Friday, January 8, 2021

A Time and Place For Everything

by Abir 

If you could set a book you haven’t written yet anywhere in the world, at any time in history, among societies other than your own, where would you choose and why?

A Happy New Year to you all from a wintry, locked-down England. We enter the new year in a state of high tension on both sides of the Atlantic, with the virus seemingly raging out of control once more, but this time there's tangible hope on the horizon, because he'll be gone in thirteen days. Still, it's a good time to for a bit of escapism, a time to lose yourself in a book set as far away from the here and now as possible.

This week's question had me scratching my head, mainly because this is really what my writing career has been all about. My first series of books - the Wyndham and Banerjee series are all set in the Raj-era India of the 1920s. They follow two detectives, Captain Sam Wyndham, a jaded British ex Scotland Yard officer and survivor of the trenches of World War One, and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, a quick-witted young officer and the first Indian detective enrolled into the ranks of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta. Suren has to suffer some of the ignominies of being the only non white officer in the department, and the fact that  his skin colour means he'll only ever rise so far, despite his brilliance. The books highlight what I believe to be the truth of this period in history, stripping away the rose-tinted perspective which we British tend to apply to the Raj, but also giving the lie to much of the way Indians perceive their own history of this period. Earlier this week, one of my colleagues wrote: 'Write what you know' - and this is good advice. I feel I can write about this period because I am a product of both cultures. I am British, but of Indian origin. I can understand both sides of the story, and so my job is to bring that perspective, that understanding of human nature, out in my novels.

The Wyndham & Banerjee series, books 1 to 4, US editions

I've been fortunate. Back in 2013, when I told my father that I wanted to write novels highlighting the time of the British in India, he asked me whether anyone would want to read the truth about this period. He didn't live to see the first book published, but he'd have been pleasantly surprised and gratified to know that yes, people are interested in this time and place. The books have been bestsellers, now translated into fifteen languages, and have won awards in several countries. I will keep writing them as long as people remain interested in Sam and Suren's adventures and providing I've still got something interesting to say.

UK editions 

At the same time, I want to write about other things - other times and places. As I've mentioned here before, I'm currently writing a novel set mainly in the USA, in the current day (actually a few years in the future) exploring the issues of radicalisation and political polarisation and the impacts of that on family. It's a big departure and a million miles away from Raj era India, but I'm feeling the same buzz about writing it that I felt when I was writing that first Wyndham and Banerjee novel, A Rising Man. It feels fresh and new (at least to me!), and the message it contains feels urgent. 

What might I write in the future? Well they say that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it - and I think this is very true. I think some of the best historical novels are those which hold up the past as a mirror for our own time and place, highlighting issues that affect us today. The things that keep me awake at night right now are issues such as political extremism, and the fracturing of common values of what constitutes society and decency. I'm also vexed by the attacks on the institutions of liberal democracy by the forces of populism (not just in America or Britain - the same thing is happening in Europe and India). I might wright a book addressing these issues, but I'd need to research the right time and place which would serve as my allegorical equivalent. Maybe the last days of the Roman republic before Caesar seized power, who knows? But that's the great thing about fiction. Our canvas is the entirety of time and space - the real and the imagined. Nothing is out of bounds if your imagination and your prose are up to the challenge!

Have a great weekend, and stay safe.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Abir — nothing is out of bounds.

Catriona McPherson said...

That was some tough love form your dad, Abir!

Susan C Shea said...

Death in the East was especially revealing about change in the Raj era as Surrender-not becomes Surendranath and claims his place in society and his profession. I cheered him on as I read!