Escape to Calcutta
For some reason, my parents didn’t listen to Manna Dey much when I was young. But what bhadralok Bengali — from either side of the Radcliffe Line — of the last half century cannot relate to Coffee House?
That adda and those golden afternoons have long been gone, and I don’t want to dwell on it because melancholy is no good for me. Instead, let me escape to Calcutta.
Yes, Calcutta, of the black and white era, the great metropolis, the city comparable to New York and London, Sydney and Shanghai — not the provincial Kolkata, that city I have no affection for, in reality or fantasy.
Calcutta, that’s where this is set.
While better known in the West for his depiction of rural Bengal / India, I’ve always felt that Satyajit Ray was at his best showing Calcutta, and its denizens. Okay, perhaps its denizens — after all, Kanchenjungha or Aranyer Dinratri are not really in Calcutta. And even Mahanagar or the Calcutta Trilogy is about the Calcuttans, and not Calcutta as such. The same, of course, holds for Nayak — Uttam Kumar’s best effort.
Like everyone else, Sharadindu Bandopadhyaya, Byomkesh’s creator, was inspired by Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. But Byomkesh is not quite the Holmesian hero. Rather, he is described as a rather typical Bengali young man in the first stories that appeared in the 1930s. And unlike many fictional sleuths in the Holmesian tradition, or the American noir stories, Byomkesh is a family man — he marries a suspect’s sister in one of the stories, and goes on to have a son.
Byomkesh is also not detached from the sociopolitical realities of his time. Adim Ripu, for example, is set in the Calcutta under Suhrawardy’s government — a city besieged by communal strife, on the verge of civil war, kind of like Beirut of the 1960s. Byomkesh, we are told, also helps Sardar Patel with some ‘affairs of the state’. In a different story, he discovers that a prominent Indian politician is actually compromised and blackmailed by Pakistanis.
And Byomkesh is much more, for-the-lack-of-a-better-word, adult than, say, Feluda — Ray’s own sleuth. It’s hard to imagine a Feluda story with widows having affairs, illegitimate birth, illegal abortion rings, and femme fatales.
Which is a shame. Ray was simply better at it than Bandopadhyaya. In Chiriyakhana the novel, for example, the story is solved by Byomkesh setting a trap for the two potential suspects. In the movie, the detective makes the breakthrough because the femme fatale uses a particular phrase that is more likely to be used by people of East Bengali origin, while the character claims to have been from deep west. Also, the movie uses a cool invention (for the era) as an alibi — this is absent in the novel.
If only Ray wrote serious noir!