Extract: The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee
Calcutta, 1923. When a Hindu theologian is found murdered in his home, the city is on the brink of all-out religious war. Can officers of the Imperial Police Force Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee track down those responsible in time to stop a bloodbath?
Set at a time of heightened political tension, beginning in atmospheric Calcutta and taking the detectives all the way to bustling Bombay, the latest instalment in this unmissable series presents Wyndham and Banerjee with an unprecedented challenge. Will this be the case that finally drives them apart?
Read on for a chapter of The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee!
The Shadows of Men
Men, I believe, are defined by the shadows they cast.
Most, despite force of numbers and efforts, leave little trace. Like ants toiling under the noonday sun, their shadows are picayune and ephemeral. Others, like the trees of the forest canopy, cast a pall far greater, their penumbra eclipsing and influencing all who fall beneath. But there are others still, a deadly few, who pass through invisible yet leave everything altered in their wake. In a world marked by the shadows of men, it is those who have no shadow who are the most dangerous of all.
I should say, this is not Sam’s story. It is mine.
In truth, I would much rather he told you, but he cannot, at least not everything, because he was not there. Of course, that is unlikely to stop him sharing his two annas’ worth, with you, or with anyone else who might care to ask. But that is Sam for you, and that is why you require to hear my side of the tale, so that you may understand what actually transpired and why I did what I did.
It is a burden I take up with reticence. Sam, naturally, would insist I grab the bull by the proverbials and just get on with it, Suren. But then he is always happiest when rushing in where angels fear to tread, generally with his eyes closed and usually head first.
Yet precipitous as it may be, there is little to keep me from such a course of action. It is not as though I currently have any more pressing engagements, and while I may no longer be sitting in a prison cell, my present movements are still curtailed to the few yards either side of this cabin and the fear that I might be recognised.
I spend the days coming to terms with the consequences of my deeds. Sam believes I only did what needed to be done and indeed the notion of my guilt baffles him. How could it not? He may be the most congenial of Englishman, but he is still just an Englishman and could never understand a concept such as izzat, or the shame I have brought down upon my family. His life, like that of all his kinsmen in India, progresses with an unhindered serenity, as untroubled and uncomprehending of such things as the elephant is by the barking of pariah dogs and oblivious to the Indian point of view. Even the lowest of them gliding along with the air of those born to rule – not their own country, but ours.
But I procrastinate when I should be recounting to you the story of my fall. The first thing to make clear is that I am not innocent. Yet I am not guilty of all of which I am accused. Nevertheless, there are most certainly some actions which, in hindsight, I have come to regret.
And yet if faced with the same circumstances, I cannot see what I would do differently. Sometimes a man must open his eyes and realise the truth about the masters he serves. And sometimes he must sacrifice himself for the greater good.
It began with a summons. A flimsy yellow chitty, waved in my face by Shambu, a rather rat-faced peon from the top floor: a lackey who considers himself superior to his fellow lackeys in the building on account of his being personal dogsbody for the burra sahibs upstairs. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then Shambu was proof that even a minor dose can prove corrosive.
I should have known, the instant I saw his crooked, betel-stained grin, that like the gathering of the storm clouds on the southern horizon, the Fates were aligning against me. He shambled up to my desk, handed me the note and pointed to the ceiling with one bent finger and both bloodshot eyes.
‘Borro shaheb-er theke chitee.’
Quickly I unfolded the slip of paper, then held my breath: an immediate summons to the top floor. Lord Taggart, Commissioner of Police, requested my presence. It was not the first time I had been ordered to His Lordship’s office. Over the five years preceding, I had attended his inner sanctum on a dozen occasions or more, but always at the request of Sam or another British officer, always the dutiful subaltern, on hand to provide illumination in the face of their ignorance of native matters, or a lightning rod to deflect criticism.
This time, however, the missive had been addressed to me and me alone. I placed the chitty carefully within the pages of my notebook and took a breath. The commissioner wished to see me. Did he wish me to lead a case? No Indian detective had ever headed up an inquiry before; not in Calcutta at any rate. Such an honour would be worthy of even my father’s begrudging respect.
I dismissed the peon and, after stopping by the mirror in the lavatory to straighten my uniform and run a comb through my habitually unruly hair, made my way towards the stairs, my heart hammering within my breast. Minutes later, I was being led by Lord Taggart’s secretary through the doors of his office.
His Lordship looked up, gave me a cursory glance as if to make sure I was indeed the correct Indian, then returned to his scrutiny of the papers on his desk.
‘Sergeant Banerjee. Sit.’
I did as ordered, and for half a minute more, he continued poring over his documents while I contented myself with staring at the row of brightly coloured ribbons on his spotless white tunic. Sam, who had worked for Lord Taggart during the war, had on several alcohol-infused occasions regaled me with tales of his missions for the commissioner. Once or twice, when his mood was particularly effervescent, he would even deign to say something nice about the man, but as I say, it was only once or twice.
