Excerpt

A Necessary Evil

Abir Mukherjee

In the following exclusive excerpt from A Necessary Evil,by Abir Mukherjee, a parade of princes in colonial India is interrupted by a determined assassin. This is the second work from Mukherjee to feature his opium-addicted and shell-shocked British detective, trying to preserve the empire and hold himself together in 1920s India.

Friday 18 June 1920

It’s not often you see a man with a diamond in his beard. But when a prince runs out of space on his ears, fingers, and clothes, I guess the whiskers on his chin are as good a place as any.

The massive mahogany doors of Government House had opened on the stroke of midday and out they glided: a menagerie of maharajas, nizams, nawabs and others; all twenty of them draped in silk, gold, precious gems, and enough pearls to sink a squadron of dowager countesses. One or two claimed descent from the sun or the moon, others from one of a hundred Hindu deities. We just lumped them all together and called them the princes.

These twenty were from the kingdoms closest to Calcutta. Across India there were more than five hundred of them, and together they were rulers of two fifths of the country. At least that’s what they told themselves, and it was a fiction we were only too happy to endorse, just so long as they all sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and swore allegiance to the King Emperor across the seas.

They processed like gods, in strict order of precedence, with the Viceroy at their head, into the blistering heat and towards the shade of a dozen silk parasols. On one side, behind a solid red line of turbaned soldiers of the Viceregal bodyguard, stood a scrum of royal advisers, civil servants and assorted hangers-on. And behind all of them stood Surrender-not and me.

A sudden burst of cannon fire—a salute from the guns on the lawn—sent a murder of crows shrieking from the palm trees. I counted the blasts: thirty-one in total, an honour reserved solely for the Viceroy – no native prince ever merited more than twenty-one. It served to underline the point that in India, this particular British civil servant outranked any native, even one descended from the sun.

Like the cannons, the session the princes had just attended was purely for show. The real work would be done later by their ministers and the men of the Indian Civil Service. For the government of the Raj, the important thing was that the princes were here, on the lawn, for the group photograph.

The Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, shuffled along in full ceremonial regalia. He never seemed quite comfortable in it, and it made him look like the doorman at Claridge’s. For a man who normally resembled a malnourished undertaker, he’d scrubbed up pretty well, but next to the princes he appeared as drab as a pigeon in a field full of peacocks.

‘Which one’s our man?’

‘That one,’ Surrender-not replied, nodding towards a tall, fine-featured individual in a pink silk turban. The prince we were here to see had been third down the stairs and was first in line to the throne of a kingdom tucked away in the wilds of Orissa, somewhere to the southwest of Bengal. His Serene Highness the Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore had requested our presence – or rather, Surrender-not’s presence. They’d been at Harrow together. I was here only because I’d been ordered to attend. It was a direct command from Lord Taggart, the Commissioner of Police, who claimed it was a request from the Viceroy himself. ‘These talks are of paramount importance to the government of the Raj,’ he’d intoned, ‘and Sambalpore’s agreement is vital to their success.’

It was hard to believe Sambalpore could be vital to anything. Even finding it on a map—obscured as it was under the ‘R’ of ‘ORISSA’—took a magnifying glass and a degree of patience that I seemed to lack these days. The place was tiny, the size of the Isle of Wight, with a population to match. And yet here I was, about to eavesdrop on a chat between its crown prince and Surrender-not because the Government of India had deemed it a matter of imperial importance.

The princes took their places around the Viceroy for the official photograph. The most important were seated on gilded chairs, with the lesser figures standing behind them on a bench. Prince Adhir was seated to the Viceroy’s right. The princes made uncomfortable small talk as the furniture was adjusted. A few tried to slip away but were shepherded back into position by harassed-looking civil servants. Eventually the photographer called for attention. The princes duly ceased their chatter and faced forwards: flashbulbs popped, capturing the scene for posterity, and finally they were given their freedom.

