The Great Bengali Detectives – Part 1

Recently, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair announced she’s going to make a film on a fictional Bengali detective, which will be shot in Kolkata. Bollywood’s favourite whiz kid Dibakar Banerjee will also shoot a film on the legendary Byomkesh Bakshi later this month, once again in Kolkata. Suddenly, the Bengali detective is the flavour of the year.

Sleuths have been a part of the Bengal’s popular fiction for well over a century. The detective story in Bengali literature is known as the goenda kahini (translation: ‘detective story’) and its beginnings lie in the 1890s, when Priyanath Mukherjee, a retired police official, started serializing his personal experiences every month, for a magazine.

Called Darogar Daptar (“The Journal of a Police Inspector”) it became an extremely popular serial that continued for well over a decade even though it was a workmanlike account and did not boast of much literary flavour. Incidentally, the appearance of Darogar Daptar coincided with the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Strand magazine. However, Priyanath was no Conan Doyle. His work was more in the line of Mémoirs de Vidocq, the experiences of an outstanding personality called Francois Eugene Vidocq, who was a soldier, a criminal, an entrepreneur, a policeman and a private detective. His memoirs, first published in 1828, may be considered the first modern work of crime writing in Europe.

Coming back to Bengal, the popularity enjoyed by Priyanath Mukherjee and his series inspired other writers to explore this genre. Slowly, the Bengali detective, or goenda, came into being: super-smart, sharp-eyed, extraordinarily analytical. This character was, of course, honed to perfection by the tall, brooding gentleman of 221B, Baker Street in far away London, but the cult in Bengal grew and its hold over our imagination hasn’t slackened in the past 150-odd years.

According to a recent census conducted by a literary magazine in Kolkata, there are 91 detectives in Bengali crime fiction and the tribe is steadily increasing. For our present purposes, I’m making a shortlist of the crime-solvers who were popular, yes, but also made a socio-literary impact.

This means talking about writers like Panchkori Dey, who wasn’t particularly original and neither did his work show great artistic merit, but he was prolific. Writing in the early 20th century, Dey was the first to introduce the detective-assistant duo in Bengali, following the Holmes-Watson tradition: Debendrabijoy and Arindam. Dey was a voracious reader of English crime fiction and he didn’t hesitate to recreate in Bengali what he’d read in English. He took great pains to ‘Bengalify’ them and changed the names and the characters’ backgrounds suitably, so that their non-Bengali origins would be obscured. To Dey also goes the credit of being the first Bengali translator of Sherlock Holmes stories. Needless to say, he was extremely popular in his heyday.

Dey passed the crime fiction baton to schoolteacher Dinendra Kumar Roy. Incidentally, Roy’s other claim to fame should be that he was appointed Sri Aurobindo’s private tutor, to teach the philosopher-freedom fighter Bengali after he returned to India after a long stint in England. As a writer, Roy was reasonably well-known for writing vignettes about rural life. He went on to become the editor of a magazine that dealt with crime, occult, magic and such stuff. This magazine sold like hot cakes and after World War I, Roy became his own publisher.

Every month, he would present his readers with a serialized crime novel, which he named Rahasyalahari, which literally translates to “waves of mystery”. Two hundred such novels appeared in Rahasyalahari. There was nothing original about them. Roy essentially translated the Sexton Blake series — described by one critic as “the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes” — and unlike Dey, Roy never tried to hide this. Sometimes, Roy even retained a few of the original English dialogues. It’s quite possible that at least some of the popularity of Rahasyalahari came from the fact that the stories were foreign.

It’s around this time, while Roy was translating full throttle, that the rules of the game started changing. English crime fiction was all very well, but Bengali readers wanted an indigenous crime-solving pair; a detective who would think, feel and act in Bengali, like Bengalis; not like a clone. The man who made that imaginative leap was Hemendra Kumar Roy, no relation of Dinendra Kumar.

As a young man, Hemendra Kumar became associated by the venerable Tagore family. He was one of the writers who worked on Bharati, the Tagores’ in-house literary magazine. In this company, Hemendra Kumar was able to hone his talents as an artist, a lyricist, a composer, a writer and even a choreographer.

