Thursday, 24 August 2017

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee


published 2016




Rising Man 1Rising Man 2



I knocked and entered. A young woman was seated behind a desk too small for the oversized typewriter, telephone and stacks of papers that sat upon it. She seemed preoccupied with her typing. ‘Miss Grant?’ She looked up, flustered, her eyes red-rimmed. ‘I’m Captain Wyndham.’

‘Captain,’ she said, pushing a strand of brown hair from her face, ‘please do come in.’ She rose from her chair and in the process knocked over a stack of papers, which scattered on the floor. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, quickly bending down to gather them up. I tried not to stare at her legs, which was difficult because they were fine legs and I appreciate these things. She caught me nevertheless, and to hide my embarrassment, I knelt down, picked up a few stray sheets that had landed at my feet and handed them to her.

[They talk]
I thanked her for her time and stood up to leave. She rose and led me to the door. ‘And Captain,’ she said, ‘if I can be of any further assistance, please let me know.’ I thanked her, took one last surreptitious glance at those smooth, tanned legs, then heard myself saying, ‘And, if it’s still open, I might take you up on your offer to show me Chowringhee.’

She smiled. ‘Of course, Captain. I look forward to it.’



Rising Man 3



commentary: I feel a bit mean picking on one particular aspect of this very enjoyable book, but Abir Mukherjee has come up against the raison d'etre of Clothes in Books.

Later on our hero has this:
Annie Grant…wore a simple blue dress that came down to her knees and afforded me a view of those calves that I so admired.
To which we say: no she didn’t, and no you didn’t get to look at her legs.

It IS simple, and quite straightforward: This is 1919, and Annie Grant works as a respectable secretary in the Indian civil service. She was not showing her legs to anyone. 

The top pictures show what Selfridges department store was selling in London as the height of daring fashion in that year. It is likely that a respectable young woman in Calcutta might be wearing even longer skirts, but even with the benefit of the doubt the policeman could, at best, have seen her ankles. These descriptions of her clothes are unthinkable. The author is mistaking her for a flapper of the 1920s – though even then it would be more correct to say that her blue dress ‘came up to her knees’ rather than down – down implies it is longer than the norm. And even when skirts got shorter, I imagine a working woman in Annie’s situation would err on the modest side.

However. There is a lot more to enjoy about the book - the opener in a new crime series featuring Sam Wyndham, a policeman from Scotland Yard making a new start in Calcutta. The author wants to feature India between the wars, an unusual and intriguing setting.

Our hero investigates the murder of a local sahib, the body found in evening dress with a threatening note in his mouth, and gets caught up in all kinds of politics, the independence movement, and the internal politics of the ruling classes. He has his own issues and problems, and memories of life in London, and the First World War. He establishes a relationship with Surrender-Not Bannerjee, a local policeman with endless experience and useful knowledge. He is the best character in the book, and is given the best lines. When Sam wants to question some women in a house overlooking the crime scene, his Anglo assistant objects:

‘I’m not sure that would be such a good idea, old boy,’ said Digby. ‘There are some things you should know about the natives and their customs. They can be very funny about us questioning their lady-folk. You go barging over there to interrogate some woman and before you know it you’ll have a riot on your hands. It might be better if I handled it.’ 

Banerjee squirmed. Digby’s face darkened. ‘Is there something you wish to say, Sergeant?’ 

‘No, sir,’ said Banerjee apologetically. ‘It’s just that I don’t think anyone will start a riot if we go in there.’ 

Digby’s voice quivered. ‘And what makes you so certain of that?’ 

‘Well, sir,’ said Banerjee, ‘I’m fairly sure that house is a brothel.’



And then later
[There was a] wooden sign, its perfect white letters bearing the message: NO DOGS OR INDIANS BEYOND THIS POINT 
Surrender-not noticed my distaste. ‘Don’t worry, sir,’ he said. ‘We Indians know our place. Besides, the British have achieved certain things in a hundred and fifty years that our civilisation didn’t in over four thousand.’ 
‘Such as?’ I asked. 

Banerjee’s lips contorted in a thin smile. ‘Well, we never managed to teach the dogs to read.’