Everyone knew that the richest man in India was also the richest man in the world. There was a spark of recognition as Crown Prince Adhir spotted Surrender-not. He extricated himself from a conversation with a rotund maharaja wearing the contents of a bank vault on his person and a tiger skin over his shoulder, and made his way over. He was tall and fair skinned for an Indian, with the bearing of a cavalry officer or a polo player. By the standards of the princes around him, he was dressed rather plainly: a pale blue silk tunic studded with diamond buttons and tied at the waist by a golden cummerbund, white silk trousers and black Oxford brogues, polished to a shine. His turban was held in place with a clip studded with emeralds and a sapphire the size of a goose egg.

If Lord Taggart was to be believed, the prince’s father, the Maharaja, was the fifth richest man in India. And everyone knew that the richest man in India was also the richest man in the world.

A smile broke out on the prince’s face as he walked over.

‘Bunty Banerjee!’ he exclaimed, his arms held wide. ‘How long has it been?’

Bunty – I’d never heard anyone call Surrender-not that before, and I’d shared lodgings with him for a year. He’d kept that particular nom de guerre a secret, and I didn’t blame him.  If anyone at school had seen fit to christen me Bunty, I’d hardly be advertising the fact myself. Of course Surrender-not wasn’t his real name either. It had been bestowed upon him by a colleague when he’d joined the Imperial Police Force. His parents had named him Surendranath; it meant king of the gods, and while I could make a fair stab at the correct Bengali pronunciation, I never could get it quite right. He’d told me it wasn’t my fault. He’d said the English language just didn’t possess the right consonants—it lacked a soft ‘d’, apparently. According to him, the English language lacked a great many things.

‘An honour to see you again, Your Highness,’ said Surrender-not with a slight nod.

The prince looked pained, the way the aristocracy often do when they pretend they want you to treat them like ordinary folk. ‘Come now, Bunty, I think we can dispense with the formalities. And who is this?’ he asked, proffering me a jewel-encrusted hand.

‘Allow me to introduce Captain Wyndham,’ said Banerjee, ‘formerly of Scotland Yard.’

‘Wyndham?’ the prince repeated. ‘The fellow who captured that terrorist, Sen, last year? You must be the Viceroy’s favourite policeman.’

Sen was an Indian revolutionary who’d been on the run from the authorities for four years. I’d arrested him for the murder of a British official and been all but declared a hero of the Raj. The truth was rather more complex, but I had neither the time nor the will to correct the story. More importantly, I didn’t have the permission of the Viceroy, who’d declared the whole matter subject to the Official Secrets Act of 1911. Instead, I smiled and shook the prince’s hand.

‘A pleasure to meet you, Your Highness.’

‘Please,’ he said affably, ‘call me Adi. All my friends do.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Actually, I’m rather glad you’re here. There’s a matter of some delicacy that I wished to discuss with Bunty, and the opinion of a man with your credentials could prove most valuable. Just the ticket, in fact.’ His face brightened. ‘Your presence must be divinely inspired.’

I could have told him it was inspired more by the Viceroy than by God, but in British India that was pretty much the next best thing. If the prince wanted to talk to me, it at least saved me from hanging around eavesdropping like an Indian mother on the night of her son’s wedding.

‘I’d be happy to be of service, Your Highness.’

With a click of his fingers, he summoned a gentleman who stood close by. The man was bald, bespectacled, and nervous – like a librarian lost in a dangerous part of town – and though finely dressed, he lacked the swagger, not to mention the jewellery, of a prince.

‘Alas, this isn’t an appropriate juncture for such a discussion,’ said the prince as the man hurried over. ‘Maybe you and Bunty would care to accompany me back to the Grand where we can discuss matters more comfortably.’

It didn’t sound like a question. I suspected many of the prince’s orders were similarly framed. The bald man performed a low bow before him.

