taking its toll on me.
        A few minutes later, the door opened and a middle-aged Indian woman entered, the old man following behind her like a faithful pet. Banerjee and I stood up. The woman was handsome for her age. Twenty years ago she’d have been considered a beauty. A full figure, coffee-coloured skin and brown eyes tinged with kohl. Her hair was parted in the middle and tied tightly in a bun. On her forehead a smudge of vermillion. She wore a bright green silk sari, its border embroidered with golden birds. Beneath it a blouse of green silk above a bare midriff. Her arms were adorned with several golden bangles and from her neck hung an ornate gold necklace, studded with small green stones.
        ‘Namaskar, gentlemen,’ she said, pressing her hands together in greeting. Her bangles clinked softly. ‘Please sit.’
        I shot Banerjee an enquiring look. Was this the woman he’d seen at the window? He shook his head.
        She introduced herself as Mrs Bose, the owner of the house.
        ‘My manservant tells me you have some questions?’
        She walked over and reclined elegantly on the chaise longue. As if on cue, the punkah on the ceiling started swaying, delivering a welcome staccato breeze. Mrs Bose pressed a small brass button on the wall next to her. A maid appeared silently at the door.
        ‘You will have some tea, yes?’ Mrs Bose enquired. Without waiting for a reply, she turned to the maid and ordered.
        ‘Meena, cha.’
         The maid left as silently as she’d arrived.
        ‘Now,’ continued Mrs Bose, ‘how can I help you, gentlemen?’
        ‘My name is Captain Wyndham,’ I said, ‘and this is Sergeant Banerjee. I take it you’re aware that there has been an incident in the alley next door?’
        She smiled politely. ‘From the noise your constables are making, I should think the whole para is aware that there has been “an incident”, as you call it. Perhaps you could enlighten me as to what’s actually happened?’
        ‘A man has been murdered.’
        ‘Murdered?’ she said, deadpan. ‘How very shocking.’
        I’d seen English women need a dose of smelling salts at the mere mention of murder, but Mrs Bose seemed made of stronger stuff.
        ‘Forgive me, gentlemen,’ she went on, ‘but people are killed in this part of the city every day. I don’t remember ever seeing half the Calcutta police force turn up and close down a street before, let alone an English officer take an interest. Normally, the unfortunate wretch is simply carted off to the morgue and that’s the end of it. Why all the fuss this time?’
         The fuss was because it was an Englishman who’d been murdered. But I got the sense she already knew that.
        ‘I need to ask you, madam, did you see or hear anything untoward in the alley last night?’
        She shook her head. ‘I hear untoward noises coming from that alley every night. Drunkards fighting, dogs howling, but if you’re asking if I heard a man being murdered, then the answer is no.’
        Her answer was emphatic, which struck me as odd. In my experience, middle-class, middle-aged women were generally all too keen to help in a murder investigation. It added excitement to their lives. Some were so zealous in their wish to be of assistance that they’d happily recount gossip and hearsay as if it were the Gospel of St John. Her behaviour didn’t seem normal for a woman who’d just been informed of a murder ten feet from her home. I suspected she was hiding something. But that didn’t necessarily mean it was related to the murder. The authorities had banned so many things recently that it was perfectly possible she was covering up something
completely different.
        ‘Have there been any gatherings in the neighbourhood that may have been of a seditious nature?’ I asked.
        She looked at me like I was a particularly slow child. ‘Quite possibly, Captain. This is Calcutta, after all. A city of a million Bengalis with nothing better to do than talk revolution. Isn’t that why you moved the capital to Delhi? Better to roast up there in a desert backwater surrounded by pliant Punjabis than put up with such dangerous Bengali rabble rousers. Not that they actually do much other than talk. But to answer your question, no, I am not aware of any gatherings of a seditious nature. Nothing that would contravene the articles of your precious Rowlatt Acts.’