Lord Taggart eventually looked up. I recall the light falling through the French windows and reflecting off the discs of his spectacles so that, for a moment, his eyes were hidden and he, with his pale skin and blanched tunic, appeared almost ghostlike. Little did I realise, as he began to speak, that my life was about to be torn apart, his words the fateful first domino in the chain of events which would see me accused of a host of crimes as long as a python’s tail.
‘Tell me, Sergeant, what do you know about Farid Gulmohamed…?’
The first I knew about it was a constable knocking on my door with an electric torch in one hand and an enveloped chit in the other. It was gone midnight, but the chap had hardly woken me, seeing as I’d only just made it home myself. The evening had been long, hot and frustrating and I’d spent most of it in a squalid, pestilential corner of North Calcutta where the air stank of sewage and the families, when they had a room, lived six or seven to it, sleeping on rattan mats and subsisting off little more than rice and dal.
I’d gone there to meet a man called Uddam Singh, Uddam the Lion, which sounded impressive until you realised that a full tenth of the people in the country seemed to be called Singh. Uddam, from the dirt poor province of Bihar, had come penniless to Calcutta, and through nothing more than diligence and a penchant for slitting throats, had risen to become the kingpin of an underworld gang that controlled almost half the city’s trade in narcotics, prostitution and a few other illicit activities besides.
We’d met, aptly enough, in a street called Gola-katta Gullee, Cut-throat Alley, a foul-smelling passage of flophouses and hovels, where indolent dogs roamed in packs and itinerant cows grazed on the bounty of an open rubbish tip.
We were there to discuss the fate of Singh’s second son, Vinay. His elder boy, Abhay, had been murdered a fortnight earlier, and Suren and I had been called to the south of the city where we found him propped up in a lane near Kidderpore docks with the business end of a six-inch blade embedded in his oesophagus.
It was merely the latest in a series of rather unpleasant murders – all victims of, or, depending on your point of view, erstwhile participants in, a rather nasty territorial dispute which had broken out between two of the native gangs that vied for control of some of the city’s less wholesome business activities.
Normally we’d have left them to it, though Vice Division would keep an eye on things, of course. No one wanted the British or, God forbid, the foreign press picking up on such matters, but given our own stretched resources, we’d have been happy enough for the thugs to keep on merrily killing each other. The problem this time, however, was that the gangs in question hailed not just from different neighbourhoods, but also from different faiths, and we’d learned the hard way that where religion was involved, the deaths of a few goondahs could soon explode into the general mass slaughter of Hindu and Muslim.
The murder of Singh’s son seemed like an escalation. There’s honour among thugs, a gentleman’s agreement if you will, that close family of the kingpins on all sides were untouchable. Abhay’s murder might have been a terrible mistake, but my gut told me otherwise. There was no reason for him to be down in South Calcutta, so far from his father’s turf in the north. It felt to me like a set-up, and his father, it seemed, felt similarly. And now he was out for revenge.
And that’s where Suren and I came into the picture, or at least I did, because Suren had failed to show up. Normally I’d have carried on regardless and given the sergeant a talking-to later, but on this occasion, his presence was vital, seeing as he’d been the one who’d had the bright idea of arresting Vinay Singh in the first place.
Indeed, the whole plan had been Suren’s idea. He’d come up with it in an attempt to placate Lord Taggart who seemed rather put out by the warfare breaking out across his city.
‘What the hell’s behind the violence?’ he’d barked across the no man’s land of his desk, and of course Suren and I had no idea whatsoever. Maybe it was just a simple turf war; maybe it was the pending municipal elections; or maybe, like everyone else in 1923, the gangs had just gone a little mad. Whatever the cause, Taggart wanted it stopped, post-haste.
It was a week later, as we stood admiring the corpse of another dead sap, this time a Muslim hoodlum with one ear missing and his neck sliced clean, that Suren had had his brainwave.
‘We should bring in that fool Vinay Singh.’
It took me a while to place the particular fool in question.
‘You know, Uddam Singh’s younger boy.’
The son was a chip off the old block, both in terms of his bulletheaded build and his proclivity for carving second smiles into people’s faces. What he lacked, though, was his father’s innate instinct for survival – which some called dumb luck – but which I put down to a form of primeval intelligence.
‘You think he’s involved?’
‘That’s not the point,’ said Suren. ‘The important thing is there’s nothing to say he isn’t.’
I wondered what had happened to the idealistic young idiot I’d taken under my wing almost five years earlier.
‘You want to stitch him up? Maybe we should get you a transfer to Vice? Or better still, Scotland Yard.’
He shook his head.
‘I’m not saying we charge him, we just threaten to. Rather, we threaten his father that we’re going to charge him.’
I began to see what he was driving at.
‘You want to arrest Vinay Singh and then tell his old man we’re going to ship his backside off to the Andamans, unless Singh pater calls a halt to this war with the Muslims?’
He grinned. ‘Why not?’
Why not? I could have told him that it was unethical to arrest an innocent man in order to put pressure on his family. I could have told him that no fair court in the land would convict him without evidence. And I could have told him that casting aside his principles to go down this road just once would make it harder to resist in the future. But of course I didn’t tell him any of that because there was no point. The truth was that the system of justice we administered in this country wasn’t particularly concerned with ethics, or with the innocence of a man if he were brown and his accusers were white, and as for the mortgaging of Suren’s immortal soul, well, I could hardly counsel against that, seeing as the deeds to mine had been sold, or at the very least mislaid, long ago.
