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THE WAITER . . . Between the covers

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Kamil Rahman is a Bengali Muslim, but in name only. He enjoys a beer, and his job as a detective with the Kolkata Police Force gives him little time for religious observance. His father was a distinguished cop before him, and he tries hard to live up to that reputation. When a famous Bollywood film star is found dead in a plush hotel, Kamil is astonished to be given the job of finding the killer of Asif Khan.

We are getting ahead of ourselves. The killing of Asif Khan was in July, but the book opens in the October of the same year, and we find Kamil not heading up a crack team of investigators in the capital city of West Bengal, but waiting tables in a curry house in London’s Brick Lane.

Waiter cover007The restaurant is run by his relatives Saibal and Maya, with help from their daughter Anjali. At this point is worth  reminding people that families are the big thing in the sub-continent, and most of the characters in the book are related in one way or another. The story starts on the evening that the restaurant has been booked to provide the food for the lavish 60th birthday party of rich entrepreneur Rakesh Sharma. He and his new wife Neha – half his age – are installed in a lavish mansion on Billionaire’s Row near Hampstead Heath. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that Sharma’s first wife (and son by that union) are still very much on the scene.

As the party gets into its stride, Sharma shocks his audience when he announces that he is going to sell all his holdings and divert the rest of his life to charitable works, dedicated to his young wife. As Kamil and the other functionaries are driving home in the small hours, they receive a chilling ‘phone call. Sharma has been found dead – apparently battered about the head with a heavy object. They return to the mansion, slightly ahead of the police.

The big question with which Ajay Chowdhury teases us is, of course, why has Kamil ended up in a walk-on part in one of London’s innumerable Indian restaurants, rather than being an important detective in Kolkata. Chowdhury uses a ‘then-and-now’ narrative. It’s not my favourite literary device, but at least we have only two time slots to keep track of. We are deep into the book before we discover why Kamil is bowing and scraping in London, rather than advancing his career – and his marriage prospects to his smart and beautiful lawyer fiancée Maliha – back in West Bengal. The answer comes in the form of a terrible betrayal.

This is just a crime novel, albeit a very good one, but it does raise questions about probity in public life. People of my age have had a lifetime of reading about the depth of corruption in India and Pakistan, and Chowdhury paints an unflattering picture of the wheels-within-wheels in the Kolkata Police Force. Are we any better here? Is the corruption just more subtle, and more in people’s peripheral vision rather than in full view? I write this review at a time when news bulletins remind us of the awful, unbridgeable gulf between the haves and have-nots in present day Covid-blighted India.

Eventually, Kamil’s Kalkota downfall is explained, and we also learn who killed Rakesh Sharma. There is much entertainment on the way to the finale. The Met Police copper’s last words suggest that we haven’t heard the last of Kamil Rahman.

We are always looking for skilled detectives from diverse backgrounds.”

This is a confident and sure-footed debut, with a likeable and warmly credible hero. Chowdhury deftly captures the contrasting – yet uncannily similar – mileus of Kolkata and Brick Lane. The Waiter is published by Harvill Secker, and will be out on 27th May.

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THE TAINTED . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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When I was offered the chance to read The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan, I sensed that it wasn’t my usual fare, but I was drawn in by the historical and military background of the story. I’ll say right now that I loved it. The narrative spans sixty years, is set in India between 1920 and 1982 and deals with two very different families – that of an Anglo-Irish soldier, and a young Anglo-Indian woman and her descendants.

The TaintedThis is a fine novel, and as is to be expected with any such story set in historical India – think A Passage To India or The Jewel In The Crown – at its heart are the various tensions that exist between native Indians, Anglo-Indians (people of mixed race) and the British rulers. Cauvery Madhavan doesn’t stop there, however. She introduces another theme of social conflict which shimmers and reverberates rather like the sympathetic strings on a sitar, and this is the relationship between another group of subjects and masters – the Roman Catholic population of The Irish Republic and the English landed gentry who, for so long, governed them.

The story begins in 1920, in the garrison town of Indaghiri. Private Michael Flaherty of the Kildare Rangers falls in love with Rose Twomey, a young woman who works as a maidservant in the house of Colonel Aylmer, the head of the regiment. Historical background is crucial here, but I’ll be as concise as possible. The Kildare Rangers are fictional, but their factual counterparts were the Connaught Rangers. The southern Irish regiments had fought bravely for the British cause in The Great War, but with republican unrest simmering in Ireland, many of the units had been posted overseas.

Rose Twomey is fair of skin, with delightful freckles, but she is mixed race. Her father married an Indian woman, and so Rose carries the crucial taint of being Anglo-Indian and, to use the brutal logic of the time, she is neither one thing nor the other. Michael and Rose sup well, but not wisely, and the result is that Rose, pregnant with Michael’s child, is disowned by both her father and the Aylmer family.

