A British detective in Colonial India must solve a sensitive murder in Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man (Pegasus Crime, May).
What are the biggest misconceptions about the Raj?
I suppose there’s the idea that British rule in India was somehow benevolent, or if not completely altruistic, then that it had redeeming features. This is the “at least we gave them the railways” argument. The truth is, British rule in India was oppression, and as in all cases where one people oppresses another, I believe it was evil. This is a very hard idea for a lot of British people to accept, brought up as we are to believe that we are a moral nation which tends to be on the side of the angels.
What themes did you want to examine?
The question I wanted to ask in the book was: how does a moral, Christian people justify the oppression of another race, both to outsiders, and more importantly to itself? I wanted to explore the impact of colonialism, not just on the subjugated peoples but on the psyche of those doing the subjugating, especially the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system. And what I found was that a lot of them were thoroughly disillusioned by what they were doing in the name of empire.
How did that lead you to write a mystery novel?
I’ve read quite a few detectives who operated in and for totalitarian systems. I wanted to see what would happen when a British detective, coming from a background of democracy and liberty, was placed in a situation in which he had to uphold a system that trampled on those values.
In what way did your own family history affect your take on the Raj?
The first thing to say is that the Raj period isn’t really taught in British schools. I think that, in itself, says a lot. I learned more about German history in the 1920s and 1930s than I did about British history in the period. As such, I only really learned about the Raj from romanticized period pieces like The Jewel in the Crown and A Passage to India. I found it difficult to square those accounts with what my parents would tell me. Growing up as the child of immigrants, I think you develop a natural skepticism for what you learn at school. From an early age, you learn to keep an open mind, to question everything you’re told. You learn that there are two sides to every story and that, quite often, neither side is right and the truth is somewhere in the middle. My impetus to write this book was a desire to tell the story of a time and place which I felt neither British nor Indian sources did justice to.