The Shadows of Men
By Abir Mukherjee
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-1787300606
352pp.

Set in Calcutta [now Kolkata], capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee is both historical fiction and murder mystery. It is the fifth in a series that features detectives Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath “Suren” Banerjee of the Imperial Police.

The year is 1923. The freedom movement has gained traction all across the Subcontinent and anti-British sentiment is at an all-time high. With the colonisers’ departure now all but imminent, it seems the big question isn’t when the British will leave; rather, it is who will wield influence in India’s power structures once the Raj is gone.

Consequently, despite Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s efforts at forging a united India and repeated calls for Hindu-Muslim unity, communal tensions are on the rise, aggravated further by the activities of the Union of Islam and the Shiv Sabha — two political organisations representing polar extremes in the struggle for political power.

At this point, the brutal murder of a Hindu scholar named Prashant Mukherjee propels the situation towards all out violence, bringing Calcutta into the grip of riots and bloodshed. This is doubly perilous because, if the violence spreads, it can seriously affect the possibility of conducting the national elections, scheduled for the end of the year.

A historical novel set within a murder-mystery genre is an entertaining read but its postcolonial ambitions are thwarted by an ability to come to grips with the issue of class

It bears mentioning that, historically, the elections of 1923 were won by the Swaraj [self rule] Party, co-founded by Motilal Nehru (father of Jawaharlal Nehru), so the significance of the timing can hardly be underplayed.

The heroic duo of the novel are tasked with the responsibility of discovering the identity of Prashant Mukherjee’s murderer and preventing — or at least containing, as far as possible — the outbreak of communal violence. Cracking the case becomes all the more urgent when, in a strange turn of events, the prime suspect in the eyes of the Imperial Police turns out to be none other than… Suren.

With his only guarantor — Police Commissioner Lord Charles Taggart — having fallen victim to an assasination attempt and now lying unconscious in the infirmary, there is no one who can clear Suren’s name.

Will Sam and Suren apprehend the criminal in time and prevent a national disaster, while also managing to help Suren avoid a definite death sentence? Were this a typical murder-mystery, this is the only question the novel would be interested in.

This is usually the standard for genre novels that conclude once the villain is unmasked and the status quo has been restored. But even genre novels, post-Theory, tend to take on more nuanced challenges. As a storyteller, the self-aware postcolonial writer knows that, in the broadest sense, the narrative has been marked by an absence of the native voice for far too long.

This absence must be addressed. The story, as it were, has always been told by the coloniser at the cost of the native. The Shadows of Men strives to right this historical wrong with great seriousness and a sense of responsibility.

Author Mukherjee flexes his postcolonial muscle as he attempts to tackle the larger, more insidious questions relating to the colonial project itself as an inherently exploitative and ruthless exercise of power, the institutions — such as the Imperial Police — that maintain it and its impact on the very idea of justice. Can an immoral occupying force really ever be expected to deliver justice? Is it even possible?

Sam’s musings as an English officer of the Imperial Police often raise these questions: “...I had no proof of anything but that was the great thing about our laws. If you had the merest suspicion that an Indian had committed a crime, you could simply arrest him and come up with a rationale later.”

And again: “I was tired of always being on the back foot, always defending the indefensible. Placing oneself in a position of semi-permanent hypocrisy, that’s what it meant to be an Englishman in India...”

Suren’s perspective, meanwhile, often considers the flip side, the receiving end of colonial culture: “... there is no sight more incongruous, nothing that speaks more to our moral subjugation, than that of an Indian in a morning suit. There is no reason for it, save to salve the sensibilities of our masters.”

As a postcolonial text, Mukherjee’s novel engages with the absence of a native voice and attempts to strike a fairer balance.

Suren, therefore, insists at the onset that this story is, in large part, his and cannot fully be told without his narration. Thus, each chapter in the book offers the perspective of either one or the other of the two detectives. This device not only helps with character development — as the reader gets to learn what Suren thinks about Sam and vice versa — it also provides the reader with two distinct voices, one of which would ordinarily have been ignored.

Interestingly, the murderer too is characterised not because of what is present, but what is all too conspicuously absent. Or what should have been present, but isn’t. This becomes integral to solving the mystery.

Finally, Mukherjee manages to conjure an India that isn’t a monolithic abstraction, but a linguistically and culturally diverse land, as opposed to the usual hot and dusty monstrosity that the white man constantly complained about finding so difficult to govern even as he robbed it blind.

However, Mukherjee’s narrative, while giving voice to an Indian, fails to address another important issue: class. Suren is a graduate of the University of Cambridge and, though seemingly unassuming, he comes from wealth. He can, when the circumstances call for it, simply board a ship and sail off to Europe till things settle down back home.

And except for the usual liberal favourite — the stock character of the ‘noble whore’ — there really isn’t much to be said about the working class in Mukherjee’s narrative.

At worst, it is greedy and violent. At best, it consists of laughable clods. And this brings us to a larger issue, one that is integral to the postcolonial framework: its bourgeois nature. It simply cannot confront the issue of class except in the same way that Jospeh Conrad confronts black identity in his Heart of Darkness: superficially, through a filter marked by stereotype.

Thus, the novel, charged as it is with postcolonial angst — and rightfully so — unfortunately falls prey to the same error as the theory that appears to inform it. It manages to subsume class within a liberal account of the anti-colonial struggle, till it disappears in name, but not in fact.

Then, as the novel progresses, we discover that the primary sources of aid for our heroes are two extremely wealthy women, among whom one, at least, seems motivated purely by the desire to be amused. The circle is complete. Money services money.

That being said, The Shadows of Men is overall a quick, entertaining read. It may not be perhaps the best example of its genre, but nevertheless it does deliver. And as far as attempts to write revisionist literature go, feminist interventions aside, this is a fair attempt and may appeal to a large audience.

The reviewer is a bibliophile

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 17th, 2022

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