Abir Mukherjee on the Calcutta of Smoke and Ashes
Set in Raj-era India, Abir Mukherjee's Sam Wyndham novels have captured the imaginations of crime readers who crave evocative settings and immersive period atmosphere. As the third installment, Smoke and Ashes, takes its rightful place as the current Waterstones Thriller of the Month, the bestselling author explains why the location of Calcutta is so crucial to the series' success
When I decided to send my detective, Sam Wyndham, off to Raj-era India, there was only ever one choice of destination – Calcutta. These days, the city appears as little more than a branch line on the backpacker trail, overshadowed by the Bollywood-fuelled glamour of Mumbai or the high-tech hustle of Bangalore, but those who venture there will tell you that Calcutta (or Kolkata as it’s now called) still has the power to surprise.A hundred years ago things were very different. Back then, Calcutta was the richest city in Asia: a place of trade and commerce, of high-culture and high-life. It was a city of palaces, where a sahib could play a round of golf on the oldest course outside of the British Isles while his memsahib sipped the best Cosmopolitans mixed anywhere east of Suez.
It also holds a special place in the history of criminal detection, as it was here that the art of fingerprinting was first systematised. The world’s first fingerprint bureau was established by the Calcutta Police in 1897, almost five years before Scotland Yard set up its Fingerprint Bureau. The men who developed the classification method, known as the Henry System, were two Indians, Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. One was a Muslim, the other a Hindu. The man who received the plaudits of course, was their boss, Edward Henry, who was later knighted and went on to be one of the greatest commissioners of Scotland Yard.
Calcutta was from the start a truly international city; a city shaped by two very distinct cultures, British and Indian, but also home to sizeable communities of Chinese, Africans, Armenians, Jews, Parsees, Punjabis and Marwaris (traders from Rajasthan). And this internationalism still defines the character of the place and its people. As the author Tahir Shah wrote, ‘Calcutta's the only city I know where you are actively encouraged to stop strangers at random for a quick chat.’
The city, though, has also been stalked by the ever-present shadow of death. Since its founding by the British in the 1690s in what was probably the least British place on earth – the middle of a malarial swamp in the jungles of Bengal, Calcutta has never been a stranger to the grave, a fact borne out by the surfeit of headstones and family mausoleums in the city’s Park Street and Scottish cemeteries, and the millions of lives lost to famines both natural and man-made.
For a writer of crime novels, it was a place and a time that offered everything you could want: wealth and poverty; commerce and corruption; glamour and intrigue and death; and swirling over it all, the tumultuous currents of the Indian independence movement.
The place is different these days but the skeletons of its past are still there, casting their long shadows. To me, the city and its people represent so much that is noble in the human spirit and yet so much that is dark. They’re a testament that life goes on, and even thrives in the face of the greatest of adversities.