BOOK || A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee

A Necessary Evil has an enterprising premise that promises a modern retelling of times past – an era when Maharajahs were not merely stuff of legends and the British still managing to keep the majority of the subcontinent under the rule of the crown.

It is a tale of intrigue and murderous conspiracies involving the topmost brasses of the ‘Sambalpore’ kingdom – a real province in present-day Odisha whose alternate history has been carefully concocted by Abir Mukherjee, recipient of the 2014 ‘Telegraph Harvill Sacker Crime Writing’ award.

Even though this reader has not had the privilege of reading his acclaimed debut work A Rising Man, the second in the crime series afforded a colourful premise to begin with, propounding the assassination of princes and a British police officer Sam Wyndham and his desi compatriot Surendranath (Surrender-not, as Wyndham would ‘anglicize’) Banerjee getting dangerously close to uncover a design of obsessive will and merciless mal-intentions.

Apart from the graceful and (at times) harrowing set-pieces thrown in, which works its own charms, it is the first person narration of the British officer, peppered with the conditioned observations of a Brit, unaware of the depths of Indian beliefs, systems and practices, albeit with that redeeming hint of heart and humanity, which makes him a character one wouldn’t mind listening to.

Also worth musing upon are the delicately painted strokes of the Zenana – the inner sanctum of royal families consisting the queen(s), concubines and their glorified protectors – the de-sexed eunuchs whose apparent imprisonment is but a ‘purdah’ itself to hide chessboards and powerplays of the highest echelon.

It is the spirit of acceptance displayed by Sam Wyndham towards the end of the tale, the nature of which veers closer towards the acceptance of truth rather than acting upon it and seeking justice, especially when a (perceived) oppressor holds the cards, shall certainly go down as one of the highlights of ‘A Necessary Evil’. How necessary any evil can be is a philosophical question but when it boils down to a comparative study of marginal differences in motive, that question of philosophy has no easy answer at all!

Perhaps the answer lay in the very nature of the imposed British laws, which eventually came down to a question of who exactly would be the most ‘apt’ to rule a piece of land and reap and share the profits therein.

The follies of considering the self as the all-powerful and most fitting for the throne comes to nought for Sam Wyndham, a perfect work-in-progress, complete with a teething opium addiction – whose quest for truth and justice is denied to enable a strangely cathartic conclusion.

‘A Necessary Evil’ must elicit contrary responses, especially as far as the resolution is concerned. Yet it is a thorough page-turner that does not let the symphony of intrigue falter for a single note! And let’s face it: how alluring is the idea of a colonial British official’s narration of crime and investigation, penned down by a modern British citizen, who interestingly happens to be of Indian origin? Chew on that! []

Book: A Necessary Evil
Written by: Abir Mukherjee
Published by Random House UK
Published on July 3, 2017

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