On Inspector Khattak & Captain Sam Wyndham: two detectives for our troubled times

I want to talk about two outstanding crime series I read in the last few months: the Inspector Khattak–Rachel Getty mysteries by Canadian author Ausma Zehanat Khan, and the Sam Wydham–‘Surrender-not’ series of historical crime by British writer Abir Mukherjee.

In a world where race, ethnicity, and class have begun to polarise opinions about belonging, citizenship and nationality, these two series bring a unique worldview within fiction. As with any good crime novel, the two series are an exercise in social commentary, and although they are located in entirely different time periods and locations, one cannot ignore the similarities between their respective protagonists.

Khan’s novels are based in modern-day Toronto, where her lead protagonist, a second generation Pakistani-Canadian, struggles with questions of faith, religion and nationality while he solves crimes directed towards Toronto’s ‘community policing’ initiative. Addressing Toronto’s multi-ethnic cosmopolitanism, but a solution built for modern times, community policing in Canada ‘relies on a more proactive form of finding solutions, from officers who have become familiar to locals over a period of time’ — meaning finding officers from ethnic groups that have come to live in the city.

This means Inspector Khattak often has to answer questions about his loyalty, and where they lie. Is he to believe the words of those he goes to the mosque with, or is he to regard them with the same suspicion as his white compatriots do? Khattak is a cop with questions: reeling from the death of his wife, estranged from the rest of his family, especially his sister, he struggles with his Muslim identity, and where he stands on the spectrum of belonging. Does he belong to the West, with its secular view of the world? Why else is he in ‘community policing’? Or can his religious sensibilities be at peace with his duties?

Helping him out is his deputy, Rachel Getty, a Canadian woman who breaks the tropes, loves ice hockey, has an abusive father, a submissive mother, and an estranged brother. Khattak’s muddled mind is a contrast to the clarity that Getty brings to the text, although she comes with her own share of demons. One could argue the clarity Getty, and other white characters bring to the series, is because they are comfortable with their place in the world, in that being white allows them the privilege to do so, in contrast to the troubled identities the immigrants display in the series.

The West’s struggles with increased immigration, the subsequent xenophobia it has engendered, and the issues of integration within the larger community are now well-known. I cannot personally talk about it because I have not lived in the West, but the struggles an immigrant, especially a Muslim immigrant, faces in the West today are widely known. Consider the controversy over German footballer Mesut Ozil’s accusations of racism against the German football federation, and one wonders about how the West has approached ‘integration’ and immigration. To read Khattak’s struggles with his identity, to imagine him as a Muslim cop in white Canada, attempting to provide ‘justice’ to his community while addressing the evils that plague it, tells us there are no easy answers to ‘integration’.

As the West struggles to negotiate the boundaries of faith in a secular framework, Inspector Khattak’s very real journeys of self-discovery put him in one troubling situation after another. But in the process, he learns to be more assured about his faith, about his identity — just as Captain Sam Wyndham of the Calcutta Police does in Abir Mukherjee’s novels.

Sam Wyndham arrives in imperial Calcutta in 1919, in the week the Jallianwala Bagh massacre stuns the entire Raj. British rule in India was long predicated on the idea that the rulers were more civilised, that they were in India on a mission to enlighten the ‘natives’ through their emphasis on laws and justice.

To Wyndham’s disappointment, he discovers the British Raj is a Janus-like beast with two faces: even as it posits a facade of ‘enlightened rule’, its government machinery tortures extremist Indian freedom fighters. Even as it puts an emphasis on its pillars of law and statutes, it is clear Indians are not regarded with the same notions of equality.

And then there’s the massacre, obviously.

Mukherjee’s series raises a different set of questions. To Wyndham, an opium addict, the East is not a place one comes to make fortunes. Rather, Wyndham has come to escape: escape the memories of his dead wife, of the Great War, of the trenches, of London. In the hot, humid clime of Calcutta, he finds himself, so as to say. Much like the journeys of self-discovery the Beatles would make nearly 50 years later, Wyndham weaves in and out of Calcutta’s alleys and Howrah’s ghats to create a portrait of imperial India: the jewel in the Raj, the crown of the Empire.

Assisting him is his deputy ‘Surrender-Not’ — or Surendranath Banerjee–the quintessential Bengali bhadralok, whose father is a celebrated lawyer, who has been educated at the best of institutions, and who may be smarter than Wyndham — but cannot hope to rise above his English boss in pay or hierarchy.

Wyndham’s Calcutta escapades are a scathing indictment of the Raj, but not for the reasons one thinks. Rather, Mukherjee skilfully tells the reader the Raj’s moral high ground and its sense of superiority was one big sham, an artificial creation whose veneer was essential to the rule they had established over 300 million individuals [at the time of their leaving].

In between these two series, and their protagonists’ journeys of discoveries, one comes across questions of identity and belonging. Can someone like Wyndham, who begins to feel more at home in humid Calcutta than stuffy London, ever understand what it means to be Indian? Can his love for Miss Grant — an Anglo-Indian who struggles with her own identity and acceptance — overcome the traditional patriarchy society around him is steeped in? Or for that matter, what is Surrender-not — with his clipped English that sounds more English than Wyndham’s lazy working-class accent — doing in the Raj’s police force at a time when Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement has taken over India? Is he — as he explains to Wyndham — waiting for the British to leave so that India has a few trained police officers when it becomes independent, or is he assisting in perpetuating the imperial structure that denies his people the same rights as the British?

Khattak and Wyndham mirror each other: out-of-place characters, neither here nor there, and without roots. Their deputies share similarities too: Rachel Getty is one of the few bright spots in Khattak’s dark worldview, while Surrender-Not’s optimism lights the way for Wyndham. But all of them are products of a similar time and place, of a similar zeitgeist born out of lack of understanding and distances between people. Wyndham’s Calcutta is a long way from Khattak’s Toronto, but they struggle with the same questions about belonging and identity across time and space.

Consulting Editor @ Writers' Side Literary Agency. Writes mostly on books & publishing, and Nepali history. More at amishmulmi.wordpress.com