One of the remarkable things about the logistics of the British Army in The Great War was that it was able to deliver letters from home with pinpoint accuracy to even the most God-forsaken trench on the Western Front, and so it that the men of the Kildare Rangers have a ready supply of news from home. And it is not good news. In an attempt to stifle Irish nationalism, the British have created an auxiliary police force attached to the Roral Irish Constabulary. Known as the Black and Tans, they are mostly unemployed former soldiers, and their brutal intimidation of the civilian population is causing unrest among the men of the Rangers. When this unrest turns to outright mutiny, it is soon quashed, but Michael and several other men are arrested and face the firing squad.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 19.56.18The second part of The Tainted jumps forward to 1982. India is rapidly emerging as a modern nation, but it retains the vast web of bureacracy bequeathed to it by the long departed British. Mohan Kumar is the Collector for the Nandagiri district. He is, in the vast scheme of things, a relatively minor functionary, but one with great local power and prestige. He is asked to accommodate a photographer from Ireland, Richard Aylmer, who is none other than the grandson of the late Colonel of the Kildare Rangers. The Colonel was a talented artist, and Richard’s mission is to match contemporary photographs with the scenes his grandfather painted. Mohan points Richard in the direction of Gerry Twomey, a forestry manager whose knowledge of the local landscape is unmatched.

Of course, Gerry Twomey – and his sister May – are descendants of Rose Twomey, and I will say no more other than to promise that what follows is enchanting, heartbreaking and beautifully written. Cauvery Madhavan (above right) takes many risks, plot-wise in this book, but everything not only falls into place, but does so with style and bravura. The Tainted is published by HopeRoad and is out on 30th April.

Men of the Connaught Rangers did stage a brief mutiny against their commanders, and some of the ringleaders were executed. Those buried in India were, as suggested in The Tainted, eventually disinterred and their remains repatriated to Ireland. You can find out more here.

For more about the Raj in 20th century India, take a look at the excellent Christian Le Fanu novels by Brian Stoddart.

A GREATER GOD . . . Between the covers

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AGGSuperintendent Christian Le Fanu makes a welcome return in A Greater God, the fourth in the excellent series of historical crime novels by Brian Stoddart. The previous novel, A Straits Settlement, saw Le Fanu playing away from home in Penang, but now he has returned to his adopted home of Madras. His colleagues Mohammad Habibullah and Jackson Caldicott are relieved to see him, because in his absence the Inspector General of Madras Police, the incompetent and choleric Arthur Jepson, has been creating havoc with his hardline racist approach to policing.

Habibullah and Caldicott normally have a harmonious and respectful relationship, but Le Fanu senses a change. Habibullah is becoming increasingly concerned about the worsening status of his fellow Muslims and this has created tension with Caldicott. This adds to Le Fanu’s sense of unease about the wisdom of his return to Madras. While in Penang, he has fallen in love with Jenlin Koh, a beautiful Chinese woman and has been offered a lucrative job in the Straits Settlements. As the behaviour of Jepson becomes more erratic another piece of bad news adds to Le Fanu’s problems: his former lover, Ro McPhedren, from whom he has parted relatively amicably, has been stricken with typhoid in Hyderabad and is not expected to survive.

For good or ill, events soon jolt Le Fanu out of his introspective mood. A Muslim community has been violently attacked, probably by Hindu extremists, and it looks as if Habibullah’s worst fears are being realised. When nationalist agitators converge on Madras for a planned assault, a disastrous intervention by Jepson leaves police officers dead. Le Fanu’s military experience, cool head and excellent leadership is needed to resolve the situation, albeit temporarily, but the prospect of serious bloodshed between Muslims and Hindus remains a frightening possibility unless wiser heads prevail.

Le Fanu is no Boys’ Own hero: he has a physical revulsion and genuine terror of bloodshed, and this makes his courage under fire even more remarkable. I can’t think of another writer, unless it is the inestimable Chris Nickson with his ‘hear-it, breathe-it, smell-it’ series of Leeds novels, who brings history to life with as much élan as Brian Stoddart. His 1920s India is announced not so much with a trumpet as a fanfare. Where he excels is not so much in the details of sensory perception (although they are strong) but in the portrayal of the infinitely complex social nuances, not only between the Indians and the British, but those between British people of different backgrounds, education and aspirations.

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Stoddart knows India, just as we know that the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples and the whole insubstantial pageant of British India did, eventually fade. But did they leave ‘not a wrack behind’? There were decent men like the fictional Le Fanu. There were men and women who, maybe through pragmatism, perhaps through enlightenment, realised that in the end a nation of people with minds every bit as quick and aspirations just as heartfelt as those of their colonial rulers, would emerge and cast off recent history like an old and threadbare coat.

The divisions between Britain and its former subjects in India are largely a thing of the past: sadly, what divides Hindu and Muslim within the pages of A Greater God is a more formidable beast and one that has yet to be slain. Add proud Sikhs into the mix, and there remains a conflict which, while it currently appears to be only embers of a former fire, there remains the fear that it can still burst into violent flames.

A Greater God is a tense crime thriller, but also a deeply compassionate human story written by an author at the top of his game. It is published by Selkirk International, and will be out on 30th November.

We also have a feature on the author, and clicking the blue link will take you to it.

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