The other day I was chagrined to read a conversation thread on Goodreads which concluded that the detective genre has always made a rather poor showing in Indian literature. For a generation of Indians tripping on a gadget-friendly Sherlock via BBC and discovering Byomkesh through the eyes of Dibakar Banerjee, I suppose it is hardly a wonder that Indian literary detectives are as good as non-existent. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
It is true that Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s Byomkesh represents the Indian literary detective canon. After all, the first Byomkesh novella was published in 1932, and provided the blueprint for the classic Indian gentleman detective. However, a writer called Asrar Ahmad, whom his legion of fans knew as Ibn-e-Safi, created another kind of detective just two decades later.
Commissioned to write a novel for a long-running series issued from Allahabad called Jasoosi Duniya, Safi created the detective duo, Faridi-Hameed. Inspector Ahmad Kamal Faridi is an aristocrat, loves luxury cars, has a degree in criminology from Oxford and speaks several languages. His sidekick Sergeant Hameed loves the company of women, shirks work, and displays a sense of humour couched in alarming gender politics. Safi created more jasoosi characters such as Imran but Faridi was arguably his most popular detective. Between 1952 when the first Faridi novel appeared and 1980 when Safi died, he had written 125 Faridi mysteries. Four of these have now been translated from the Urdu original to English by the well-known writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi via Blaft Publications.
The '60s and '70s in India saw an obscene number of detectives striding out of the pages of books. A keen reader of Byomkesh books, the stalwart filmmaker Satyajit Ray, created the Feluda series, where the physically fit and intellectually gifted, Sherlockian (more classic literary Holmes and less Cumberbatch), Kolkata detective Pradosh Mitter, aka Feluda, strikes terror in the hearts of criminals once he is on their trail. Ray made two of these into films, Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath, which my generation watched as children. Many of the books are now available in translation from Puffin and to my delight, my ten-year-old is busy devouring them even as I write this piece.
Another creator of multiple detective characters, and undoubtedly influenced by the Safi oeuvre, Surendar Mohan Pathak wrote his first full-length mystery novel in Hindi, Operation Budapest, in 1969. Among his many popular detective characters were the stylish investigative journalist Sunil, and the philosopher-detective Sudhir. But his best-loved detective series had Vimal at its centre – a man who is himself wanted by the law in seven states, a criminal on the run who has taken on the Bombay underworld. The gentleman-detective had been successfully replaced by the anti-hero. Borrowing heavily from Doyle and James Hadley Chase, Pathak’s Vimal series (with 42 novels) became a rage for its readers; the first one called Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaiti is said to have sold two point five million copies since it was first published.
In the '70s, Hugh and Colleen Gantzer began writing under the pseudonym Shyam Dave to create India’s first super spy, Jawaharlal Atim Zadu or as he was better known, JAZ. Published by Orient Paperbacks, the JAZ novels such as The Guru Docket have all but disappeared now. JAZ was modelled on James Bond, he was suave and a hit with the ladies. However, he drank Indian whisky, believed in tantriks and had a girlfriend called Sonia. In the '70s again, Indrajal Comics introduced the elegantly lithe Bahadur in his saffron kurta and jeans and his girlfriend and compatriot Bela, always attired in green. Created by comic artist Aabid Surti, Bahadur heads the Citizen’s Security Force to help the police combat dacoity. His live-in love interest Bela can be equally formidable with her martial arts routine. Bahadur became as popular as the foreign foursome of Indrajal – Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon and Tarzan. The gentleman-detective had travelled via the anti-hero and super-spy and finally arrived in the realm of the superhero, ripe for the '90s.
After a brief lull in the '80s, the '90s were once again open season for Indian detectives. One of the most exciting pulp fiction characters was born in this decade when Ashok Banker, who is currently known for his bestselling books based on the Ramayana, created the character of Sheila Ray in a narrative soaked in thrills, chills, blood and gore called The Iron Bra. Named after Banker’s mother, Sheila Ray is a tough private eye whose father, an undercover policeman, was killed before her own eyes when she was 13. Her one mission is to annihilate Madhu Shanbag and his henchmen who killed her father. In 2013, Banker took a break from mythological drama and published The Red Sari which brought Sheila Ray back to life for a new generation of readers.
Another interesting development in the '90s was the emergence of the army commando as a modern-day detective battling a new face of evil in terrorism. Shashi Warrier’s thrillers were pioneers of this genre. The Night of the Krait and the Hangman’s Journal featured Lieutenant-Colonel Rajan, leader of a special operations force, and Sniper, a book that I copy-edited in 1997 when it was first published, featured Colonel Easwaran, who sets out to find the person who lured, abused and killed his young daughter, and ends up confronting his old nemesis from the jungles of Nagaland, Gul Mohammed. Easwaran is a character who should certainly make a comeback– brooding, tortured by his inner demons, and precise to a fault with the job at hand.
With the explosion in crime-fighting characters since the '90s like the pragmatist Sartaj Singh in Vikram Chandra’s riveting Sacred Games, the romantic Sajan Dayal in Avtar Singh’s Necropolis and the delightful Mr Majestic in Zac O Yeah’s new book, the desi private eye/jasoos/commando is alive, well and waiting to be taken to greater heights by Bollywood.