In 1925, Hemendra Kumar took a decision that changed his life. A friend of his had just become the publisher of a monthly magazine for children and young adults, Nachghar. This friend asked Hemendra Kumar to join his venture. For the next 40 years, Hemendra Kumar devoted himself to children’s literature and channeled his love for detective and adventure stories into this genre. He also translated books as varied as Rubaiyat and Alice in Wonderland into English.

Hemendra Kumar created the super-sleuth Jayanta, who had an able assistant in Maniklal. There was also Inspector Sundarbabu, an integral part of Team Jayanta. He’s a bit comical, which is the fate of police officers in much of crime fiction all around the world. But this trinity that Hemendra Kumar created, inspired by English crime fiction and yet distinctly local and original, would become the blueprint for many later Bengali authors. His stories had a strong sense of the contemporary and even though he was inspired by writers like Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, Hemendra Kumar gave up his Bangaliyana.

My favourite Jayanta story is called “Kancher Coffin“(“The Glass Coffin”), even though it’s more science fiction than crime fiction. In it, Jayanta investigates the disappearance of some 80-odd, old men and women. All of them, Jayanta discovers, were approached by an old scientist who promised them to give back their youth.  Jayanta manages to raid the scientist’s hideout and finds  one “old” lady blooming into an 18-year-old beauty while an “old” man has been transformed into a handsome young man (he’s fast asleep in a transparent cocoon).  The scientist explains to Jayanta that he conducts his experiments on these people after putting them to sleep in a freezing chamber, which is where the metamorphosis takes place. To come up with the idea of cryonics back then is quite a imaginative feat. Since the scientist had been doing his experiments with all the ‘missing’ people’s consent, there was no crime and “Kancher Coffin” ended with the young lady frying cutlets for the hungry detectives.

The Jayanta-Manik stories – Hemendra Kumar must have written a few hundred of these – created a sensation in Bengal. They were lapped up by readers of all ages. Dr. Sukumar Sen, eminent linguist and literary historian, has written that one of the reasons the Jayanta-Manik stories became so popular was that Hemendra Kumar had Jayanta following the latest in science and deduction.

There is another interesting aspect to the Jayanta-Manik stories. The series was conceived during the years of the Indian freedom struggle. This is when secret societies and the cult of the violent revolution pervaded Bengal. In North Calcutta, a number of wrestling clubs and collectives with a rather martial emphasis mushroomed. Jayanta and Manik reflected this mood: they were both described as well-built young men, with a penchant for physical exercise. (Yes, there was a time when Bengalis were, in fact, the fit ones.)

The duo was always dressed in dhoti and kurta, which was another subtle indication of the pride in their Indian identity. Also, following the nationalist and revolutionary tradition, the fair sex is strictly not allowed in these stories. This was quite a change from the Panchkori Dey era, when we had rather suggestive titles like “Neelbasana Sundari” (“Woman in Blue”). Jayanta and Mani were strict brahmacharis. They were occasionally joined by Bimal and Kumar, two bachelors who were treasure hunters rather than detectives per se. The idea of the brahmachari detective would become one of the definitive features of Bengali crime fiction, with only Byomkesh Bakshi and Kiriti Ray breaking this rule.

But I’ll talk about those gentlemen next time.

(Coming up in Part 2: the Bengali detective goes from kiddie fiction into the world of grown-ups’ stories.)

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6 thoughts on “The Great Bengali Detectives – Part 1

  1. As someone who has always been fascinated with anything Bengali (Deepanjana would know), I really loved reading this. I am usually afraid of reading Bengalis write about Bengalis because they tend to go overboard in praise, intellectualize or both, and after a point I get bored because I don’t find any connect. I have, till date, only read Byomkesh Bakshi stories (again thanks to Deepanjana) and found it interesting enough to want to read more.
    I have a question for you: given that non-Bengalis like me can only read the translated works of these writers, do you think that negates some of their appeal?
    Also, I would be really grateful if you could list, for a newbie to Bengali prose like me, which are the stories you think I should read. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Did you read Byomkesh in original? Then I must say you are well-grounded in Bengali, because the language is fairly archaic with lots of Sanskrit-based words. You can straightway switch over to Feluda, because Satyajit Ray wrote clinical Bengali which is easy to understand. I hope that you will enjoy the coming installments.

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