‘Why not indeed,’ I said.
And that is what we proceeded to do. Suren arrested the bastard soon after, dragging him screaming from his bed and his woman, and out into the streets with enough brouhaha to ensure his old man would know about it by the time young Vinay had managed to get his trousers on. And then we’d waited, a good twenty-four hours, leaving Vinay to sweat in a cell and his father to stew, wondering what we were doing to his boy.
We’d finally contacted him, sent him a message through one of the young street lads he used to ferry drugs, and set up the meeting in Gola-katta Gullee. Suren and I would explain to Singh the elder that the best way to end this rather unfortunate situation would be for him to draw a line under his little war with the Muslims, and then we might see our way clear to letting his son out of the clink with his looks and his teeth intact.
It was all going swimmingly until Suren failed to show.
‘Where the hell is he, this Banerjee fucker?’
Uddam Singh, his face pockmarked like a pineapple and prickled with sweat, picked at his teeth with a wooden splinter. He wasn’t the sort to appreciate delays, even when caused by members of the Imperial Police Force, though that was possibly because he had a fair number of them on his payroll.
‘He’ll be here,’ I’d said, but after twenty minutes, that assurance had started to ring hollow.
Singh had registered his disapproval with a nod of his head which had summoned a couple of thugs who pinned me to a wall while he took a blade to my throat.
‘You are playing games with me, Wyndham sahib? You think I won’t kill a gora officer?’
I’d felt steel caress my jugular, and while I could have done with a shave, Singh’s record hardly marked him out as the most diligent of barbers.
‘You do and you’ll never see your son alive again.’
The old man had relented, which was decent of him, and pulled the blade back half an inch. One thing all Indians had in common was their excessive devotion to their children. That was the thing about Indians. Their children were their weakness. All of them, even the homicidal crime bosses it seemed, doted on their offspring like mother hens fussing over their chicks. Rumour had it that fathers even went as far as to embrace their offspring, which, from a British point of view, was frankly rather alarming.
‘Two hours,’ Singh had said. ‘Get him here, or there will be trouble.’
I’d straightened my shirt, cursed Suren under my breath and set off to look for him.
An hour of searching from Lal Bazar to Cosipore threw up precious little, and in the end I’d headed back to the digs we shared in Premchand Boral Street, in the hope that the boy had either returned home or at least left me a note there. Alas, he’d done neither and I found myself pouring a whisky and walking out onto the balcony in the hope that a drink might provide, if not inspiration, then at least some insight. Sadly neither was forthcoming, so I cursed Suren, then I cursed Uddam Singh, and finally, I cursed Mr Gandhi.
That might have sounded harsh, but the way I figured it, the latter had a lot to answer for. This vision of India, peace-loving and tolerant, which he’d sold and which millions had bought into, had, in the space of months, turned to dust, hatred and communal bloodshed.
In the gentlemen’s clubs, cricket grounds and other bastions of British power, men crowed that he’d lost his nerve. Others opined that the natives were always bound to fail in the face of British resolve. What was certain was that after a year of his general strike and the supreme sacrifice from his followers, the Mahatma, in a puff of holy smoke, had called the whole thing off and disappeared back to his ashram to feed his goats. He claimed it was in penance at the deaths of some twenty-odd policemen at the hands of a proindependence mob in some flyblown village somewhere in the United Provinces, but to many it felt like a surrender. The Mahatma went on a fast for his part in stirring passions that had led to such violence, and the viceroy and the men at Government House applauded his decision, waited a few weeks to make sure his supporters were thoroughly disheartened, then promptly arrested him on charges of sedition and packed him off to prison for a nice sixyear stretch.
Since then, and without Gandhi to hold things together, the independence movement had collapsed into a morass of infighting and mutual recrimination. It hadn’t been helped by the calling of elections – not national elections – we weren’t that stupid – but elections to municipal councils – elections which were now only weeks away.
The prospect of those elections had split the Congress Party and begun to reopen the wounds which Indians had always inflicted upon themselves. The pressures which had simmered beneath the surface: the tensions between Hindus and Muslims; between upper and lower castes; between landowners and peasants – all now bubbled to the fore, and we of course were quick to exploit them. After all, you didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Not if you were British.
The press began to paint the Congress as the party of the Hindus, and Muslims began deserting it in droves. Then came the religious riots, in towns and cities up and down the country. We, for our part, gave it a name: communalism, which was a nice, polite term for the indiscriminate butchery of people who happened to worship a different god.
As for Calcutta, if there was trouble to be had, you could bet your last rupee that the city’s denizens would be among the first to get involved, taking up arms even against neighbours whom they’d lived beside for generations. The violence between the Hindu and Muslim gangs felt like a precursor to something bigger, and unless we put Uddam Singh back in his box, things could soon spiral.
And so it was that I was standing on the balcony, nursing a whisky sometime after midnight, when the constable cycled up, came to my door and passed me a note informing me that Suren had been arrested on a charge of murder.
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