The Indian independence movement was nearly a century in the making (1857-1947). By 1921, when thousands of Indian troops had returned from fighting for their king-emperor in World War I, the movement began shifting into high gear. Mohandas Gandhi‘s policies of nonviolence and civil disobedience were taking hold. In Calcutta, epicenter of the action, increasingly large crowds were gathering to resist British rule. And when the Prince of Wales (the former Edward VIII) was sent there on a goodwill tour, the clash between ruler and ruled heated up to the breaking point. That is the setting for Abir Mukherjee’s top-notch detective novel, Smoke and Ashes. The action plays out in the closing days of December 1921, when the Prince arrived in the city.
Smoke and Ashes (Wyndham and Banerjee #3) by Abir Mukherjee (2019) 337 pages ★★★★★
Wyndham, Banerjee, and Das
Captain Sam Wyndham is a senior British police officer working in Calcutta. Previously, he had “spent time in Special Branch in London, infiltrating Irish nationalists.” He is a widower, his wife having died of the flu in the 1918 epidemic. Sam had been wounded as a soldier in World War I and become addicted to morphine and later opium, a habit he is forced to conceal from his superiors. Wyndham’s brilliant young assistant, Surendranath Banerjee—known to the British as Surrender-not—is a son of the local elite. His father is a prominent attorney, and the family is close to C. R Das, Gandhi’s chief ally in the populous state of Bengal and leader of the independence movement there. The relationships that develop among these three men—Wyndham, Banerjee, and Das—are pivotal to the plot of Smoke and Ashes.
Colonial Calcutta: history is front and center in Smoke and Ashes
Many historical mysteries and thrillers use historical circumstances as a backdrop for what otherwise would be conventional novels of suspense. The history is little more than a stage set. In Smoke and Ashes, history is front and center. Early on, in the ten days over which the action unfolds, we become aware of an imminent clash between Gandhi’s forces and the British. And the tension builds to a powerful climax.
However, if the conflict between ruler and ruled is indeed the dominant plot, the murder mystery that preoccupies Wyndham and Banerjee runs a close second. And, as we learn eventually, the two threads of the plot are closely intertwined. Mukherjee does a skillful job of weaving them together. What had originally appeared to be the murder of a gang lord later proves to be something quite different. And it helps Wyndham expose a horrific historical crime.
A vivid picture of life in colonial Calcutta
Here’s Sam reflecting on what he sees in a visit to one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods: “Dilapidated native dwellings of exposed brick and bamboo began to dot the roadside as we drove past the hole-in-the-wall shops, tea shacks with their clientele of shiftless, listless old men, pariah dogs, itinerant cows and all the other detritus of small-town Indian life. The native dwellings gave way to the high-walled compounds of phosphate factories and jute mills, their ramparts impregnated with shards of broken glass to deter the mischievous and the mendacious.”
Insight into the Indian independence movement
Sam later reflects, “we British considered ourselves a moral people. What else was the vaunted British sense of fair play but a manifestation of our morality? Gandhi and Das’s genius was that they realised that better than we did ourselves. They recognised that when it came down to it, the British and the Indians weren’t that different, and the way to beat us was to appeal to our better natures—to make us comprehend the moral incongruity of our position in India. We could only control India through force of arms, but force was useless against a people who didn’t fight back; because you couldn’t kill people like that without killing a part of yourself too.” It was this insight Gandhi had brought to the independence struggle that eventually led to the departure of the British in 1947.
About the author
Abir Mukherjee is a British mystery writer of Indian descent. He launched the Wyndham and Banerjee series out of an interest in learning more about Anglo-Indian history. And he could hardly have chosen better than to set his tales in colonial Calcutta (today Kolkata). The city had been the capital of the British Raj from 1772 to 1911. And to this day, Calcutta remains a hotbed of political dissent.
For additional reading
I’m reviewing all the novels in the Wyndham and Banerjee series at The Wyndham and Banerjee historical detective novels set in colonial India. And for similar titles, see The best Indian detective novels reviewed here.
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