         The Rowlatt Acts. They’d been passed the previous month and allowed us to lock up anyone we suspected of terrorism or revolutionary activities. We could hold them for up to two years without trial. From a copper’s perspective, it made things nice and simple. The Indians, of course, had reacted with fury, and I can’t say I blamed them. After all, we’d just fought a war in the name of liberty, and yet here we were, arresting people without warrants, and locking them up for anything we considered seditious, from gathering without a permit to staring at an Englishman the wrong way.
        Mrs Bose rose. ‘I’m sorry, gentlemen, I really can’t help you.’
        It was time to try a different approach.
        ‘You might wish to reconsider, Mrs Bose,’ I said. ‘ The sergeant here has voiced a suspicion as to exactly what sort of an establishment you may be running here. Obviously I think he’s mistaken, but I can have a team of ten officers from the vice division down here in less than thirty minutes to find out which of us is right. I expect they’d tear this place apart and maybe haul you over to Lal Bazar for questioning. They might even suggest you spend a night or two in the cells, at the Viceroy’s pleasure, so to speak . . . Or you could afford us some cooperation.’
        She looked at me and smiled. She didn’t seem intimidated, which was surprising. However, she chose her next words carefully. ‘Captain Wyndham, I think there has been some . . . misunderstanding. I am perfectly happy to help you in any way I can. But I honestly didn’t see or hear anything untoward last night.’
        ‘In that case,’ I said, ‘you won’t mind us questioning anyone else who was in the house at the time?’
         The door opened and the maid entered with a silver tray upon which sat all the paraphernalia associated with middle-class tea making. She set it down on a small mahogany table beside her mistress and left the room.
        Mrs Bose lifted the teapot and an elegant silver tea strainer and poured the tea into three cups. ‘Of course, Captain,’ she said finally, ‘you may speak to whomever you wish.’
        Once more she pressed the brass button on the wall and the maid returned. Foreign words were exchanged and she disappeared again.
        Mrs Bose turned to me. ‘So tell me, Captain, you’re clearly new to India. How long have you been here?’
        ‘I hadn’t realised it was quite that obvious.’
        Mrs Bose smiled. ‘Oh, but it is. Firstly, your face is that interesting shade of pink, which suggests you haven’t yet learned that most important lesson of life here: that you should stay indoors between the hours of noon and four. Secondly, you haven’t yet acquired the swagger that your kinsmen tend to display in this country when dealing with Indians.’
        ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you,’ I said
        ‘Don’t be,’ she replied casually. ‘I am sure it is only a matter of time.’
        Before I could respond, the door opened and four slim young girls entered the room, followed by the maid and the old man who had shown us in. The girls looked dishevelled, as though they’d been roused from sleep. In contrast to Mrs Bose, none of them wore make-up, but all possessed a natural beauty. Each wore a simple cotton sari, in various pastel colours.
        ‘Captain Wyndham,’ said Mrs Bose, ‘allow me to introduce my household to you.’ She gestured towards the old man. ‘Ratan, you have already met. And of course Meena, my maid. These others are Saraswati, Lakshmi, Devi and Sita.’ At the mention of her name, each girl steepled her hands together in greeting. They appeared nervous. That was to be expected. Most young prostitutes in London were also nervous when questioned by an officer of the law. Most, but by no means all.
        ‘Not everyone in my household speaks English,’ Mrs Bose continued. ‘You don’t mind if I translate your questions into Hindi?’
        ‘Why Hindi and not Bengali?’ I asked.
        ‘Because, Captain, while Calcutta is the capital of Bengal, a great many people here are not Bengali. Sita here is from Orissa and Lakshmi is from Bihar. Hindi is, shall we say, the lingua franca.’ She smiled, amused by her own turn of phrase, and gestured towards Banerjee. ‘I take it your sergeant here speaks Hindi?’
        I looked at him.
        ‘My Hindi is fairly rusty, sir,’ he replied, ‘but passable.’
        ‘Very well then, Mrs Bose,’ I said, ‘please ask them if they saw or heard any disturbance in the alley last night.’
        Mrs Bose put the question to them. The old man appeared not to hear and so she repeated her words more loudly. I looked at Banerjee. He was staring fixedly at Devi.
        One by one, each of them replied ‘Nahin’.
