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Archive for the ‘Diverse Detectives Month’ Category

This is the first book I am reading for Diverse Detectives Month hosted by WoCReads. (Or rather the first three books πŸ™‚ )

I decided to start with a book which had a collection of Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries. After finishing one book, I decided to read another and then another. I think there are only three translated collections of Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries in English. Now I have read them all. The three books I read were ‘Picture Imperfect‘, ‘The Menagerie‘ and ‘The Rhythm of Riddles‘. The first two were translated by Sreejata Guha, who was probably the first to translate Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries into English twenty years back, and then continued translating other Bengali classics into English. The third book was translated by Arunava Sinha, who is the current doyen of Bengali-English translators. The first book had seven stories, the second one four, and the third one three – that is fourteen stories in all. The first collection mostly had stories from the first part of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s career, from 1932 to 1937. The second collection had stories from the second part of his career, from 1952 onwards. The last story in the second collection was written in 1967.

Byomkesh Bakshi was one of the first Indian fictional detectives. The first Byomkesh Bakshi mystery appeared in 1932 and the last one in 1969. There was a break of fifteen years between 1937 and 1952, when Saradindu Bandyopadhyay went to write screenplays for Bollywood, but he came back and continued from where he left off. While reading the stories, it is hard not to spot similarities between Byomkesh and Sherlock Holmes – the way the character gets introduced first, the way the narrator Ajit and Byomkesh become roommates. There is even a police officer similar to Lestrade who creates problems for Byomkesh. Sometimes, Byomkesh wakes up Ajit in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, to go out on a mission. He doesn’t say, “Wake up, Ajit! The game is afoot!” though. However, as we read more stories, we discover that the two series diverge, because Byomkesh and his friend Ajit are quintessentially Indian and Bengali. In many stories, at some point we can make a list of suspects, and typically the culprit is one of them. But it is hard to guess who. Saradindu Bandyopadhyay almost never cheats, by bringing an unknown character from outside the main cast, and declaring him / her as the culprit. Which is a wonderful thing. There are beautiful, humorous passages in many of the stories, and though things get lost in translation (which is one of the essential aspects of humour, that it gets lost in translation), the humour typically peeps out through the translated English sentences and is a pleasure to read.

Some of the stories in the book are short, but others are long, while some approach the length of a novella. I liked the stories from both the time periods, but I think I liked the longer stories more than the shorter ones. In one story, which runs to more than a hundred pages, called ‘The Quills of the Porcupine‘, Byomkesh Bakshi and Ajit come only in the beginning and in the end. The middle, which is the biggest part of the story, features a young couple who are newly married, and describes how their relationship evolves. If we remove the mystery aspect of the story, it almost reads like the story told in one of my favourite Tamil movies, ‘Mouna Ragam‘. I wonder whether Maniratnam just lifted Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s story (maybe from its film adaptation), made some changes to it and called it ‘Mouna Ragam’. If that is true, then it will be one more case of a famous Tamil movie being a copycat of another. I feel sad just contemplating on it. The longest story in the book is ‘The Menagerie‘, which runs to more than 150 pages. It has a complex plot with many murders and suspects and an ending which is hard to guess. It was made into a famous movie by Satyajit Ray, and I want to watch that sometime.

I enjoyed reading these three Byomkesh Bakshi mystery collections. It was interesting to read about India of a different time, and about this famous detective, or truth-seeker as he called himself, and how he discovered the truth about strange happenings, and how he brought bad guys to book, with a little help from friends. There is an acclaimed TV adaptation of the Byomkesh Bakshi stories starring Rajat Kapoor. I think I have watched one or two episodes of it. I hope to watch it properly one of these days.

Have you read Byomkesh Bakshi stories? What do you think about them? Which ones are your favourites?

