Abir Mukherjee. (Hilary Stock)
London, Feb. 15: A murder story set in Calcutta penned by a 40-year-old Bengali, Abir Mukherjee, has won a prestigious crime writing competition, it was announced today in London.
“I am in a state of shock,” confessed the winner of the £5,000 (Rs5.18 lakh) book deal in an interview with The Telegraph.
“I have never really written anything before,” added Mukherjee, an LSE-educated chartered accountant who specialises in mergers and acquisitions, “but now I feel like a real Bengali.”
The competition was set by The Daily Telegraph, Britain’s major broadsheet newspaper which received 427 entries, including one from Mukherjee, who did what all candidates were required to do — submit the first 5,000 words of a tale with an international dimension plus a detailed synopsis of the rest of the novel.
Mukherjee, who has “completed two-thirds of the first draft of A Rising Man”, was born in London where he lives with his wife, Sonal, and son, Milan, 5.
He said his parents, Satyen and Suchitra Mukherjee, from Dum Dum and Serampore respectively, “are right now in Calcutta where they spend the winter months but I grew up in Glasgow so I feel more Scottish Bengali than English Bengali.”
The panel of judges included senior crime editor Alison Hennessey and publicity director Bethan Jones from the publishers Harvill Secker, who have not yet read the book but are “delighted to be publishing it”.
“Abir’s opening chapters are beautifully written, atmospheric and intelligent, with a great setting and a wonderfully wry sense of humour throughout,” commented Hennessey. “In Capt. Wyndham, we have a main character who will sit happily on the Harvill Secker bookshelves alongside Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole..... A Rising Man was a very worthy winner.”
The entries were whittled down to a shortlist of six and then the last two.
Another of the judges, journalist Jon Stock, representing The Daily Telegraph, confirmed: “Abir Mukherjee was our unanimous winner.”
The terrain will be familiar to Stock, an old India hand who has freelanced for The Daily Telegraph out of Delhi and Kochi, and has himself written thrillers — Dead Spy Running, Games Traitors Play and The Cardamom Club — either wholly or partially based in India. He paid a generous tribute to Mukherjee’s “confident, assured opening”.
Mamata Banerjee may protest that the author’s imagination is much too vivid — a chap who works in the Writers’ Building, a “burra sahib”, no less, is found in a back street in Calcutta with his throat slit.
Happily, he is not a casualty of internecine party warfare for the tale is set in 1919, in “the very week of Jallianwalla Bagh”. The victim is a Britisher, Alexander MacAuley, an aide to the lieutenant governor and it looks as though he has been bumped off by a “terrorist” from the Quit India movement.
Since this is too obvious a solution, one has to assume that when the full novel is published, it will probably reveal that MacAuley has actually been murdered by a fellow Brit, possibly a political rival or his wife’s lover, assuming he is not gay.
All that is for Mukherjee to reveal but he wants to use his novel to tell what British and Indian attitudes were at the time.
He has chosen bravely to tell his story in the first person from the point of view of the senior investigating officer, “Capt. Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force, a former Scotland Yard detective scarred by the Great War”.
Wyndham has a sidekick, “Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee”, who 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”.
This is Mukherjee’s description of the dead man who had been wearing “Black tie, tails, the works”: His body lay twisted, face up and half-submerged in an open sewer. Throat cut. Limbs at unnatural angles. A large brown bloodstain on a starched white dress shirt. Some fingers missing from one mangled hand and an eye pecked out of its socket. This last act the work of some hulking black crows that now kept angry vigil from the rooftops above.
And then there was the note. A bloodstained scrap of paper, balled up and forced into his mouth. Not a very dignified end for a burra sahib. Throat slit, stabbed, and dumped in a ditch in the middle of Black Town.
The note, which is in Bengali, is translated by an English policeman called Digby, who was “well versed in dealing with the natives” and who had hoped to get the job that went to Wyndham.
Mukherjee writes: Being passed over for promotion is never easy. Having that promotion taken by an outsider fresh from London just 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
He handed back the note. “Looks like the work of terrorists. They’ve been pretty quiet since the end of the war. It appears they’re getting serious again.”
Mukherjee’s story, according to the extract published today, continues: I turned to Banerjee. He was a thin man. A full head shorter than me. Slick black hair parted neatly on one side and skin a deep, earthy brown. Round, steel framed glasses gave him a bookish air so that he resembled more an undergraduate than a policeman.
“Sergeant,” I said, “I want a full fingertip search implemented.”
“Yes sir. Will there be anything else sir?” he replied in an accent straight off a Surrey golf course. He sounded more English than I did. I guessed at an Oxbridge education.
“Just one thing,” I said, “What were you staring at up there?”
Banerjee looked startled but quickly regained his composure. “I saw a woman, sir. 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 sir. I could see the fear in her face. When she saw me looking at her, she froze, then disappeared inside.”
“OK.” I said, “Once you’ve got the search under way, you and I will go over there and see if we can’t have a chat with your lady friend.”
Digby tells Wyndam a search would not be a good idea:
“Have I said something amusing sergeant?” asked Digby, a headmaster chiding an errant schoolboy.
Banerjee stopped instantly. “No sir. It’s just that I don’t think anyone will start a riot if we go in there.”
The anger rose in Digby’s voice. “And what makes you so sure of that sonny?”
“Well sir,” said Banerjee, “It’s just that I’m fairly certain that house is a brothel.”