By Abir Mukherjee – Reading this fast-paced police procedural is like a trip back in time to the British Raj, mid-1920. Calcutta-based Imperial Police Force Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee—whom Wyndham insists on calling Surrender-not—find themselves embroiled in a complicated and politically tricky investigation.
An old school acquaintance of the Sergeant’s, Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore is visiting Calcutta to attend the formation of a Chamber of Princes, another in His Majesty’s Government’s urgent stratagems to dampen the population’s growing sentiment supporting Home Rule. While Wyndham and Banerjee are riding in a car with the Prince, he tells them he’s received anonymous death threats back home. Right on cue, a man dressed in the saffron robes of a Hindu priest steps in front of the car and shoots him dead. The two policemen investigate and find the attacker, who commits suicide rather than be taken.
Further steps in the investigation, it seems, will have to take place in Sambalpore, but as one of the larger and more important Princely States, Sambalpore is administered under the auspices of its Maharajah, not the British government. The Sergeant’s acquaintanceship with the prince provides an excuse for the pair of them to go to Sambalpore for the funeral and—strictly unofficially, of course—see what they can find out.
In an author’s note Mukherjee says there was an actual princely state of Sambalpur southwest of Calcutta, with a several thousand-year history. It was notable as a place where both diamonds and coal—which figure in the plot of the novel—were prevalent. Carbon in its various forms has made the fictional Maharaja of Sambalpore the fifth richest man in India, enabling the lavish lifestyle Wyndham and Surrender-not enjoy as his guests.
Sambalpore is also a center of the worship of Lord Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu. The English word juggernaut, which refers to a merciless and unstoppable force, derives from the temple cars used in worshiping Jagannath and metaphorically in this novel, to the forces that ally to secure Sambalpore’s future.
As a first-person narrator, Wyndham is perceptive and charming. At times he plays his clueless Englishman card, as in the sobriquet for his sergeant. He good-naturedly criticizes their peon for not managing to master English, despite years of service, never turning that linguistic mirror on himself. The only cultural difficulty he seems unable to accommodate is the idea of an Englishwoman involved with an Indian man. Meanwhile, he’s adopted some local customs quite whole-heartedly, including the rituals and pleasures of opium-smoking.
Wyndham’s cultural blind spots are a clever narrative device for Mukherjee, who uses them to inform the Captain—and the reader—about social, political, and religious matters that impinge on the investigation. Mukherjee has created an engaging pair of police protagonists and an array of well-conceived secondary characters too.
As the plot unfolds, the complexity of Sambalpore palace life, the royal family, and the ambitious civil servants is spread out before you, and it is difficult to see how matters will resolve. Yet, time is short. The English diplomat stationed in Sambalpore, who has a deliciously gossipy wife, is determined to get rid of him and Surrender-not, and the two policemen may be put on the next train north to Calcutta at any moment.