Oh Calcutta! Abir Mukherjee Introduces the City That Inspired A Rising Man

Posted on 11th May 2017 by Martha Greengrass

‘Calcutta has always been a strange sort of place, a place of contrasts where the best and worst of humanity sit cheek by jowl.’

Our Thriller of the Month for May, Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man is a portrait of intrigue, corruption and betrayal that goes to the heart of the political establishment of early twentieth-century India. The novel's beating heart is Calcutta, described in one review as being ‘so convincingly evoked that readers will find sweat bursting from their foreheads’. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, Abir Mukherjee introduces the city that inspired him.

When I decided to send Sam Wyndham off to India, there was only ever one choice of destination - it had to be Calcutta. To the uninitiated, she might seem like a backwater, little more than a branch line on the backpacker trail, with none of the political drama of Delhi or the dynamism of Mumbai, but those in the know would tell you that though her best days might be behind her, Calcutta still has its surprises.
A hundred years ago things were different. Then, Calcutta was still the greatest city in Asia, a city of commerce and a cornerstone of the British Raj. It was a city of high-culture and the high life, a place where a sahib could play a round of golf on the oldest course outside of the British Isles while his memsahib sipped the finest Cosmopolitans mixed anywhere east of Suez.
It was a city of science and literature. It was in Calcutta’s Presidency Hospital that Sir Ronald Ross made his Nobel Prize winning discovery that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes. And it was Calcutta that was home to physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the ‘boson’ is named. And then there is Rabindranath Tagore, the city’s most famous son, and the first non-white to win the Nobel Prize for literature.  
For some, cocooned in the mansions of White Town, life in Calcutta could be one long party, but for the masses living in the sprawling, overcrowded Black Town, things were different. Their Calcutta was the heart of the independence movement, a hive of sedition and a hotbed of anti-British terrorism. It was a place where native life was cheap and even a sahib could find his throat neatly slit if he ventured too far into the wrong place at the right time. The tensions inherent in such an environment could burst to the fore at any time, and the men of the Calcutta Police naturally had their work cut out for them. It’s fortunate then, that Calcutta also has a special place in the history of crime detection. 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 Branch.
The city calls itself Kolkata these days. The name change seems half-hearted somehow, as though the metropolis is in two minds about breaking with its past. But Calcutta has always been a strange sort of place, a place of contrasts where the best and worst of humanity sit cheek by jowl. While anyone who’s heard of it knows of its wretched, ever-present poverty, fewer will know of its citizens’ love of the arts. Calcutta has more theaters than New York and London combined and hosts one of the largest book fairs anywhere in the world.
In its heyday it was known as the city of palaces, and while these days it’s better known as the city of joy, the skeletons of those great buildings are still there, decaying gently in the Bengal sun, casting the long shadows of their imperial past onto the bustling city that has grown up around them – a testament that life goes on, and that Calcutta and its citizens continue to thrive and to revel in life, even in the face of the greatest of adversities. 


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env: aptum