Kolkata, or erstwhile Calcutta, the capital city of West Bengal, once the centre of the British Empire, has a very rich tradition of Bengali crime fiction. It could perhaps be described as the centre of Indian crime fiction.
The tradition of Bengali crime fiction in Kolkata began as early as 1892 with the creation of the series ‘Darogar Daptar’ (The Police Inspector’s Office) by Priyonath Mukhopadhyay, a retired policeman. Soon after came Panchkori De’s foreign sleuths in a Kolkata setting and Dinendra Kumar Roy’s very popular English detective in Kolkata, Robert Blake. Dr. Nihar Ranjan Gupta, a UK trained doctor, who had met Agatha Christie once, created another very popular detective, the stylish and rational Kiriti Roy.
But the genre really gained widespread popularity with the creation of Byomkesh Bakshi, by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyaya. Essentially a native of Kolkata, most of his exploits too were based in the city. Sharadindu’s Byomkesh stories, spanning as it did a turbulent period of Kolkata’s and India’s history, from 1932 to 1970, – the Second World War, the freedom movement, independence and partition – had an underlying, veiled commentary on Kolkata’s social and political milieu of the times, though never obtrusive. And though his themes were often very adult, his detective led a very ordinary middle-class life. Byomkesh stories have been made, and are still being made, into television serials and films in both Bengali and Hindi. The earliest was ‘Chiriakhana’ (The Zoo), directed by Satyajit Ray and starring Bengal’s then matinee idol, Uttam Kumar, as Byomkesh.
During the sixties there was a rash of penny dreadfuls, the most popular being Swapankumar’s creation of Dipak Roy and his sidekick Ratanlal. These were more in the style of noir crime thrillers, but based in Kolkata.
In 1965 Satyajit Ray created his fictional detective, Feluda. Though written as children’s stories, Feluda, or Prodosh Chandra Mitter, through the thirty five stories written between ’65 and ‘95, occupies a very large part of the Bengali psyche and is synonymous with detective fiction in Bengali. Feluda lived in Kolkata, as did Ray, and the city figured largely in most of the stories. Ray made two of the stories into films: ‘Sonar Kella’ (The Golden Fortress) and ‘Joy Baba Felunath’ (The Elephant God). He made short films of some of the other stories and now his son, Sandip Ray, has been making Feluda films.
Bengal has a very rich tradition of literary fiction and it speaks volumes about the popularity of the detective fiction genre that most established authors also tried their hand at detective fiction.
Yet, at the Kolkata Literary Meet in 2014, panellists at a seminar on detective fiction rued that no new detective stories have been written in the last twenty years. Films were still being made based on Feluda or Byomkesh stories. But in today’s world of the internet and mobile phones these stories were stretching credulity too far. So, perhaps, ‘The Kolkata Conundrum’ is finally a step in the right direction and Orko Deb will join the pantheon of Kiriti Roy, Robert Blake, Byomkesh and Feluda.