‘Oh good,’ said the prince wearily, ‘Captain Wyndham, Bunty, I’m pleased to introduce Harish Chandra Davé, the Dewan of Sambalpore.’

Dewan means prime minister, pronounced by the Indians as divan, like the sofa.

‘Your Highness,’ said the Dewan, grinning obsequiously as he straightened up. He was sweating; we all were, except, it seemed, the prince. The Dewan glanced quickly at Banerjee and me. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a red cotton handkerchief, and proceeded to mop his glistening forehead.  ‘If I may have a word in private, I—’

‘If this is about my decision, Davé,’ said the prince testily, ‘I’m afraid it is final.’

The Dewan gave an embarrassed shake of his head. ‘If I may, Your Highness, I very much doubt that would be in alignment with His Highness your father’s intentions.’

The prince sighed. ‘And I very much doubt my father would give two figs about the whole show. What’s more, my father isn’t here. Unless he or the Viceroy has seen fit to elevate you to the position of Yuvraj, I suggest you follow my wishes and get to work.’

The Dewan mopped his brow once again and bowed low before backing away like a whipped dog.

‘Bloody bureaucrat,’ the prince muttered under his breath. He turned to Surrender-not, ‘He’s a Gujarati, would you believe, Bunty, and he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.’

‘The trouble is, Adi,’ said the sergeant, ‘they often are.’

The prince afforded him a wry smile. ‘Well, in terms of these talks, and for his own sake, I hope he sticks to my orders.’

From the precious little I’d gleaned from Lord Taggart, the talks related to the establishment of something called the Chamber of Princes. It might have sounded like the title of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but the Chamber of Princes was His Majesty’s Government’s latest bright idea to assuage the growing clamour from the natives for Home Rule. It was billed as an Indian House of Lords—a powerful Indian voice in Indian matters—and all the native princes were being invited, in the strongest terms, to join. I could see a certain twisted logic to it. After all, if there was one group in India more out of touch with the popular mood among the natives than us, it was five hundred or so fat and feckless princes. If indeed there were any natives who were on our side, it was probably them.

‘Might I ask your position?’ I asked.

The prince laughed coolly. ‘Absolute eyewash, the whole bally lot of it. It’ll be nothing more than a talking shop. The people will see right through it.’

‘You don’t think it will happen?’

‘On the contrary,’ he smiled, ‘I expect it’ll sail through and be up and running by next year. Of course, the big boys—Hyderabad, Gwalior and the like – won’t join. It would compromise the fiction that they are real countries, and I’ll be damned if Sambalpore signs up. But the others, the little fellows – Cooch Behar, the smaller Rajputs and the northern states—they’ll practically beg for entry. Anything to aggrandise their own positions.  I’ll say one thing for you British,’ he continued, ‘you certainly know how to appeal to our vanity. We’ve surrendered this land to you and for what? A few fine words, fancy titles, and scraps from your table over which we bicker like bald men fighting over a comb.’

‘What about the other eastern principalities?’ asked Surrender-not. ‘From what I understand, they tend to follow Sambalpore’s lead in most things.’

‘That’s true,’ the prince responded, ‘and quite possibly they will this time too, but only because we bankroll them. Given the choice, though, I expect they’d all be in favour.’

The Viceroy had all the charisma of a wet rag.On the far side of the gardens the military band started up and, as the familiar strains of ‘God Save the King’ drifted across the lawns, princes and commoners alike stood and turned to face the band. Many began to sing, though not the prince, who for the first time looked somewhat less serene than his title suggested.

‘Time to beat a retreat, I think,’ he said. ‘From the look of it, the Viceroy’s winding up to give one of his celebrated speeches and I for one don’t plan on wasting any more of this fine day listening to him …Unless you’d rather stay?’

I had no objections. The Viceroy had all the charisma of a wet rag. Earlier in the year I’d had the pleasure of sitting through one of his speeches at a passing-out parade for new officers, and I had no great desire to repeat the experience.