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I have been eagerly looking forward to October, because it is Diverse Detectives Month hosted by Bina from If You Can Read This and Silicon from Silicon of the Internet. The phrase ‘Diverse Detectives’ is used in the sense that the detective in question is not a regular detective like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, but someone who is a person of colour (African, African-American, Chinese, Japanese, East Asian, Latin American, Persian, Arab, Native American, Indian etc.) or / and someone who is gay or who has a fluid sexual orientation, or LGBTQIA+ as the current acronym for that goes. I think it is easier to find the first kind of detective. It is hard to find the second kind. I will look forward to finding out what books other participants read especially with respect to the second kind of detective. I remember Pierce Brosnan saying sometime back that it was time for a black Bond, it was time for a gay Bond. I don’t know whether Bond will ever become black and / or gay, but I can definitely say that diverse detectives have arrived, if you look at the suggested reading list for the event.

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One of the fun parts of participating in a reading event is making reading plans. I always love making reading plans. Whether I stick to the plan or not is another matter πŸ˜‚ I had a lot of fun making plans for this event. When my constantly evolving reading list finally took shape, I was so excited. Here it is. I am hoping to read some of these books over the next month. I divided the list into three parts as you can see.

In English

(1) The Walter Mosley Omnibus, comprising, Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death and White Butterfly

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I got this book years back at an Indian version of the Parisian bouqiniste, or a platform bookshop, as we affectionately call it here. I had heard of Walter Mosley a few days back and as such things happen, a few days later the book leapt at me when I was browsing. The blue, red and white in the titles makes me think of the French national flag and its meaning and the Colours trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I don’t know whether Walter Mosley was trying to say something there. I loved the fact that these three colours are featured in the cover – I am sure that was intentional. I read the first few lines of the book and I am thinking that Walter Mosley might be the African-American Raymond Chandler and his detective Easy Rawlings might be the African-American Philip Marlowe. I will know when I finish reading the book.

(2) The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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I have wanted to read this book for years. Can you believe that I haven’t read a single Alexander McCall Smith book? Time to remedy that. Can’t wait to read about the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest detective.

(3) The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

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One of my favourite friends gifted this book to me a while back and I have wanted to read it since. It features the seventy two year old coroner Dr.Siri Paiboun and is set in Laos. It promises to be a lot of fun.

(4) Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

I first discovered this book through Eva from The Charm of It. And before I knew it, I started spotting it everywhere, like in the Diverse Detectives reading recommendations and Bina’s TBR list. It features the detective adventures of Blanche, who is a plump, fiesty, African-American housekeeper – how can one resist that.

In Translation

(5) Four Short Stories by Jorge Luis BorgesDeath and the Compass, TlΓΆn, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quaint

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I have read just one story of Borges before. I have read that he was a master at taking a traditional detective story and turning it on its head. ‘Death and the Compass‘ is supposed to be the most famous of his ‘detective’ stories. I can’t wait to read that one and the others.

(6) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

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I have had this book for years, since my Chinese days. I have never read a detective mystery set in China and so am very excited.

(7) Three Byomkesh Bakshi books (Picture Imperfect, The Menagerie, The Rhythm of Riddles) by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

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These stories featuring the Indian detective Byomkesh Bakshi first appeared in the 1930s, and were originally written in Bengali. They are quite famous in IndiaΒ  and have been adapted for TV. My Bengali friends rave about them and I can’t wait to read them.

(8) The Complete Adventures of Feluda by Satyajit Ray

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Satyajit Ray is one of India’s greatest filmmakers. But like many other artists, he was a man of many talents, and one of them was writing mysteries featuring the detective Feluda. The original stories were written in Bengali and first appeared in the 1960s and have delighted generations of Bengali readers, young and old alike. The collected Feluda stories come to around 1600 pages and I wouldn’t be able to read them all in one go. Hopefully I will be able to read some of them.

