Abir Mukherjee

The Road Not Taken

Who sparked your younger self to love writing?

I grew up in a house full of books, in a family full of story tellers. Our shelves were stacked high with books – in English, but just as much in Bengali. As a kid I’d stare at the curious Bengali type-face, with its pointed, angular letters dangling precariously from the top of a line rather than sitting, self-satisfied above it like the letters of the Latin script.

Bengali is a culture rich in stories – everything from folk-tales and fairy tales to existentialism and Nobel prize winning poetry. As a young child, my mother would tell me the tales of Oodho and Boodho and recite the nonsense poems of Shukumar Ray, side by side with stories of Hansel and Gretel and English nursery rhymes.

As I grew older and began to read books and comics (mainly comics), that tradition of duality continued; the superhero stories of Batman and Superman melding seamlessly with the tales of fantastical Hindu gods like Hanuman the monkey god and mythological Indian heroes from the Ramayana. At the time I took them for granted – a universe of stories more diverse than Stan Lee or DC could ever come up with.

Stories are in my blood. They are the legacy bequeathed to me by my dual heritage.

As I reached my teenage years though, as I tried to figure out who I was, my reading changed. I shunned the Bengali influences and looked West. I read only English, and only books by white authors. It was a mistake, of course. I did it as a way of fitting in. At that point in my life, at that time in the eighties, it didn’t pay dividends to be an Indian kid in Scotland, and so I embraced the western side of my dual heritage; and in doing so, I lost out on so much. There is a richness, an alternative perspective, a joyous, fullness to Bengali and other Indian literature which I missed out on, and that hole in my experience still exists.

What took its place? The classics (the western ones that is) – Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Hardy – at school; and thrillers – Forsyth, Ludlum, Archer – at home. I read 1984 in 1984, at the age of ten, and didn’t much understand it, but I’d try again, at the age of fifteen, and would fall in love with it. I’ve read it thirty or forty times since.

Then came the seminal moment. At sixteen, my mate Jamie gave me a copy of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. I’d never read anything like it, and in a sense all my writing so far has mirrored the themes of that book: politics; ethics; and above all good men, good people compromised, upholding a corrupt and evil system. That book sparked my love of crime fiction. It started me on the journey that led to Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and William McIllvaney and Ian Rankin and Val McDermid…and to Bengali detective fiction – to Byomkesh and Feluda . It would lead, eventually, to my own writing – of the trials of British rule in India – a journey that would bring me full circle – to Bengal and the literature of my parents. The literature that I closed myself off from and which now, in turn, feels closed off to me. 

I try to make up for it by reading the translations of the Bengali classics – the books of Tagore and Bankim Chandra, of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and Michael Madusadhan Dutta, but it’s not the same; and so instead I reach for the works of Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy – sublime Indian writers, writing in English. It gives me an isight into what I’m missing, but only partially – like a glimpse through a quarter-open door.

I wish I could read the literature of my parents in the original Bengali, but I can’t. Not only is reading the script now beyond me, but the language – the formal Bengali in which they wrote – is too complex. I’ve tried listening to passages, but most of it passes over my head – a familiar language that I’ve allowed to become foreign. Every so often though, I’ll hear a phrase or a sentence, and, like the clouds parting to reveal sun and sky, I’ll make sense of it and savour the richness of language, of thought and writing so different from our western literature. And then the clouds will close again, leaving me to rue the road not taken.

A recent article on Rabindranath Tagore – the most famous literary son of Bengal:


20 May 2022