Nowadays, there is a noticeable lack of cloak-and-dagger storytelling in Bengali literature
We must admit, this side of Bengal has been rather lackadaisical in producing compelling detective novels. In the recently concluded Ekushey Boi Mela, the gap in the detective genre became only too visible.
Maybe there were a few books, but either they were not publicized properly or did not fit into the category of the spine-chilling “whodunit.”
Come to think of it, the detective genre never actually picked up in Bangladesh.
Well, Misir Ali -- the lover of the paranormal created by Humayun Ahmed -- can be called a detective of sorts; but then, most of Misir Ali’s cases usually deal with inexplicable phenomena in nature that border on the supernatural.
For those who have read detective novels in Bangla, the three names that spring up are Kiritr Roy, Byomkesh Bakshi, and, of course, Feluda, aka, Pradosh Mitter.
All three are from West Bengal in India though many of their adventures have references to places and people in Bangladesh.
For a long time, the absence of detective fiction in Bangladesh was justified by the ludicrous line that, since such work hardly carry any romantic twists, readers are not attracted.
Anyway, in West Bengal, there has been a revival of the detective genre, especially on the large screen, which has triggered a renewed interest in detective fiction from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
The skull, dagger, and cracked wine glass
Possibly the first Bengali detective to capture readers’ hearts in Bangladesh and West Bengal was Kiriti Roy -- the quintessential Bengali sleuth in a dhoti and kurta, often carrying a pistol.
The most fascinating part of Kiriti books is perhaps the cover, which always carried either a skull, a dagger, a contorted hand and, in many cases, a broken wine glass -- all items point to something sinister.
The dagger was almost a permanent feature with a mask thrown in to create an aura of enigma and salacious thrill.
The covers were mostly hand painted and so, many years later, they still manage to send a chill down the spine.
Kiriti Roy’s capers involved crime syndicates, death cults, and secret societies, especially the “Kalo Bhromor” or the Black Hornet.
Niharranjan Gupta, the creator of Kiriti, had a versatile mind, giving us a fabulous array of villains, some hidden behind opulence, others perennially concealed under a mask.
With a revival of detective films in West Bengal, Kiriti has seen a film adaptation in Nilachole Kiriti and Kiriti o Kalo Bhromor -- films with delicious twists, capable of maintaining suspense till the last moment.
But West Bengal also produced another detective which may have slipped into oblivion. Dipok Chatterjee by Sri Shopon Kumar was contemporary to Kiriti, providing detective books with catchy names like Tero Nombor Bari or Cholonto Chhaya.
Kuasha and Feluda
When we were growing up in the late 70 as the first generation in an independent country, the detective fiction scenario was dominated by Kiriti and then, by a local hero called Kuasha, or “The Fog.”
The idea was to present a character similar to Agatha Christie’s elusive Mr Quin, whose movements are mysterious and whose identity is never fully revealed, and, therefore, leave the reader to vacillate between possibilities.
This cloak and dagger presentation of Kuasha was received warmly by readers and, though Kuasha could not exactly be defined as detective fiction, the adventures carried an aura of suspense.
However, Kuasha, a Sheba Porkashoni offering written by Qazi Anwar Hussain, stopped after 74 adventures.
Enter Feluda, the modern-day Bengali detective who is erudite, sporty, suave, and a polished maverick.
Satyajit Ray’s Felu Mitter or Feluda took Bangladeshi readers by storm and, even today, there is eager wait among detective book lovers for the latest film adaptation of Feluda’s adventures.
The Feluda movies, without any specific female roles to provide romantic titillation, became instant hits, disproving the belief that women and item numbers are essential for films to become successful.
With the movies, a new generation of fans developed, who later picked up the books which had been written mostly in the 70s and early 80s.
The drive to keep Feluda in the market is remarkably canny, with meticulously illustrated comic books to entice young readers, who now have many addictive gadgets that may seem more appealing compared to old-fashioned books.
The comic books have gone back to old-style hand-painted covers, creating an atmosphere of irresistible thrill.
The same strategy can be followed in the case of Kuasha books. There are quite a few talented cartoonists in the country, and employing them to bring out illustrated Kuasha thrillers will revive interest in the frayed fictional heroes from the early period of Bangladesh.
Sheba Prokashoni also popularized Masud Rana, the Bangladeshi espionage agent in the format of 007. While Rana novels transformed lazy afternoons in a tranquil city of the 70s and 80s, triggering in readers’ fantasies of glittering, globe-trotting escapades , the books are hardly picked up by the current-day youth.
Reportedly, a film is being made, though we do not know anything about the progress. However, launching Rana in illustrated form can also save our own spy from extinction.
At this year’s Boi Mela, countless books were launched, but the detective genre remains the most neglected.
Well, it’s time someone came up with a new character and twisting plots involving cyanide, daggers, death, masquerade parties, and deviant cults.
These books can be completely illustrated to attract young readers.
In the UK, they did exactly that and injected a few doses of the macabre in Agatha Christie fiction to present the cases in revamped TV adaptations.
The old detectives are given a new lease in life with a modern-day touch.
The end result is that the writer is always popular, the books never gather dust in some forgotten corner, and the reader can always look forward to a mystery-filled afternoon, either in a film or in a book.
Towheed Feroze is News Editor for Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.