I didn’t have a passport until I was approaching my 23rd birthday. But that didn’t stop me from travelling far and wide.
Calcutta was a truly cosmopolitan city in those days; people from many cultures would pass through. While one generation of people, rooted in empire, left to find those roots, another, younger generation came for the first time, to “find themselves”. People like Allen Ginsberg. Like the Beatles and Eric Clapton. Like Steve Jobs.
This gentle exodus and influx of foreigners prevailed throughout my youth, and that was one way I left Indian shores, just by spending time with visitors. Some of those visitors stayed, and that’s part of what made Calcutta Calcutta.
I guess I lived trilingually, much like many of my friends and relatives. English was my lingua franca and the language I studied in, the language I conversed with foreigners in. Tamil was what I used to communicate with my mother and with my grandmother. And Bengali was for everything and everyone else.
[I suspect we made a point of not saying we spoke Hindi. The unwritten rule in those days was that every state with a coastline “refused” to speak Hindi and toyed with the idea of seceding from the coastless centre of India, where all the Hindi speakers hung out. At least that’s the way it seemed to me].
When it came to culture, however, the trilingualness faded, everyone accepted the opium of Hindi film music into their lives…. along with the local Baul and the deep-south Carnatic and the traditional classical. And particularly in the cities, even more particularly where English was the language of school, there was a deep English-language based cultural flow: music, literature, the arts in general.
These things represented a second method of travel for the passportless me. We studied other cultures. We listened to their music. We watched their films. We enacted their plays, read their poetry out aloud. [Many years ago, I wrote about the sheer breadth of the songs we used to sing at school, something I still marvel about today.]
Most of us didn’t have passports. Most of us travelled anyway. Vicariously. In many ways.
One of those ways was by being voracious readers. And one road that some of us travelled more often than others was that of detective fiction. [Over time, the genre has broadened to include “mystery” and “suspense” and “thriller”, but when I was doing the travelling at home in Calcutta it was really detective fiction].
We learnt about the 19th century via the America of Edgar Allan Poe and the Britain of Wilkie Collins. People like Chesterton and Philips Oppenheim and Baroness Orczy took us into 2oth century Europe, and then the Agatha Christies and Dorothy Sayers and John Creaseys carried on where they left off. We went into the 1930s New York brownstone of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe; the Paris of Simenon’s Maigret; the courtrooms of Erle Stanley Gardner; the Amsterdam of Freeling’s Van der Valk; the Po Valley through the eyes of Guareschi’s Don Camillo. We discovered a new America through the Ross Macdonalds, the Richard Starks, the Robert Parkers, the Ed McBains.
We travelled. Far and wide. While never leaving our seats.
That travel was place-travel. While we did travel back in time, the only reason we did that was because the books were written at that time, they were contemporaneous accounts of the culture.
I think Georgette Heyer was the first person to make me travel in space and time; I don’t speak here of her Regency romances but her detective fiction. She let me taste something I really liked, a hybrid genre: historical detective fiction.
That’s a big field now. I’ve read most of the players, and the standout author for me in the hybrid is Michael Pearce. If you haven’t been to the 19th century Egypt of the Mamur Zapt, you haven’t lived. If you really haven’t, and if you like detective fiction, then you have so much joy awaiting. Michael Pearce is amazing.
More recently, my historical-detective cup has runneth over a few times, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t selfishly hold on to my spoils.
Jason Goodwin was the first to make a real impact on me, with The Janissary Tree, featuring Yashim, a eunuch wandering around early 19th century Turkey. He’s put out four or five books over the last decade or so, and they’re all excellent.
More recently, I came across Miranda “MJ” Carter. Her Blake and Avery books are absolute must-reads for people like me. I found the Strangler Vine unputdownable. I think she’s not fair on me, since her books have much to do with historical Calcutta and historical London… the only two cities in the world I’ve really lived in. I’m reading The Devil’s Feast right now and it is brilliant.
And only a few weeks ago, I chanced upon Abir Mukherjee. Was introduced to Sam Wyndham in A Rising Man. And became hooked.
Michael Pearce and the Mamur Zapt made me yearn for something, something rare, something beautiful. Now, with Miranda Carter, Abir Mukherjee and Jason Goodwin, I have three people who let me really enjoy myself travelling in space and time while reading good detective fiction. My thanks to all four people for having enriched my life.