Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Curious Case of the Missing Indian Jasoos

Amidst yesterday’s hauls which included yet another Dr. Gideon Fell mystery by John Dickson Carr was this: The House of Fear – containing 2 stories of the Imran series of detective fiction by Ibn-e-Safi. Translated from the Urdu of course.

With a quote by Agatha Christie thrown in for good measure, just in case you needed more reason to buy this book – apart from the fact that it is finally available at all. Tip of the hat to Jubin George for spotting this in the section where it was inadvertently kept – the heavy duty literature section which he usually haunts. Instead of the Crime/Mystery section where it belongs. But I digress (so what’s new?). The point of this post is not debate the literary merit of mystery and detective fiction, so let’s move on.

From the time I read my first Hardy Boys book in higher secondary – While the Clock Ticked, which also happened to be my first ‘English novel’ – I have been in love with the genre of detective fiction. The crime – a corpse or a robbery or both and more. A detective (a pair or with a sidekick) seeking out evidence. The red herrings that the author throws in. The linking together of various clues. The dénouement! Of course from here on it was but a natural progression to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. The discovery of Poe and finding Auguste Dupin. Reading about Simon Iff. The Dorothy Sayers books. No, for the purpose of this post, Dirk Gently is NOT a detective. But Asimov’s Black Widowers series is detective fiction, even though there are no crimes to speak of, but still problems solved. Current favourites being Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Andrea Cammileri’s Salvo Montalbano and the aforementioned Dr. Gideon Fell. So on and so forth.

From a larger perspective, you could separate out Crime/Hardboiled fiction – Chandler, Hammet, Spillane et al and police procedurals and lawyers – from pure detective fiction of the private investigator or problem solver/trouble shooter kind who follows clues not procedures or rules of his own making. And feature in more than a couple of stories. The Holmeses, the Poirots, the Miss Marples, the Peter Wimseys etc. But if you’ve noticed there are hardly any Indian detectives on this list (the title of the post was a dead giveaway right? Drat! I’ll never make it as a writer of detective fiction.) But wait. There are!

Flashback to Doordarshan in the late eighties and we had Rajat Kapoor playing Byomkesh Bakshi – not a detective but a satyanveshi, a truth seeker – and his Dr.Watson, Ajit entertain us with some amazing stories. Then Ray’s Feluda happened. Good fun. Yes, Gajarchand, I mean Detective Karamchand was also there, but since he was born on television not in a book, he doesn’t make the cut. So we have Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi and Satyajit Ray’s Feluda. Homegrown Indian sleuths. Whose exploits are available in English. 2 volumes to each detective. And now hopefully House of Fear will see Ibn-e-Safi’s Imran being taken forward. That makes it three. Yes, there is Ibn-e-Safi’s other hero, Colonel Fareedi, but that’s more spy game than detective fun. So we’re still left with three. Ain’t there no more Indian detectives? Premendra Mitra’s Ghanada is again not so much detective fiction as it is tall stories and adventure stories. And all these were ages ago. Byomkesh in the early 20th. Feluda in the 60s & 70s. Imran in the 50s. Isn’t there any Indian sleuth in modern fiction???

Inspector Ghote!!! Yes. But wait. No. Sorry. The author is British. And Manjiri Prabhu’s Sonia Samarth series is basically chik-lit in the guise of detective fiction. With astrology thrown in for the cool factor and the exotic ingredient when selling to an unsuspecting western(ised) reader. Is the problem then one of unavailability in English? Which would give the detective a mainstream audience? Byomkesh and Feluda were both written in Bengali remember, and Imran in Urdu. I think not. Even if one were not able to read the stories one would still be in the know right? That so-and-so detective exists. Syed Mustafa Siraj’s Colonel Niladri Sarkar for instance. Originally in Bengali, and to the best of my knowledge unavailable in English. But while I may not have read any of these stories, I know they are there ready to be translated should a publisher see the commercial value in that and welcomed by eager readers in India and elsewhere. Perhaps there are some gems of a sleuth hidden away in Oriya? Marathi perhaps? I don’t know. If you do. Please let me know. Would like that. Yes, admittedly there is a rich tradition of pulp literature – but the protagonists there tends to crime and sensation. Or perhaps I need to change my strict. But that still does not explain the missing detective in modern Indian fiction? True, Amitav Ghosh's Calcutta Chromosome can be fitted under this, but it's a one-shot. Can Indians not write mystery/detective fiction? That probably brings us to the question – if we love detective fiction, why should there be an Indian detective? Is there a need really? Of course there’s no need. But it is still a different thing to read about familiar places, familiar phrases, to see familiar names in a genre that we so like. So where is the homegrown Indian jasoos? Exhuming Dame Christie, re-animating her and asking her – since she claims to have ‘knowledge of detective fiction in the subcontinent’ – is not an option. She’s be horribly out of date. Or perhaps not.

1 comment:

resh said...

I just love your posts, bekku!!
This one brought back lovely memories of famous five, secret seven, nancy drew, hardy boys, and more.. While the clock ticked was also the first hardy boys mystery that i'd read!