What grisly end awaits the unsuspecting victim? Death by tarantula juice? By lethal gas released from a match or the sharp thrust of a porcupine quill through the heart? Or will it be a bicycle-bell dart gun that fells him in broad daylight?
Will we know how and why? We can knock on walls in search of jewel filled cavities – but will we ever find what is camouflaged by layers of methodically applied lime plaster? If we do not, Byomkesh Bakshi will, and there is an enduring comfort in that.
Since his first adventure was published in 1932, Byomkesh Bakshi, the Bengali sleuth, has come to enjoy a level of popularity in India rivalled only by a handful of other home-grown fictional characters. Stories about him have been adapted (with varying degrees of success) into over twelve films and 5 television series, dating from Satyajit Ray’s Chiriyakhana (1967) to Saibal Mitra’s Shajarur Kanta (2015).
Decades after Saradindu Bandyopadhyay wrote him into existence, I’m finding it’s still a good time to be a fan of Byomkesh Bakshi. I decide to find a few others. I interview three Byomkesh aficionados – a superfan, a translator and a filmmaker.
‘Is it physically possible to create a lethal bicycle-bell gun that obeys the laws of physics?’ Sometime in early 2010, Anirban Mahapatra, a microbiologist turned science editor and publisher, posed himself this question.
Mahapatra dedicated a blog post on his website byomkesh.com to the answer. He even drew a diagram of the weapon because he considered the question vital to the plausibility of Pother Kanta, one of the most popular Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries of all time.
Mahapatra is something of an expert on the Bengali detective and eventually aims to post a synopsis of every Byomkesh story on his popular website – at his last count he was 1/5 of the way through. He has been reading the books since he was a young boy, and remembers that Bandyopadhyay’s stories were of course not intended for children: “Byomkesh was written for a mature, adult reader, while detective fiction in Bengali is typically considered a subgenre of juvenile fiction,” explains Mahapatra.
“Bandopadhyay was first and foremost a professional writer with an unmistakable eye for plot and character,” he says. “I’ve read each and every one of his stories and novels at least three times. The first time I read them for the plot. The second time for the dialogue and the humour. And then again for the nuanced descriptions.”
Mahapatra’s close attention has left him on intimate terms with the Byomkesh universe. He can speak, for example, with authority on controversial topics like the lead actor’s neat moustache in the most recent film. (Some fans, used to clean-shaven portrayals, took to the internet to protest the look when Detective Byomkesh Bakshi! was released). It turns out, the detective does have facial hair – “mentioned only in passing in Chiriyakhana when Byomkesh has to shave it off to assume a disguise!”
Other trademarks are less contested. As immediately identifiable to fans as Holmes’ Inverness cape and Poirot’s Homburg hat is Byomkesh’s dhuti, a traditional bottom-half garment made of a long, expertly tied length of fabric. (Its edges always prove convenient for polishing his spectacles.) Reviewers have been known to take note of the confidence with which an actor grasps his dhuti. How much at ease he appears in the garment is considered one reliable measure of how well he will perform his role.
Unsurprisingly, Mahapatra has strong opinions about TV and film adaptations of Byomkesh stories to date – so far none quite measure up. “I honestly think an acceptable adaption has not been made yet, but not for lack of trying. Byomkesh is revered in Bengal and his stories have been made into movies by respected directors such as Satyajit Ray, Anjan Dutt, and Rituparno Ghosh.” For Mahapatra, none rate anywhere near the stories: “Even Ray confessed that he thought Chriyakhana was his weakest movie!”
What the films might also miss is the deep love of classical literature that Bandyopadhyay gave his most famous character. In one story we hear Byomkesh read Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Bengali Mahabharata; another favoured text which he would quote from freely was Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol, a collection of nonsensical rhymes published in 1923. Mahapatra’s favourite quote, however, is a phrase in Sanskrit, which the detective deploys whenever he is offered tea. He always accepts, declaring: “Adhikantu nah doshay” – ‘there is no fault in excess.’
“Every translator grows up thinking that the books they loved when they were growing up are ones the entire world wants to read,” Arunava Sinha confesses wryly. Nonetheless, his timing has proven impeccable. The Rhythm of the Riddles (2010) is one of the few collections of Byomkesh Bakshi stories available in English, just as the character has grown into what Sinha dubs “the hottest film franchise in India right now.”
Sinha is something of a serial translator with over 30 translations in print so far. In The Rhythm of Riddles he describes Bandyopadhay’s writing as “very formal, often ornate…a classical form of Bengali which was used only in books.” Yet, he found the author could say a lot with relatively few words. “You realise he composes sentences with beguiling simplicity; what he puts into 7 words you are putting into 15.”
Sinha also enjoys that, unlike Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Byomkesh Bakshi is a normal bhadralok – a member of Bengal’s genteel, upper class. Byomkesh has a vital marriage, finding an intelligent, loving companion in Satyavati, with whom he has a son. He earns his money not from his detective work but from a publishing business he runs with his partner and the narrator of the stories, Ajit and his only vice appears to be a smoking habit. Crucially, he refers to himself not as a detective but as a satyanweshi – a truth seeker.
