Bandyopadhyay created Byomkesh Bakshi in 1932, which makes him a forerunner by several decades of that other famous fictional Bengali sleuth, Ray’s Feluda. Inevitably, these stories have dated to an extent; some of the deductions will seem slightly naïve if you’re an experienced reader of detective fiction. (A letter written in invisible ink is the earthshaking plot twist in one story. In another, Byomkesh lies sprawled on an armchair looking up at the beams on the roof and thinking for 15 minutes before making a fairly commonplace inference.) But on the whole the stories are well plotted, there is an eye for detail and for nuances of character, and some of them are sinister in a way that seem quite at odds with the comfortably bourgeoisie south Calcutta setting. I was particularly taken by the narrative structure of “Quills of the Porcupine” (“Shojarur Kanta”), which intercuts the mystery with observations on caste differences, the alienation inherent in big-city living, and the dual natures of people.
Won’t make this a long post (a sluggish Sunday afternoon being better spent in reading the book than writing about it) but another reason I find these stories appealing is that they evoke a very particular mood and milieu, a style of living that I haven’t encountered firsthand but have heard a lot about (thanks to a preponderance of Bong friends). I’m talking about the indolence that one typically (stereotypically?) associates with Bengali intellectuals who prefer to flex their cerebral muscles rather than engage in much physical activity. The sort of lifestyle where one might spend the entire morning playing chess with a friend (as Byomkesh often does with his friend Ajit babu, who narrates many of the stories) or leafing through the newspapers, then take an afternoon siesta and later wander across unannounced to a friend’s house for tea and conversation.
Conservation of energy is the key: it’s no coincidence that words like “torpor” and “leisure” run through many of these tales. Here is an account of a particularly stressful day for Byomkesh – it’s right in the middle of one of his most eventful cases:
The morning crept in slowly. Putiram came in with the tea, but Byomkesh didn’t touch it. Neither did he light a single cigarette. He lay in the armchair as if in a stupor, a hand sheltering his face.And soon after, night comes and it’s time for dinner and another bath... and so it goes. You get the idea. Lots of internal tension and deep thought, but nothing that would justify expending too much energy.
At noon he got up in silence and had his bath and his lunch. Then he switched on the fan and stretched out on the bed. I knew he hadn’t done so for a quick nap. He held himself responsible for Panugopal’s death and needed solitude so he could come to terms with it. Moreover, he was desperate to unmask the shrouded assassin who had removed two people in quick succession from the face of the earth.
That evening, we sat and drank our tea together. Byomkesh’s face continued to look as menacing as a newly sharpened razor blade.
Okay, I’m being unfair – there’s at least one story in here that has a spectacular denouement, and another that involves the detective wearing a bulletproof vest to foil the plans of a porcupine-quill killer. Also, the reference to indolence isn’t a dig at Byomkeshbabu, just an expression of envy for his methods and his lifestyle (and probably the era he lived in). I wish I had a similar talent for doing the things I like doing while at the same time just lounging about for long hours at a stretch and not appearing to do very much at all.
Note: Non-Bengali readers, also look out for an earlier collection of Byomkesh Bakshi stories titled Picture Imperfect and other Tales.