‘It’s settled then,’ said the prince. ‘We’ll stay for the rest of the song and then be on our merry way.’

The final notes of the anthem faded away and the guests returned to their conversations as the Viceroy strode towards a dais that had been erected on the grass.

‘Now’s the hour,’ the prince exclaimed. ‘Let’s go while there’s still time.’ He turned and headed up the path, back towards the building, with Surrender-not at his side and me bringing up the rear. Several civil service heads turned towards us in consternation as the Viceroy commenced his address, but the prince paid them as much attention as the proverbial elephant does a pack of jackals.

He seemed to know his way around the maze that was Government House and after passing through serried ranks of turbaned attendants manning several sets of doors, we exited the residence, this time down the red carpet on the main stairs at the front of the building.

Our premature departure seemed to have taken the prince’s retinue by surprise. There was a flurry of activity as a bull of a man dressed in a scarlet tunic and black trousers frantically barked orders at several flunkeys. From his uniform, bearing and the decibels emanating from his throat, the man might have easily been mistaken for a colonel of the Scots Guards. If he hadn’t been sporting a turban, that is.

‘There you are, Shekar,’ exclaimed the prince.

‘Your Highness,’ replied the man, with a peremptory salute.

The prince turned to us. ‘Colonel Shekar Arora, my aide-de-camp.’

The man was built like the north face of Kanchenjunga and sported an expression that was just as icy. His skin was bronzed and weathered and his eyes were a startling greyish green. Together they pointed to a man of the mountains, a man with at least some Afghan blood in his veins. Most striking, though, was his facial hair, which he wore in the style of the Indian warriors of old: his beard close cropped and his moustache short, waxed and turned up at the ends.

‘The car has been summoned, Your Highness,’ he said in a clipped tone. ‘It will be here shortly.’

‘Good.’ The prince nodded. ‘I’ve the devil’s own thirst. The sooner we get back to the Grand, the better.’

A silver open-topped Rolls-Royce pulled up and a liveried footman ran over and opened the door. There was a moment’s hesitation. There were five of us including the chauffeur—one too many. In normal circumstances we could have managed three in the back and two in the front, but the prince didn’t seem the type who dealt much with normal circumstances. In any case, this was hardly the sort of car for such an unseemly crush. The prince himself suggested the solution.

‘Shekar, why don’t you drive?’ Another command couched as a question.

The hulking ADC clicked his heels and made his way round to the driver’s side.

‘You can sit back here with me, Bunty,’ said the prince as he made himself comfortable on the red leather banquette. ‘The captain can sit up front with Shekar.’

Surrender-not and I both did as requested and the car immediately set off, up the long gravel driveway between the rows of palms and manicured lawns.

The Grand Hotel was situated mere minutes from the East Gate of the residence, but for security reasons, only the North Gate was currently open. The car sailed through and almost immediately came to a halt—the roads east from there were closed. Instead, the ADC reversed and headed down Government Place and onto Esplanade West.

I turned around in my seat to better face Banerjee and the prince. I wasn’t used to sitting in the front. The prince seemed to read my thoughts.

‘Hierarchies are odd things are they not, Captain?’ He smiled.

‘In what way, Your Highness?’

‘Take the three of us,’ he said, ‘a prince, a police inspector, and a sergeant. On the face of it, our relative positions in the pecking order seem clear. But things are rarely that simple.’

He pointed towards the gates of the Bengal Club, which we were passing on our left. ‘I may be a prince, but the colour of my skin precludes me from entering that august institution, and the same goes for Bunty here. You, though, an Englishman, would have no such problem. In Calcutta all doors are open to you. Suddenly our hierarchy has changed somewhat, no?’

‘I take your point,’ I said.

‘But that’s not the end of it,’ he continued. ‘Our friend Bunty is a Brahmin. As a member of the priestly caste, he outranks even a prince, let alone, I fear, a casteless English policeman.’ The prince smiled. ‘Once more our hierarchy changes, and who is to say which of the three is most legitimate?’