        I wasn’t convinced. ‘Seven people in the house last night and none of you saw or heard anything?’
        ‘Apparently not,’ said Mrs Bose.
        I considered them in turn. Ratan, the old man, was probably too deaf to have heard a thing. The maid, Meena, might have, but her body language didn’t suggest she was hiding anything. Mrs Bose was too smart to let anything slip. A woman in her line of work quickly learns how to deal with inconvenient enquiries from the police. e four girls, though. They would have been up most of the night with clients. One of them may have seen something. If so, they’d probably be less adept than Mrs Bose at concealing it from me.
        I turned to Banerjee. ‘Sergeant, please repeat the question to each of the four girls in turn.’
        He did as I asked. I watched the girls as they replied. Saraswati and Lakshmi both answered ‘Nahin’. Devi hesitated for a second, averted her gaze, but then also answered ‘Nahin’. The hesitation was all I needed.
        Banerjee proceeded to ask the fi nal girl the same question. She gave the same reply, but I detected no signs of subterfuge. Devi was the one we needed to talk to. But not now, and not here. We’d have to speak to her alone.
        ‘Unfortunately, it seems we cannot help you, Captain,’ said Mrs Bose.
        ‘It would appear so,’ I replied, rising from the sofa. Banerjee followed my lead. If Mrs Bose was relieved, she hid it well. Calm as a lotus on a lake. I made a final attempt to unsettle her. ‘Just one last question, if I may?’
        ‘Of course, Captain.’
        ‘Where is Mr Bose?’
        She smiled playfully. ‘Come now, Captain. You must realise that in my profession it is sometimes necessary to cultivate a certain image of respectability. I find that having a husband, though he is never present, helps to smooth out some of life’s little problems.’

We left the house and returned to the blazing heat. The body was still there, covered by a dirty tarpaulin. It should have been moved by now. I searched for Digby but couldn’t see him.
        Th e alley was a furnace, not that it had much effect on the crowd, which if anything had grown larger. They packed themselves together, tight under large black umbrellas. Everyone in Calcutta seems to carry an umbrella, though more for shade than shelter. I made a mental note to follow Mrs Bose’s advice and be indoors by noon.
        From a distance came the sound of a horn and through the narrow, crowded street an olive-green ambulance truck threaded its way towards us. In front of it, a constable on a bicycle was shouting for the crowd to clear the way. On reaching the cordon, he dismounted, leaned his bicycle against a wall and briskly made his way over to me.
        He saluted. ‘Captain Wyndham, sir?’
        I nodded.
        ‘I have a message for you, sir. Your presence is requested immediately by Commissioner Taggart.’
        Lord Charles Taggart, Commissioner of Police. He was the reason I was in Bengal.
        I thanked the constable, who headed back towards his bicycle. By now, the ambulance had stopped at the cordon and two Indian orderlies had got out. They spoke to Banerjee, then lifted the body onto a stretcher and loaded it into the ambulance.
        I again searched for Digby but couldn’t see him anywhere, so instead I asked Banerjee to join me as I headed back to the car parked at the entrance to the alley. The driver, a large turbaned Sikh, saluted, then opened the rear door.
        We negotiated the narrow, congested streets of Black Town, the driver leaning on his horn and shouting threats at the pedestrians, rickshaws and bullock carts in our path. I turned to Banerjee. ‘How’d you know that house was a brothel, Sergeant?’
        He smiled shyly. ‘I asked a few of the locals in the crowd about the surrounding buildings. One woman was more than happy to tell me about the goings-on at number 47.’
        ‘And our Mrs Bose? What did you make of her?’
        ‘Interesting, sir. She’s certainly no admirer of the British.’
        He was right. But that didn’t mean she was involved. She was a businesswoman, after all, and in my experience people like her had little time for politics. Unless it boosted profits, of course.
        ‘And the woman you saw at the window?’
        ‘It was the one she called Devi.’
        ‘You don’t think it was her real name?’
        ‘It’s possible sir, but Devi means goddess, and the other three all had the names of Hindu goddesses. I think that’s too much of a coincidence. And I understand it’s not unusual for such girls to work under aliases.’
