January 12, 2020
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Elementary, My Dear...

The loved, homegrown Bengali detective-now in English

Elementary, My Dear...
Picture Imperfect
By S. Bandopadhyay Translated By S. Guha
Penguin India Rs 200; Pages: 249
It was sometime in '94 that I first encountered Byomkesh Bakshi. No, I don't know Bangla, and had never heard of the Bengali mystery-writer of the early part of the century named Saradindu Bandopadhyay-a widely read, much loved name in Bengal. In fact, even after I came across Byomkesh and became one of the many converts who, week after week, waited to see his searing intelligence at work, I never wondered about his author. And caught up in the discovery of the indigenous, home grown detective, I remained insensible to the fact that Byomkesh and his accomplice, Ajit, were not the Hindi speaking projections they'd perforce become on Doordarshan-translated beings for the Hindi speaking belt. I accepted the actor Rajat Kapoor-years before he became the Mahatma-as the Bengali Babu Byomkesh. After all, Punjabis have always made picture perfect Bengalis: in popular imagination all you need is an impeccable white kurta pajama, creased by a few words of a kitschy, bowdlerised Bengali for one to be translated into a bhadralok.

This picture imperfect, to quote from the title, altered once again when I met Byomkesh and Ajit in their English speaking avatars in Sreejata Guha's lucid translation of Saradindu's short stories. Culled from the 1970 Saradindu Omnibus, this translation coincides with the writer's birth centenary. It's been a long journey-further complicated by the telegenic images that threaten to overwhelm the original Bengali and the English translation with echoes of the popular Hindi TV series. That it relies on that public memory as a sales strategy is apparent from the cover imprint of the televised, Hindi speaking Byomkesh visaged in a startled, absorbed Rajat Kapoor.

Guha's translation is valuable not only because she attempts to gain a wider readership for Saradindu-whose craft and genius are obscured by the later success of Satyajit Ray's Feluda series-but because she's very clear about his contribution to the genre of Indian crime fiction. Also given her current doctoral project on translation theory, she brings to her Anglicised version of the Bengali mother text a sense of historicity and culture sensitivity. Thus, in her translator's note she places the Byomkesh stories in the larger context of world crime fiction and their influence on Saradindu's craft. She asserts that like other pre-independence writers Saradindu also borrowed techniques from Conan Doyle, Poe, or Christie, but his Indian sensibility remained unimpaired. And since most of the stories in this selection, except the title story, were written in 1932-36, Guha positions them as archival tools through which we can read the obscured history of colonial India.

Though unable to judge the veracity of Guha's translation because of my own linguistic disability, and aware that I'm Penguin's target audience-I've still delighted in peeping into Saradindu's mind. His psychologically credible characters and skill in capturing the milieu of middle class Calcutta apart, I love the small barbs with which he assesses his world. In Where There Is A Will, we're introduced to Byomkesh's future wife, Satyaboti as a remarkable girl who retains rare grace under pressure, unlike "the greater percentage of Bengali girls (who) turn into wooden dolls." In the same story, in a play of multilingualism, we have Byomkesh informing Ajit that he's always been a worshipper of truth. Confused about the import of this, Ajit's told by his friend "Think vernacular." "Truth...? Satya! Oh!" Satyaboti-the riddle is solved. In An Encore For Byomkesh, the clue to the criminal's identity is in the numerical mirroring of the English eight and the Bangla four.

These little joys apart, there's plenty for any reader who loves to play sleuth, and is happy to have a sleuth who's not a colonial import. Time we went back to the spring of '25 to meet a "fair, well-built, handsome" man whose "face radiated intelligence." Byomkeshbabu.

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