A prince, a priest and a policeman drive past the Bengal Club in a Rolls-Royce …’ I said. ‘It sounds like the opening to a not very amusing joke.’

‘On the contrary,’ said the prince. ‘If you think about it, it is actually most amusing.’

I turned my attention to the road. The route we were taking was in completely the opposite direction to that of the Grand Hotel. I’d no idea how well the ADC knew the streets of Calcutta, but first impressions suggested about as well as I knew the boulevards of Timbuktu.

‘Do you know where you’re going?’ I asked.

The ADC shot me a look that could have frozen the Ganges.

‘I do,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately the roads towards Chowringhee are closed for a religious procession. We are therefore required to take an alternative route through the Maidan.’

Though this seemed an odd choice, it was a pleasant day and there were worse ways of spending it than cruising through the park in a Rolls-Royce. In the rear, Surrender-not was in conversation with the prince.

‘So, Adi, what is it you wanted to talk about?’

I turned in time to see the prince’s features darken.

‘I’ve received some letters,’ he said, fiddling with the diamond collar button on his silk tunic. ‘It’s probably nothing, but when I heard from your brother that you’re now a detective sergeant, I thought I might seek your advice.’

‘What sort of letters?’

‘To be honest, calling them letters affords them an importance they hardly deserve. They’re just notes.’

‘And when did you receive them?’ I asked.

‘Last week, back in Sambalpore. A few days before we left for Calcutta.’

‘Do you have them with you?’

‘They’re in my suite,’ said the prince. ‘You’ll see them soon enough. Although why aren’t we there yet?’ He turned irritably to his ADC. ‘What’s going on, Shekar?’

‘Diversions, Your Highness,’ replied the ADC.

‘These letters,’ I asked, ‘did you show them to anyone?’

The prince gestured towards Arora. ‘Only to Shekar.’

And how did you receive them? I take it that one doesn’t just post a letter to the Crown Prince of Sambalpore’s care of the royal palace?’

‘That’s the curious thing,’ replied the prince. ‘Both had been left in my rooms: the first under the pillows in my bed, the second in the pocket of a suit. And both said the same thing …’

In his hand an object glinted and my insides turned to ice. The car slowed as we approached the sharp left turn onto Chowringhee. From out of nowhere, a man in the saffron robes of a Hindu priest leaped out into our path. He was little more than an orange blur. The car came shuddering to a halt and he seemed to have disappeared under the front axle.

‘Did we hit him?’ asked the prince, rising from his position on the back seat. The ADC cursed, flung open his door and jumped out. He hurried round to the front and I saw him kneel over the prone man. Then came a thud, the sickening sound of something heavy connecting with flesh and bone, and the ADC seemed to collapse.

‘My God!’ exclaimed the prince. From his standing position, he had a better view of the situation. I threw open my door, but before I could move, the man in saffron had stood up. He had wild eyes between dirty, matted hair, an unkempt beard, and what looked like streaks of ash smeared vertically on his forehead. In his hand an object glinted and my insides turned to ice.

‘Get down!’ I shouted to the prince while fumbling with the button on my holster, but he was like a rabbit hypnotised by a cobra. The attacker raised his revolver and fired. The first shot hit the car’s windscreen with a crack, shattering the glass. I turned to see Surrender-not desperately grabbing at the prince, trying to pull him down.

All too late.

As the next two shots rang out, I knew they would find their mark. Both hit the prince squarely in the chest. For a few seconds he just stood there, as though he really was divine and the bullets had passed straight through him. Then, blotches of bright crimson blood began to soak through the silk of his tunic and he crumpled, like a paper cup in the monsoon.

__________________________________

From A Necessary Evil. Used with the permission of the publisher, Pegasus. Copyright © 2018 by Abir Mukherjee.




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