The book is quite long, and some of the chapters gave us only local colour and maybe one piece of information, but I assume Mukherjee is showing us his research. Some of the casual relations seemed unlikely in such a formal and divided society, and would a respectable preacher really say ‘I thought he was an arse’ about the murder victim? And as for the repeated use of the construction ‘Digby was sat opposite’ or ‘was sat on a chair’ – one might grudgingly have to accept that now, but it is completely wrong for 1919, unthinkably ungrammatical. It’s odd, because Mukherjee is very careful about language in general.

But it was a most promising start to this new series, and I look forward to more, much more, of Surrender-Not.

Thanks to Jackie for the recommendation.





















28 comments:

  1. No, I'm afraid you can't get away with talking about skirts to the knee in 1919, Moira. I don't blame you for picking up on that one. Still, I'm glad you enjoyed the story. I do enjoy stories with a solid sense of atmosphere and place and time (well, except for skirt length). And it's always challenging to decide how much information to give, and how much to just get on with the story...

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    1. I think he is a good writer and this series is very promising. But I think here I am yet again asking 'did NOBODY who read this MS notice anything wrong over the clothes...?'

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  2. "NO DOGS OR INDIANS BEYOND THIS POINT "
    Are there any actual contemporary records or photographs of signs saying things like this?
    It wouldn't surprise me if such rules applied, but I'd think they'd be like the pavilion at Lord's: everybody knows you have to wear a jacket and tie and that women aren't admitted, so there's no need to mention it.

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    1. Sounds like it's right up there with "No dogs or sailors allowed on the grass."

      http://www.snopes.com/military/keepoff.asp

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    2. How did we manage before Snopes?
      In the UK there were apocryphal 'No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs' signs, but again there doesn't seem to be any solid proof.

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  3. "...but even with the benefit of the doubt the policeman could, at best, have seen her ankles."

    If she was wearing standard footgear of the day, chances are the ankles were also covered.

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  4. Sounds interesting, and I will put it on a list for the future. But it is too long.

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    1. Yes, but I think you might enjoy it - a proper murder and investigation!

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  5. I INSTANTLY spotted the skirt length thing. Even through most of the 1920s, many respectable women wore relatively longish mid-calf skirts because you could still get the wrath of Authority on you for revealing just a bit too much in public. And I hate to say it, but that is a deterrment to me, I don't care how well the rest of the book is written, this is the first taste I've had of it, and it's like - "oh, never mind, if the author doesn't know something that fundamental and apparently hasn't even glanced in the general direction of ANY SINGLE BLOOMING IMAGE OF NORMALLY DRESSED 1919 WOMEN, why should I bother with them?"

    I know, brutal, arbitrary, and dismissive, but I am so sick of lazy flapper mythology.

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    1. And actually, that's because the lead image is of 1919 women, so I was instantly clued in as to when the book was set, and immediately prepared to pick up on that. If I didn't know when it was supposed to be set, I'd have thought, "oh, this must be 1940s just before Indian independence...."

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    2. I agree. Things like that spoil a book for me. In The Absolutist by John Boyne, which is set before, during and after WWI, there is talk about the lack of nylon stockings and lipsticks - but nobody would have missed these things at that time. Nylons weren't even invented and only "bad" women used makeup. He is obviously thinking of the next war...

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    3. Makeup wasn't necessarily "bad" at that time, but it wasn't really meant to be blatantly obvious/used openly like it became from the 1920s.

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    4. Yes to both of you. It does take you out of the world he is trying to create I think...The picture is just so wrong.

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  6. Oh, and something I missed in my initial nonplussedness at the short skirt thing - TANNED legs? In 1919 it was still considered a VERY bad thing for a woman to be tanned, the idea that a suntan was desirable hadn't become a common idea yet.

    I really can't begin to imagine what kind of woman would so readily show off her sunburned legs in polite society in 1919, but I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have been employed as a secretary, but would have been more likely to have been viewed with horror, moral disgust, and even have ended up getting herself locked up out of sight, if not in a lunatic asylum, in a convent or somewhere where such dangerous levels of lower-leg exposure (and even more horrifyingly, the implication that she had exposed her legs long enough for them to get SUNBURNED...) could be suitably hidden away.