Not Available in Translation

Time to look at some of the books in my language, Tamil πŸ™‚

(9) Manimozhi, Forget Me by Tamilvanan

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I read my first Tamilvanan book when I was in my preteens and promptly fell in love with his works. Tamilvanan was probably the greatest detective mystery / crime fiction writer in Tamil in the twentieth century. He wrote from the ’50s to the late ’70s. He started his career writing literary fiction, but after a not-very-impressive start he shifted to crime fiction. (I don’t know why he didn’t hit it off as a literary fiction writer, because I have read his literary fiction and it is pretty good.) One of the fascinating things about Tamilvanan was his prose. He wrote Tamil which didn’t have the slant of any regional dialect. It didn’t have any English words. It wasn’t the way anyone spoke. It was the ideal version of Tamil, somewhat like the ideal version of the Queen’s English or the Parisian French. It was an absolute pleasure to read. I remember spending many an hour of my teen years taking in the delightful pleasures of Tamilvanan’s prose. Tamilvanan wrote books which spanned the complete range of crime fiction – detective mysteries, noir crime and every other genre in between. Half of his stories featured two detectives and the other half were standalone crime novels. His main detective was called Shankarlal. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and James Bond – sometimes he would go to the crime scene and collect evidence and look for clues like Holmes did, at other times he would call everyone and sit inside a house and run thought experiments and solve the mystery like Poirot did and at other times he would be travelling to exotic locales and would be speeding away on boats with a damsel-in-distress in tow with the villains chasing them. When I think about it now, it all seems illogical and unbelievable, but when I read these books, I loved all the different facets of this detective hero. Tamilvanan was the inspiration for all the detective mystery / crime writers in Tamil who followed him. I don’t know how many books he wrote, but I think I have around a hundred of his books, all stocked up for a rainy day. Most of his books went out of print, and I got some of the last copies available. These days, his publishers are trying to bring some of his famous works back into print, which is great. ‘Manimozhi, Forget Me‘ is a crime novel. A father one day calls his twenty-something daughter and tells her that he is not the good guy she thinks he is, and bad guys are going to kill him, and he asks her to leave town. What he is, really, and what happens to the daughter forms the rest of the story. I read it the first time years back and it was gripping and page-turning like the best detective/ crime fiction is and I loved it. I can’t wait to read it again.

(10) The Sea Mystery by Tamilvanan

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My english translation of the title doesn’t really say anything about the story. I still remember the first scene – a man hires a boat in the night to take him to a ship, which is at the outer anchorage. While the boat is waiting quietly this man boards the ship. Ten minutes later he comes running across the ship’s deck being chased by gunmen, jumps from the ship onto the waiting boat and the boat speeds off to safety. It was a scene straight from a Bond movie. I loved it when I first read it. I can’t remember much of the story now except for that first scene. I hope to read it again and rediscover it.

(11) Detective Sambu by Devan

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Devan was the Tamil Dickens. He wrote books about everyday middle class people, his descriptions of life were realistic and authentic and his stories were told with lots of humour. This is one of his famous works. Sambu is a clerk in a bank. He is forty years old. His boss calls him an idiot – in the sense, when his boss wants to speak to him, he tells his secretary – ‘Call that idiot.’ Sambu is frustrated with his life and his career, when one day surprising things happen. How this clerk becomes a detective – I can’t wait to find that.

(12) The Murderous Autumn by Sujatha

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Sujatha was one of the great Tamil literary masters. His fans called him ‘Vaathiyaar‘ – an affectionate way of saying ‘Teacher‘. Detective mystery was one of the genres he wrote in. He also wrote literary fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, short stories, plays, nonfiction books on science for the general reader, literary essays, translation of ancient Tamil epics into modern Tamil and all kinds of things in between. He even wrote screenplays for movies. He was a true allrounder. His detective mysteries mostly featured the lawyer duo of Ganesh and Vasanth. They were probably modelled after Perry Mason. This is their most famous story. My translation of the title is not perfect – the original title ‘Kolaiyudhir Kaalam‘ can be more accurately translated to ‘The season in which people are murdered and drop dead like leaves during Autumn‘. I don’t know how to shorten that into a few words. I read this book years back and I remember it being a combination of murder mystery, paranormal, science and an unexpected ending. I can’t wait to read it again.

So, this is my reading list for Diverse Detectives Month. Are you participating? Which books are you planning to read?

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