        ‘True enough, Sergeant,’ I said, adding drily, ‘I congratulate you on your knowledge of whores.’
         The young man’s ears reddened.
        ‘So,’ I continued, ‘do you think she saw something?’
        ‘She denied it, sir.’
        ‘Yes, but what do you think?’
        ‘I think she’s lying and, if I may venture an opinion, sir, I think you do too. What I don’t understand is why you didn’t question her further?’
        ‘Patience, Sergeant,’ I said. ‘ There’s a time and a place for everything.’

By now we were on the Chitpore road, on the outskirts of White Town. Wide avenues bordered by imposing mansions: the homes of merchant princes made rich from trade in everything from cotton to opium.
        ‘Unusual name, “Surrender-not”,’ I said.
        ‘It’s not actually my name, sir,’ replied Banerjee. ‘My real name is “Surendranath”. It’s one of the names of Lord Indra, the king of the gods. Unfortunately Sub-inspector Digby found the pronunciation beyond him, so he christened me “Surrender-not”.’
        ‘And what do you think of that, Sergeant?’
        Banerjee fidgeted in his seat. ‘I’ve been called worse things, sir. Given the natural inability of many of your countrymen to pronounce any foreign name with more than one syllable, “Surrender-not” isn’t too bad.’
        We travelled in silence for a while, but that soon became uncomfortable. Besides, I wanted to get to know this young man better, as, other than servants and petty officials, he was pretty much the first real Indian I’d met since arriving here. So I asked him about himself.
        ‘I spent my childhood in Shyambazar,’ he told me. ‘ Then boarding school and university in England.’
        His father was a Calcutta barrister who’d sent each of his three sons to England to be educated: Harrow, then Oxbridge. Banerjee was the youngest. Of his elder brothers, one had followed his father into the law and been called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn. The other was a physician of some renown. As for Banerjee, his father had wanted him to pursue a career in the Indian Civil Service, the legendary ICS, but despite the prestige, the young man didn’t fancy spending his days as a pen-pusher. He decided to join the police force instead.
        ‘What did your father make of that?’ I asked.
        ‘He’s not too happy about it,’ he replied. ‘He’s a supporter of the struggle for Home Rule. He thinks by joining the Imperial Police Force, I’m assisting the British in the abasement of my own people.’
        ‘And what do you think?’
        Banerjee reflected for a moment before replying. ‘I think, sir, that one day we may indeed have Home Rule. Or the British may leave completely. Either way, I’m quite sure that such an event won’t herald the outbreak of universal peace and goodwill among my countrymen, despite what Mr Gandhi may think. There will still be murders in India. If and when you depart, sir, we Indians will need the skills to manage the posts you’ll be vacating. That goes for law enforcement as much as anything else.’
        It wasn’t exactly the ringing endorsement of empire I’d expected from a policeman. As an Englishman, one rather assumes that the natives are either for you or against you, and that the ones employed by the Imperial Police Force must be amongst the most loyal. After all, they uphold the system. That at least one of them might be somewhat ambivalent came as a shock.
        I confess, my first week in Calcutta had brought with it more than a degree of unease. I’d met Indians before, I’d even fought alongside some of them during the war. I remembered Ypres in 1915, the suicidal counter-attack ordered by our generals at some lamentable little village called Langemarck. The sepoys of the 3rd Lahore Division, Sikhs and Pathans mainly, had charged on without hope of success and were mown down before ever catching sight of the Boche positions. They’d died bravely. Now, here in Calcutta, it was disturbing to see the way we treated their kinsfolk in their own land.
        ‘And you, sir?’ asked Banerjee. ‘What brings you to Calcutta?’
        I was silent.
        What could I tell him?
        That I’d survived a war that had killed my brother and my friends? That I’d been wounded and shipped home, only to find that as I recuperated in hospital, my wife had died of influenza? That I was tired of an England I no longer believed in? It would be considered bad form to tell a native any of that. So I told him what I told everyone.
        ‘I grew sick of the rain, Sergeant.’

Find out more about Abir’s journey to publication here.

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