Winter makes me turn compulsively to detective fiction. There is a sublime pleasure of lying in bed on a cold winter night, wrapped in a warm quilt, following Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot as they chase villains and come to the aid of victims. This season, I am struck by two observations on detective fiction.
The first is how vividly Western crime fiction writers celebrate the setting of their stories, providing minute details on the locales of crime, revelling especially in the sensuousness of winter.
The second is how in India, we lack similar writing, avoiding an imagination that celebrates mystery and its
The best British detective fiction emerged through the 19th and 20th centuries. Winter particularly seemed to inspire both criminals and private eyes. With a backdrop of swirling mists and cloudy fogs, fine damp and watery sunshine, howling gusts muffling gunshots and beguiling warm fires, it is not hard to see why. A celebration of locale characterised fine detective fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle focused on the great British outdoors, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson pursuing villains across moors, hills and winding counties.
Agatha Christie framed interiors perfectly, her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple stories depicting a chintzy world of dining rooms, libraries and cafes, grocery stores laden with cheese and salami, grand hotels where heiresses stopped at glass doors, their diamonds glittering through the mist as revolvers went off and cars shrieked to a halt.
The theme of travel also grew ubiquitous within early British detective fiction. Importantly, the genre’s best years were a time of colonial expansion and consolidation. The British public’s fascination with ‘the Other’ was strong and African poisons, Gurkha daggers, Burmese mines, Andaman dwarves and ‘Hindoo’ priests became critical hinges of many detective
sagas, bringing readers the thrill of the unknown and perhaps laying the foundations of eternal stereotypes.
British detective fiction also laid much of the foundation of public belief in institutions of justice themselves. The exertions of the private eye towards tackling criminals found full resonance in the honesty, professionalism and efficacy of the British legal system, its police and that most zealous of bodies, Scotland Yard. British private eyes always had their public arms that never let the guilty off.
Against this context, the lack of detective fiction in contemporary India is critical.
In India, Bengali detectives like Niharanjan Gupta’s Kiriti Ray and Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi during the Nehruvian nation-building years, and Satyajit Ray’s Feluda in the post-Nehruvian era, travelled the length and breadth of the country in hot pursuit of villains, diamonds, drugs and ghosts. Backed by an honest police force, our adventurer-sleuths always got their man. Some private eyes, like Faster Fenay and Detective Moochwala, catered to a young readership in the 1980s. By the 1990s, however, the private eye went almost entirely missing from the Indian imagination.
Interestingly, this was when Indians writing in English flourished and stories of love, marriage, employment and history abounded. Sari-sellers, refugees, pickle-makers, twins, civil servants, lay-abouts and cuckolds all had their say. But there was no sign of the private eye who investigated mysteries and nabbed criminals with élan. This shrinking of the Indian imagination to concerns of the domestic and familial and the vanishing of the private eye (barring exceptions like Kalpana Swaminathan’s ‘Lali’ series) in fact reflected a lack of belief in the public eye, to see crime and ensure justice via legality.
What, indeed, is the point of a private eye, no matter how impressive, if his exertions in nabbing the bad guys comes to naught when confronted by a corrupt police force, a slow judiciary and a venal political class? The lack of a private eye in contemporary Indian writing actually demonstrates the end of mystery in Indian life and the settling of a squalid cynicism that negates, even before the detective can begin his investigations, the point of the entire exercise.
This cynicism is understandable, given the privations institutions of justice and protection in India regularly afford ordinary citizens. However, as I continue to follow Holmes and Poirot, a thought strikes me. Optimism and effectiveness combine together powerfully. The case of, say, a reading British public is clear: consuming detective fiction with consummate satisfaction after the efficiency of its institutions has been long established and its justice system, an up and running institution, taken for granted.
Perhaps, if Indian writers produced more works of ‘imagination-driven faith’, it might be possible to inspire at least younger citizens with a sense of the legitimacy of justice for one and all.
For crime to be punished, the public and private need to work together with institutions and imaginations that match each other. The detective is ultimately a figure of great innocence and belief, an affirmation of society’s civility winning over the barbarous instincts of a few. It is clear that for our public eye to see and believe again, we desperately need a private eye to thrill and inspire us.
Srijana Mitra Das is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal