The Great Bengali Detectives – Part 2

Despite the success and popularity of Jayanta-Manik, Hemendra Kumar Roy stuck to the domain of children’s literature, which meant that until Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi came along, there was something of a gap in crime fiction for adults.

Sharadindu was an immensely talented writer of fiction, who wrote across genres (his historical fiction is particularly engaging) but is best remembered for creating perhaps the most popular, Bengali super sleuth in the 1930s: Byomkesh Bakshi. Byomkesh never referred to himself as a detective; he said he was a satyanweshi, “one who seeks truth”. Byomkesh’s mysteries are part of the West Bengal school syllabus – not a mean feat for crime fiction, which is generally regarded as literary fiction’s disreputable, pulpier cousin.

Much like Sherlock Holmes’s escapades were recorded by Dr. John Watson, Byomkesh’s experiences were recorded by his friend Ajit, a writer. But while Byomkesh is certainly inspired by Conan Doyle’s classic duo, he and his stories are distinctive. Byomkesh is the first grown-up, professional detective and in his moods and mannerisms, he represented the Bengali middle class. Solving mysteries was a hobby for Jayanta. He was seldom bothered by material factors like remuneration. But for Byomkesh, the detective business is his livelihood. He wants to be paid for services rendered. He’s also a man who knows he’s working in a dangerous field – Byomkesh owns a gun that he occasionally carries with him. Though we don’t see him using it, the fact that he has it is a sign that these cases are not child’s play.

The background that Sharadindu gave Byomkesh is interesting too. Byomkesh’s father was a teacher of mathematics, we are told, and he inherited the ability to deduce and analyse from his father. Also, Sharadindu didn’t keep Byomkesh stuck in a static world where only the crimes that he’s solving change. Byomkesh matured with time. He was a bachelor when the series began, with Ajit as his flatmate. Actually, Sharadindu hadn’t anticipated how popular Byomkesh would become. When he wrote the first Byomkesh stories, Pather Kanta (The Thorn in One’s Path) and Simantahira (The Frontier Diamond) presented the detective with his friend and sidekick, already working as a team. Pather Kanta was about a murderer whose weapon of choice was a gramophone pin. Unusually for Byomkesh, Simantahira didn’t have a violent crime in it, but was a challenge posed by a client to Byomkesh.

When these two stories did well, Sharadindu provided his readers with some context for Byomkesh. It was in the next story, Satyanweshi (The Truth Seeker), in which Byomkesh busts a drugs racket, that Sharadindu told readers how Byomkesh and Ajit met. Incidentally, Sharadindu’s story had nothing in common with Rituparno’s Byomkesh film of the same name. Although Satyanweshi comes later chronologically, it is, in terms of the overarching storyline, first in the canon.

After four stories of bachelorhood, Sharadindu introduced Byomkesh to Satyavati in Arthamanartham (Money Means Trouble). Satyavati is not Byomkesh’s Irene Adler. Initially in Arthamanartham, Satyavati appears to be a murderer’s accomplice because her brother is the prime suspect in their uncle’s murder. She tries to help her brother by suppressing some facts, which, of course, only serve to further complicate the situation. (In that sense, she’s actually more reminiscent of Mary Morstan as we know her so far in BBC’s Sherlock. ) As far as purely literary parallels go, the only one that comes to mind is the marriage of Harriet Vane, a murder suspect, to Dorothy Sayers’s gentleman detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Having solved the mystery in Arthamanarthm, Byomkesh turned his attention to Satyavati and started courting her. It’s difficult to tell how long the courtship lasted because Satyavati appeared again in the 11th story and that was after about 15 years. With their occasional spats and general contentment with one another, Byomkesh and Satyavati seem to be a conventional, happy couple. Sharadindu mentions at one point that they have a son, though he doesn’t actually figure in any story.

Basically, Byomkesh is a normal, educated, middle-class Bengali man; not a larger-than-life figure like Blake or Jayanta; or an eccentric, drug-addicted genius like Sherlock Holmes. Most of his cases revolve around a social issue that makes them relevant in addition to being mysterious. In at least three stories, he catches the murderer only to let them go scot-free because he considers them to be victims of circumstances. Speaking about Byomkesh in an interview, Sharadindu said,

“I had always tried to place the Byomkesh stories at a certain intellectual level.You can treat them as social fiction. In every man’s life, certain problems crop up from time. Byomkesh tries to solve such problems. I have never ignored the reality while writing those stories.”

It’s also worth noting the difference in Byomkesh’s relationship with Ajit from that of other detectives and their chroniclers. Holmes and Poirot both are quite patronizing to Watson and Hastings, as if they are slightly inferior creatures. But Ajit is a friend. He may not be an equal as a detective to Byomkesh, but their relationship is one of mutual respect. Even after Byomkesh gets married, Ajit continues to live in the same flat, living his own life while Byomkesh lives his, almost like a family member that you want to have around. In contrast, poor Watson had to leave Baker Street and fend for himself once he got married.

All these elements helped the Byomkesh stories become tremendously popular and they remain so till date. The plots are captivating and Sharadindu’s craftsmanship as a writer is impressive. My personal favourite is Agnibaan (The Arrow of Fire), which involves a scientist, a mysterious poison and an evil stepmother. It’s fascinatingly-plotted.

By the time Sharadindu began writing Byomkesh stories, he was already well-known as a fiction writer and he hadn’t anticipated that it would be the detective in his quiver of characters who would hit bull’s eye. In this respect, Sharadindu had something in common with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who thought that his novels based on Napoleonic wars would make him immortal and that Sherlock Holmes was a mere aberration. This is why he tried to get rid of Holmes by plunging the detective to his death, but persistent demands from the reading public forced Doyle to bring Holmes back to life. Similarly, Sharadindu pushed Byomkesh into 15 long years of retirement, with the writer focusing his attention upon the film industry in Bombay. (Sharadindu worked as a script and screenplay writer with a Bombay Talkies, Filmistan and other banners.) This is why, in a writing career spanning four decades, Saradindu wrote only 32 Byomkesh stories. Though you could complain that some of the later stories lacked the flair and tightness of his earlier innings, Byomkesh is one of those detectives whose escapades can be read and re-read. So it isn’t surprising that Dibakar Banerjee is fascinated by him.

But while Byomkesh may be the most famous, he’s not the only charismatic detective in the world of Bengali crime fiction.

(The accompanying image is the opening page of Sharadindu Omnibus, Vol 1.)

(Coming up in Part 3, a detective with a fondness for kimonos, and more.)

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