From ‘The Far Pavilions’ to ‘Bhowani Junction’, ‘Heat and Dust’ to Yashpal’s ‘Veh Tufani Din’, and ‘Kim’ to ‘Kanthapura’ and many others, the British Raj inspired a varied array of impressive literature across almost all genres and languages.
The deficiency was chiefly in detective fiction, or specifically, its police procedural sub-genre, despite the immense potential, and its ability to portray the prevailing socio-political conditions and faultlines uncompromisingly. But, slowly, the shortfall is being addressed.
With ingenious plots, singular characters, and lurid happenings, detective fiction satisfies the human propensity for puzzles, sensationalism, and justice delivered. Then, more varied the backdrop in time and space, it meets the yearning for the exotic. That is why you can find the genre – and the sub-genre – in all kinds of eras and settings – medieval England, Russia of both the Tsars and the Commissars, Solomon Islands in the 1960s, present-day Sicily, to name a few.
British India was, for quite long, the outlier here, despite perfect conditions – the growing resentment and opposition to foreign rule, the social churning, the disparate social and religious composition (and sensibilities) of a sprawling populace, attempts by colonial/other rivals to cause instability, and the like.
While there was no shortage of “amateur” heroes, say Kim, and soldier/administrators (William Savage and his family in John Masters’ 1952 novel ‘The Deceivers’) to tackle such threats, the first modern Indian policeman in fiction was Rudyard Kipling’s maverick Inspector Strickland, seen in six short stories and a cameo appearance in ‘Kim’ after debuting in ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’ (1888).
Feted for his skill in operating undercover and knowing secrets which consequently makes him both hated and feared by the natives, Strickland’s feats, however, are only referred to in passing and only one of the stories is crime fiction.
Former Indian policeman Edmund Charles Cox penned ‘John Carruthers, Indian Policeman’ (1905), but it only is a dozen short tales that leave readers yearning for more.
Alexander Wilson’s ‘The Mystery of Tunnel 51’ and ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ (both 1928), the first two of his “Wallace of the Secret Service” series and set in then India, do have some detection features but have not aged well with the lead characters’ view of the Indian people not likely to be very popular.
It is only with teacher-turned-author Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands that the Raj police procedural hits its stride. While only four of the 13-odd instalments starring the soldier-turned-Met policeman are set in India, they happen to be the first four, and are true to the time and its ethos.
They also set a benchmark – one instalment of any such series has to move from British India to a princely state.
The settings are par for the course – a cantonment, somewhere deep in the Bengal hinterland (‘The Last Kashmiri Rose’, 2001), Simla (‘Ragtime in Simla’, 2002), the Afghan borderlands (‘The Damascened Blade’, 2003), and the princely state, which is rather incongruous cross between Rajputana and a Himalayan principality (‘The Palace Tiger’, 2004).
After Sandilands leaves for home, Australian academic and author Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Chris LeFanu takes up the baton, and breaks new ground.
While Sandilands interacts mostly with his class and kind, save in the last, LeFanu, of the Madras Police, has no scruples in interacting with Indians of all classes, and even those Europeans not quite well-considered officially (Annie Beasant for one) and shares a warm camaraderie with his subordinate, Mohammad Habibullah, or Habi for short.
Set in the Madras of the early 1920s, the series also becomes more politically overt, and dwells into the vexed question of race relations between the ruler and the ruled, including the anomalous status of the Anglo-Indians, and the point that the rulers contain a fair amount of rotten apples.
Debuting in ‘Madras Miasma’ (2014), LeFanu, another ex-soldier with World War I experience, investigates the murder of a British woman and makes several enemies within the establishment, including his unimaginative immediate boss.
‘The Pallampur Predicament’ (2014) brings to him to a princely state, ‘A Straits Settlement’ (2016) sees his investigation take him across the Bay of Bengal to another colonial possession – and a fork in his own life, and ‘A Greater God’ (2018) brings up the vexed conundrum of communal tensions and criminality, in the garb of majoritarian politics and social renewal, even as his personal life gets shrouded in dilemma and tragedy.
Unfortunately, there is no information on the next instalment.
Abir Mukherjee, though bred in Scotland, becomes the first Indian to join the club, and with the deeply atmospheric, intricately plotted and abundantly thrilling accounts of the Wyndham/Banerjee duo, takes the trend to a newer level.
‘A Rising Man’ (2016) introduces Captain Sam Wyndham, also a former soldier but a pre-war policeman. His war experiences, however, have left him with a shameful vulnerability that can cost him his job if known. On the other hand, his subordinate, Sergeant ‘Surrender-not’ (Surendranath) Banerjee, has his own problems, being at odds with his family over his police job.
Post-World War I Calcutta is more volatile then Madras and Wyndham has to understand the rules of the game, withstand the muggy weather, learn who to trust, amid the unwritten but inviolable rules of class and race interactions, the undeclared struggle for higher moral ground, the different approaches of military intelligence and police, the debates among Indians on the way ahead. Cameos of top local politicians add to the verisimilitude.
‘A Necessary Evil’ (2017) is the princely state instalment, ‘Smoke and Ashes’ (2018) has a dire threat looming ahead of the Prince of Wales’ visit, ‘Death in the East’ (2019) re-acquaints Wyndham with a nightmare from the past on an Assam trip, as he struggles to cure himself, and the pulsating ‘The Shadows of Men’ (2021) brings in communal discord and its devious backers while ending on a cliffhanger as one of the duo sails off to Europe.
Try any of these and you will see how the key features remain the same despite changing outwardly.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)