Abir Mukherjee, who grew up in the west of Scotland, is the bestselling author of the Sam Wyndham series of novels, set in India. His award-winning debut, A Rising Man, is longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year. To mark the publication of his second novel, A Necessary Evil, he reflects on the links between Scotland and Bengal, and the importance of a shared but forgotten history.

THERE’S the old joke that Scottish history only really consists of two dates, 1314 and 1967, with some ups and downs in between. Obviously, 1314 needs no explanation, and 1967, that was the year that Scotland became de facto football world champions after thrashing England 3-2 at Wembley.

The truth, of course, is rather different.

From Neolithic settlements in Orkney, to the Declaration of Arbroath, to the scientists, merchants and pioneers of the 19th century, Scotland has a remarkable history which would make any small nation envious.

Yet when it comes to empire and Scotland’s role in it, there seems to be a black hole in our collective conscience, not to mention our history books.

Scottish schoolchildren learn more about German history in the 1920s and 30s than they do about our own. Maybe it’s because Scotland’s role in the enterprise of empire was something that, these days, makes many of us feel deeply uneasy. That our forefathers were involved in the subjugation and exploitation of other races is indeed distasteful, and the urge to brush the whole thing under the carpet is understandable. But doing so does us all a disservice because history and identity are to some degree intertwined, and by forgetting our history, we lose part of what has made us who we are.

Identity is important. My parents came from India and I was born in England. But I grew up in the west of Scotland and consider myself Scottish, not out of choice – these days no one supports the Scotland football team unless they have to – but rather in spite of it. I started writing because I wanted to explore that shared history between Britain and India which forms such an important part of not just my identity, but has made such a great impact on the country we live in and the values we share.

My novels follow Sam Wyndham, an ex-Scotland Yard detective, who after surviving the First World War, winds up in India, mainly because it’s a slightly preferable option to suicide. Sam finds himself fresh off the boat in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and is faced by a world which is both familiar and at the same time alien. Tempered as he is by his wartime experiences, Sam is unwilling to simply swallow the prejudices of his peers and approaches his new home with an open mind.

The choice of Calcutta was no accident. The capital of Bengal, of all of India’s great cities, Calcutta is to me the most fascinating. While the city’s poverty and problems are well publicised, less well known is its love of the arts and literature. It has more theatres than New York and London put together and is the sort of place where a taxi driver will quote Shakespeare at you before gouging you 400 rupees for a 50 rupee journey.

What’s more, 100 years ago it was the richest city in Asia, and until 1911 it was the capital of British India. It’s a young city, younger than New York or Boston or Philadelphia, and it was built mainly for trade, and in large part by Scots.

The Scottish influence can still be seen everywhere, whether it's the names of venerable old trading houses such as Andrew Yule and Co, carved onto the crumbling facades of commercial buildings, or landmarks such as Minto Park, places of education such as the Scottish Church College, or the generations of dead now sleeping peacefully in the Scottish cemetery. (Neither the English, Welsh nor the Irish have their own cemetery in Calcutta – which suggests that either a disproportionate number of Scots died there, or that they were sniffy about whom they were buried beside.) Indeed, Sam’s first case in Calcutta is to investigate the murder of a man who might have found his last resting place in the Scottish cemetery – a high-ranking civil servant and Scot called MacAuley.

Calcutta helped make Scots and Scotland rich. Dundee, before it was the City of Discovery, was the city of jute, jam and journalism. It’s no accident that the first of those was jute, which, before the advent of synthetic fibres, was one of the most valuable commodities in the world. The city’s economic wealth was in large part built on it, and that jute originated in Bengal. It was transported to Calcutta before being shipped to Tayside where it was transformed into everything from rope to carpets. It made the Scottish merchants who ran the trade some of the richest men in the world. Indeed, according to some accounts, before it was overtaken by Beverly Hills, the most expensive real estate in the world was to be found not in London, New York or Paris, but in Broughty Ferry which, even after it lost its crown to Hollywood, was for some time, still the most expensive square mile in Europe.

But there was more to the relationship between Scotland and Bengal than just trade. There was a cultural impact too. Bengal was the first part of India where the Scots and the English settled, and they brought with them Western ideas and empiricism which the native Bengalis devoured with a passion, combining them with their own philosophies. This co-mingling of ideas led in the 19th century to the Bengal Renaissance, a social, cultural and intellectual awakening which spawned a unique blend of religious and social reformers, scholars, literary giants, journalists, patriotic orators and scientists, which has few parallels anywhere else. And the Scottish influence was fundamental to that awakening. Many Bengali poets were avid admirers of writers such as Robert Burns and Walter Scott.

Burns in particular, writing as he did in Scots, inspired Bengali intellectuals and writers to value their native language and cultural traditions in the face of a dominant English culture. Indeed the poet and polymath, Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s finest son and the first non-white to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was a huge fan of Burns, translating several of the bard’s poems into Bengali and setting Bengali poems to Burns’ tunes. I doubt there is a Bengali anywhere in the world (and there are over 300 million) who doesn’t know the song Purano Shei Diner Katha (Talk of Olden Times), and while the words might be unfamiliar to Scots, they would still have little difficulty recognising it, because Tagore set it to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

Tagore had a love of Scotland and Scots. He had a great friendship with Patrick Geddes, a Scottish architect who helped him plan Shantiniketan, the university he founded in rural Bengal.

The ties between Bengal and Scotland run deep and, if you know where to look, you’ll find they’re still very much alive. There is a Centre for Tagore Studies at Napier University and Glasgow’s Mitchell Library houses a Tagore collection. And just as Scots in the 18th and 19th centuries went to Bengal in search of a better life, Bengalis like my parents came to Scotland in the 20th. There’s a vibrant Hindu-Bengali community based in central Scotland and centred on Glasgow. Drawn by the city’s manufacturing heritage and its teaching hospitals, Bengali engineers and doctors settled in the city in numbers disproportionately larger than anywhere in the UK outside of London.

I started writing the Sam Wyndham novels, in part as a search for a history that had been forgotten, to explore a heritage which Britain and India shared, and in particular to look at the ties between Scotland and Bengal. What I found were bonds that transcended mere trading relationships or those of the governing and the governed. The Scots and the Bengalis have had a deep impact on each other’s cultures and I’m grateful to be able to call myself both.

A Necessary Evil, is published by Harvill Secker, £12.99