    If everything else seems to be well-researched, then this is a textbook example of the kind of historical book where anything related to "women's stuff" like fashion is ignored or overlooked or dismissed as holding no relevance and interest to the author (or who he thinks his audience are), but every other historical detail is VERY IMPORTANT to get right. It's such a shame that he has completely abdicated any attempt to accurately reflect how women dressed in 1919, instead going for some sort of weird vague stereotype of women showing off their body parts, described in terms that seem more akin to that of the late 20th-century male gaze. At least he didn't have her showing off her cleavage on top of everything else. It's anachronistic and it seriously devalues the rest of his research, because it makes me ask "What else did he not bother researching?"

    What's sad about this is that he is writing about a period and era that has a lot of significance and resonance with his own background, and is offering a very important perspective and voice on that - so many similar writings come from people who come from a very different background of race and privilege, whilst he offers the Indian eye and voice. That is very important, and I want to credit him for that, but he's really let himself down by being so careless about the question of what his characters would have looked like in the chosen time period.

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    1. Yes I absolutely agree with you Daniel, I am trying to be fair to him, but there is a background thought that he just didn't think this was important. And as you say, there could be so much of importance to say about this unusual setting.
      I didn't know if the 'tanned' legs might be a reference to her mixed heritage, which in some ways would be even odder.
      But also, you wouldn't be able to tell through her stockings, even if her legs were on show...

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  7. I actually don't even like the comment about women's legs or ankles at all. Leave them out altogether, I say. Getting the clothes written correctly is one thing, but do we really need this description?

    I don't know about Britain, but in the U.S., such signs were visible. In 1952, when my father was a union organizer, he went to North Carolina to try to unionize a R.J. Reynolds Tobacco plant. Sign on the factory doors: "No Jews, [racist slur for African Americans here] or union dogs allowed." (!)

    Plant still not unionized, but this was overtly so and this was before the Civil Rights Movement and the 1964 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination.

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    1. I think I'm coming down harder on him after reading the comments - I'm glad it's not just me! Like you, Kathy, I found it somewhat crass and a bit unlikely - the whole business of his staring at her legs.
      And thanks for the extra info about US.

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    2. Yes, there is a fairly well known folk-ish song called "No Irish Need Apply." Then, the Irish became White, and all was hunky dory. So weird to me.

      The tanned thing was not so very much later -- sometimes in the 'twenties -- due to Coco Chanel.

      This woman displaying her legs like this would more likely be an employee in that brothel than as a secretary! And that whole trope of a man eyeing a woman like this is so cliché and really puts me off. Why is it important? And if it's to set up some future relationship, put some imagination into it and come up with something a lot less hackneyed.

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    3. It is an awkward clunky scene, but the rest of the book is better than this would lead you to believe...

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  8. All the year's growing up when me and my friends threatened to call the fashion police on someone for wearing something outlandish, I never thought it was a real thing, but it is - IT'S YOU!

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    1. That's hilarious. The role fits me like a glove - that's a stylish suede glove of exactly the right shade and length, of course.

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  9. Well, in the overall sense of the book, is it interesting and worth reading? Is it progressive as far as the Indian people's movement for independence? Yes, I do care about that.

    Also, Paula reminded me of that song about discrimination against the Irish. I just read about a horrible doctor who did medical experiments in the U.S. in the 1800's on enslaved Black women and young Irish immigrants, whom he considered "inferior." So my blood is now boiling on the part of both groupings of women.
    There is now a movement to get this guy's statue taken down from New York's Central Park.

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    1. There are some shocking bits of history, aren't there..
      And this writer really is trying to say something sensible about the history of India I think. It's just fashion and women he's not so good on.

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  10. Oh, is that all? I would hope women in literature would get more respect at this time in history.

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    1. Indeed. We can only keep on hoping and arguing...

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  11. Yes, and to think that this resident of the White House just reversed the Obama-era ruling on the goal of gender pay equity, and the White House took down a study from its website of sexual violence and sexual assaults on campus. Progress? NOT!
    Going backwards 60 years.

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    1. So depressing. We always hope that life will get better and more progressive, and that the gains cannot be lost. Unfortunately - they can.

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