Byomkesh does not see justice in stark terms. Once his criminal is caught, the detective weighs their case on his own set of cosmic scales to determine whether they should be handed over to the law. Sometimes he sees that their crime brings enough pain in itself; in other instances that the crime addresses an old injustice and sets things to rights.
It could be that the detective’s unabashedly subjective and complicated responses echo the values of India’s religious and philosophical traditions. Sinha’s sees Byomkesh’s understanding of the complexity of good and evil as “more than just a cerebral element”; it is what lends these stories their timeless, universal quality. “Somebody like Byomkesh embodied everything that the Bengalis admired,” says Sinha.
Sinha notes that Bandyopadhyay’s views on women can nonetheless be quite conventional and orthodox, and that some of his work – in particular the historical romances – appear to contain anti-Muslim sentiments. Fans tend to acknowledge this with some discomfort, but quickly add that he was simply a product of his times.
Born in 1899, Bandyopadhyay studied law before he dedicated himself to writing. He produced his first Byomkesh mystery in 1932, when he was 33 years old. He would live through two World Wars and watch India’s freedom movement coalesce. Then came the trauma of Partition which pitted India’s Muslims and Hindus against each other, and the communal riots that engulfed Calcutta. Like many others, Bandyopadhyay was reportedly impatient with politicians – of both sides – during that time. Some readers argue that he was not Islamaphobic; in his defence they cite that characters in the Byomkesh books express sincere grief for Muslim friends and mentors who were killed in the riots.
Whatever the truth of the author’s sentiments, Sinha has at least once felt discomfited by them; enough to make a point of stating in his translator’s notes for By the Tungabhadra that the novel reflects not his views, but Bandyopadhyay’s.
It made headlines in 2008, when Dibakar Banerjee’s award-winning Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! also made him the focus of notorious thief Devinder Singh “Bunty.” The latter took offence at the way he was portrayed in the film and allegedly set out to kill the director.
Fortunately, with the recent release of his sixth film, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi! (2015), murder is more of a professional curiosity than a personal concern for Banerjee. When working on the script, Banerjee wanted to capture the “pretty pulpy” quality that marked Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s early work, which even then was elevated by the writer’s memorable characterisations.
The unsavoury elements he so enjoyed are the reason Banerjee’s first memories of the Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries are of being forbidden to read them. His parents thought he needed protection from the middle-class depravities depicted in Bandyopadhyay’s stories: the lust, treachery and greed his detective encountered at every turn.
As you might expect, once banned from doing so, it was inevitable that Banerjee would promptly read all 32 stories collected into 12 volumes, each bound handsomely in cloth, their titles illuminated in gold lettering. “They were a staple in every Bengali household but Saradindu Bandyopadhyay was considered by genteel Bengalis to be a little too flesh and blood,” remembers Banerjee.
The director’s great achievement has been bringing it all into glorious life in Detective Byomkesh Bakshi!, for which he created his version of 1940s Calcutta, “retro-imagined” into being on film. “Calcutta changed massively during the wars,” Banerjee says now, describing how it went from a “genteel seat of the colonial experience” to “a tough old place.”
He imagines the city flooded with people from all over the world. There are narcotics smugglers from Africa, GIs from America and Japanese spies gathering intelligence – along with fierce local advocates of the Quit India movement. What we don’t see on screen are the people starving to death. If the film were actually true to 1940s Calcutta, actors on the street would be confronted at every turn by victims of the Bengal Famine of 1943, which claimed some 3 million lives.
In 2015, Dibakar Banerjee is perhaps the name most often associated with that of Byomkesh, with the sole exception of the handsome star of his film, Sushant Singh Rajput. Banerjee, in collaboration with Bollywood heavy weights Yash Raj Films, now owns the rights to all 32 Byomkesh Bakshi short stories in every language except Bengali. He admits, quite frankly, that he would not want to see an alternate interpretation “that could hurt the franchise.”
However, he is uncertain the film will win Byomkesh a horde of international fans. This is likely a wise stance in the light of reviews like that which ran in The Guardian, praising the “watchable stars and a gorgeously rendered 1940s-Calcutta setting,” even as the reviewer struggled with the other staple of Bollywood films – convoluted plots that traditionally take over two hours to meander to an end.
But Banerjee has set his sights more locally. In India itself, the franchise’s popularity is heartening. “Without it we would only be taking in more Avengers or more The Fast and the Furious without any connect to what is happening in those films. And that’s not good for the local film industry or for popular culture.”
What we’re all discovering is that though Byomkesh may be over eighty years old, in him Indians can still find much to relate to, and perhaps more crucially, respect.
All stills courtesy Dibakar Banerjee.
Smriti Daniel is a journalist based in Colombo. An Indian national, she has spent the last decade as a features writer for the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka. Her work has appeared in publications including The Hindu, BusinessLine, Condé Nast Traveller and Open. She manages social media for the South Asian edition of SciDev.Net.
(Photo by Suda Shanmugaraja)