A classic whodunit 
Shalini Rawat

The Menagerie and other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries
Saradindu Bandyopadhyay
Translated by Sreejata Guha
Penguin. Rs 295 Pages 315

When Saradindu Bandyopadhyay created Byomkesh Bakshi’s character in 1932, little did he expect him to become so popular that almost a century later a translation of his work would be so welcome. The detective branch of fiction was rather looked down upon in those days. But as is true for the Indian psyche which gravitates towards most things termed ‘commercial’ topped with a little masala, this indigenised version of Sherlock Holmes too, was soon lapped up.

Detective fiction counts amongst the most successful literary products that the metropolitan west has exported to the world periphery. Between the end of the 19th century and the outbreak of World War II the genre acquired a global presence – both in the form of translations of existing works such as the Sherlock Holmes stories, and in the form of numerous indigenous adaptations. This kind of literature represented a prime example of the mass-produced and mass-circulated print entertainment that was part and parcel of the emergence of mass consumption as a social form. Detective fiction was, thus, both a carrier and an expression of modernity.

The principles of scientific enquiry permeate the genre throughout, not just in terms of the ubiquitous magnifying glasses, finger-prints and assorted scientific apparatuses, but in terms of the subject matter itself — the fact that it is possible to make sense of an increasingly confusing world by uncovering hidden causal connections through rational enquiry.

When we speak of the neglected literatures of a forgotten age, it is often observed that we depend upon lesser writers to give the genre its characteristic form- be it the mighty novel or our ubiquitous blog. However, Saradindu Bandyopadhyay is an exception in that he was an established writer much before he started writing the Byomkesh series. Also the stories hold a mass appeal even in this age as was demonstrated by the popularity of their televised adaptation by Basu Chatterjee starring Rajit Kapoor (of which Ms Guha, unfortunately, makes no mention)

The most important thing is that they are independent of the tag a heavyweight precursor attached to them. Written much before Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series, the mysteries captured the charm of the old world Calcutta trying to, but not yet successful in, severing the bond with the Raj. The recurrent theme, as in most adaptations, is the adventurous confrontation of a detective with a background in college education and a member of the bourgeois class, who often embodies the feudal values of bravery and izzat. The stories are saturated with the totems and fetishes of modern life, from electronic street lighting and trains to the bachelor’s residence or the new forms of male-female interaction. Saradindu’s depiction of modernity is however quite ambiguous, leaving plenty of space for non-modernist values and contradictions to flourish within the same frame.

In The Menagerie, Saradindu, instead of presenting the reader with a (prospective) villain with a nervous tic or a giveaway hunchback, gifts the reader with a set of weirdoes living in Golap Colony, where Byomkesh tries to solve the mystery of broken motor parts and the two subsequent murders. It was made into a film by Satyajit Ray. The Jewel Case is a small fast-paced narrative where the detective searches for a lost necklace. The Will That Vanished and The Quills of the Porcupine tests the abilities of the shrewd detective who manages to solve them with feline grace and click the cases shut.

Sreejata Guha deserves due praise for bringing our lost (but not forgotten) Bangla Holmes to the English reader (the only reader left worth writing or translating for.