The Great Bengali Detectives: Part 3

While Byomkesh was in limbo, at least two detectives tried to fill the gap he left in Bengali literature.  Nihar Ranjan Gupta, a practicing medical man, created Bengal’s most stylish detective, Kiriti Ray. As a popular fiction author, Gupta had written a number of melodramatic but popular novels, a few of which, like Ulka, Mayamriga and Uttarphalguni, were adapted to create hit films and plays. For Gupta, Kiriti was a one of his many creations and one with a rather exceptional sense of style.

Set in the early 1940s, Kiriti Ray was an aristocratic and eccentric gent. When at home, he wore a silk kimono and grass slippers (“ghaasher chappal” in Bengali, not that language helps clarify matters. I’m yet to see slippers made of grass). His clients were equally posh – princes, zamindars and business magnates – and well-dressed. The same could often be said of the victims on many occasions.  For instance, in one story, a murdered industrialist was discovered wearing “a sharply-creased, ash-coloured, tropical long coat, white silk-twill shirt, loose knotted necktie and shining derby shoes.”

Kiriti first appeared in children’s fiction, as a foil to Jayanta, but he quickly graduated to a more grown-up readership. Unfortunately, although he did have a few memorable cases with sharp observations and deductions, on the whole, Kirit was more show than substance. Over the years, Kiriti’s popularity faded and he quietly shuffled away in his grass slippers.

A more serious rival could have been Parashar Barma, the poet-detective created by Premendra Mitra. Mitra was one of the most talented writers of in post-Tagore Bengal. An outstanding poet, a brilliant fiction writer, he also scripted and directed a few films. As an author, he created evergreen characters like the know-it-all Ghana-da and Mamababu for children. He was also one of the pioneers of science fiction in Bengali. In hindsight, perhaps Mitra was too prolific – the poet-detective Parashar Barma got lost in the crowd of Mitra’s fabulous creations.

Parashar Barma was a poet by profession, immediately setting him apart from the clinical, dispassionate nature of the detectives inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Although his crime solving was all about analysis, Parashar also used his imagination and his sense of humour. Like all good detectives, Parashar also had a sidekick, named Krittibas, whose job it was to narrate the stories to the reader. In most of the stories, Krittibas would be exasperated by how casually Parashar takes the cases. but one with a penchant for mysteries. On one occasion, though, Nijer Jobanitey Parashar (Parashar In His Own Words), Parashar took on the role of narrator.

Parashar was decidedly Poirot-esque, depending on his grey cells, intuition, sense of humour and poetry to solve mysteries. One of the Parashar stories I remember is “Parasar Barma O Kabitar Ghanto” (Parashar Barma and the Poetry Mishmash). In it, a blind man had shot an intruder in an aviary. He heard the birds were singing and so came to the conclusion that he’d shot the intrude in the morning. Actually, the incident had taken place in the dead of the night but the birds had been roused by someone who wanted to confuse the shooter into thinking it was morning. At one point in the story, Parasar recited the well-known Bengali lines, “Pakhi sab/  kore rab/ rati pohailo” (“The birds sing as dawn breaks”) and figured out the discrepancy in the timeline.

Most of the Parashar stories were written in the Fifties, a time when the government was viewed with optimism in a relatively young India. The sense of solidarity that people felt with the government is a far cry from what we see today. Today’s detectives are invariably at odds with the system, but back then, this wasn’t necessary for credibility. So Parasar was often employed by the central government to unravel smuggling and espionage networks, showing a certain degree of trust and cooperation on part of both the government and Parashar. As a man of refinement, Parashar wasn’t interested in murder and mundane crimes.

The first Parashar story appeared in a magazine around the time that Byomkesh too arrived on the literary scene, but while Byomkesh’s popularity was immediate, Parashar struggled to find fans. The first anthology of Parashar stories was published about 30 years after his debut, but sadly, even that is now out of print.

It is surprising that in spite of the popularity of Bengali detectives, no attempt was made to bring them to life on the silver screen until Satyajit Ray translated Byomkesh to celluloid in the late 1960s.  Neither Ray nor his audience liked the attempt much. In the Forties and Fifties, one of the few Bengali writers to dabble in film was Mitra. His interest in noir led to mystery-themed films like Kalo Chhaya (Dark Shadows,1948), Hanabari (The Haunted House,1952) and Chupichupi Aasey (Quietly, he comes, 1960). The first two were crime thrillers with a supernatural angle. The plots weren’t very convincing, but Hanabari was a big hit (you can see it on YouTube). The last was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Three Blind Mice”.  In spite of the plot and a reasonably competent star cast, the film was just so-so (at least that’s how I remember it).  It is a pity Mitra never considered a film with Parashar. Perhaps Mitra thought Parashar wouldn’t appeal to the audiences that sit in the stalls.

The other significant mystery film of the Fifties was Jighangsa by Ajay Kar, which was a straightforward copy of “The Hound of Baskervilles”. Interestingly, the music director of the film, Hemanta Mukherjee, used the background score from this film a decade later when he composed the eerie and haunting “Kahin Deep Jale, Kahin Dil” for Bees Saal Baad.

While pulp fiction shouldn’t really figure in a serious literary discussion in my opinion, the fact is that there were a few extremely popular detectives in the pulp genre. One of them was Dipak Chatterjee, created by Swapankumar, a pseudonym used by Samarendranath Pande, who was actually an astrologer by profession. His stories were never longer than 50 pages, did not have any analysis, but were filled with absurd situations, violence, raids, chase, firings etc. Dipak Chatterjee was a favourite of schoolboys in their early teens and the author held on to his popularity for more than three decades.

A slightly glorified version of Dipak Chatterjee’s escapades was the Mohan series by Sasahdhar Dutta.  Mohan was a Robin Hood-type character who had larger than life adventures. Dutta wrote over two hundred stories for Mohan and they were so popular that in the mid-’50s, a film was made on him with matinee idol Pradeep Kumar playing Mohan. He wore dark glasses and rode a motorcycle in the film.

The Sixties  witnessed some major upheavals in the Bengali detectives’ territory. Hemendra Kumar passed away, so it was the end of the innings for Jayanta. Byomkesh left his rented accommodation in North Calcutta and settled down in the south Calcutta neighbourhood of Keyatala, having decided to retire. As Byomkesh approached his sunset years, a rising sun was required, and in came Pradosh C. Mitter.

(Coming up in the last part, Satyajit Ray’s Feluda.)

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