Of Byomkesh Bakshi and other mysteries

I wonder how many of you remember the days of DoorDarshan (that’s National television in India and what some of us fondly refer to as pre-cable days). Ah, now those were the days! When television was basically about a few (read, 3) good shows and endless hours of News delivered in that beautiful newsreader monotone (for God forbid, lest you manage to stay awake to actually hear some of it!). Nevertheless, I have to admit those early years of pre-cable TV viewing shaped me as a human being. Or so it would seem. I mean, the proof is in the pudding! (I swear there was even a show back then based on the stories of Chekhov! I mean, what child in today’s enlightened, information for all age can claim that! To know Chekhov before you ever knew Chekhov!)

And one of those shows most of India is fondly reminiscing about currently is the one to do with the abovementioned Mr Bakshi.

Played by a young Rajit Kapur, I remember the show being mostly too noir for a young child but one still got an unmistakeable thrill from watching him go about his sleuthing in the Bangal of British India. There was just something about Byomkesh! As was admitted by the man himself, Rajit Kapur, in a magazine interview recently. 
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I will admit I am a sucker for homespun detective stories (and clearly have been since a tender, yound age); the kinds where the detectives were as indigenous as they came and the stories still carried the smell of the earth. You know what I mean? There were no intercontinental mysteries, no clues that were buried in foreign lands, no larger government conspiracies (I particularly, perhaps unreasonably I’ll admit, dislike those), no World War waiting to happen at every breathless plot twist. The detectives did not look like misplaced movie stars, carry sophisticated weaponry or necessarily wear three piece suits and a tie. Or maybe they did, but in that case it was so much a part of them that you didn’t give it a second thought. There was just plain old human nature; crimes of greed, of jealousy, of frustration; the crime passionnel. Perhaps, that’s why I prefer the stories of Feluda by Satyajit Ray and Miss Marple by Dame Christie. Don’t get me wrong though, I am and will always be a diehard fan of Sherlock Holmes though now (that I know them by heart) I’ll probably skip the ones in which Mycroft turns up.

And of course, Byomkesh Bakshi by Saradindu Bandopadhyay who gave us a true blue Bangla detective with that beautifully indigenous name. He’s dapper and dresses in a dhoti and kurta, lives in a very Indian neighbourhood and moves in a country, while it bears vestiges of foreign rule, doesn’t pander to it too much. He can read and speak English, of course but that’s just par of the course. His intellectuals are indigenous as are his villains; his romances are beautifully tinged with the culture of the motherland; and best of all, if you ask me, his women of beauty are nearly always described as ‘neither too dark, nor too fair’. This independence, if I may so call it, is what I find so beautiful; the fact that there is no hint of that racist streak which I feel certain must have run through India (dare I say it, even) back then. Which, in my opion, is a feat considering the first Bakshi mystery was written, I believe, in 1939 when India was still very much a British dominion. There is also, of course, that tendency to refer to scenes, people and their foibles as being very Bengali rather than Indian. But that too, if you ask me, is an honesty in the narrative that I find rather compelling. After all, the concept of a national indentity in India has always been a game of shadow and light. Except, when it comes to cricket, of course!

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There is, of course, the eternal debate of similarities between Holmes and the very Bengali Bakshi, what with his sidekick of a friend, foil and faithful chronicler, Ajit. But all I can say to that is we must give credit where it’s due and while there may have been many, many detectives who came before and along with Holmes, Conan Doyle will always be to detective fiction what Bram Stoker is to vampire lore (yes, that includes the shiny ones of Twilight fame).

And so, nearly 75 years after Bandopadhyay first conceived of Bakshi, that gem of Calcutta noir, he is all set to return a “theatre near you”. And in spite of my initial giddy excitement when I first heard of the movie I find myself dragging my feet over finally getting myself to a show. Perhaps, it’s because one is reluctant to destroy an image one cherishes so much and perhaps, it’s because the movie somehow seems to me to be an antithesis of everything I loved about Byomkesh Bakshi. But what it is, most definitely, a celebration of is the sheer enduring quality of a character. I am thrilled that a whole new generation will be introduced to Byomkesh! Even if it is a slightly more edgy and new-age, trying to be interesting version of him. Hopefully, it’ll encourage them to reach for that book to discover for themselves what it is they most love about the sleuth.

Either way, welcome back Byomkesh!

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