The Menagerie and Other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries are set in Post Independence Bengal as opposed to Picture Imperfect and other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries which was set in Pre Independence Bengal. I'm going to do capsule reviews of the 4 stories from The Menagerie like I did for Picture Imperfect. So, did Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay did better then his last outing? or our famous Bengali detective got lost in translation?
If Picture Imperfect had people call out Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay as a good author, then The Menagerie would have people call him a very good one. Bandyopadhyay improved on his craft by many degrees in the later years. With most authors like Christie or Carr you will see that near the end their writing began to loose its sheen but with Bandyopadhyay it got a lot better.
When I was reading Picture Imperfect I couldn't help but notice that many times Bandyopadhyay tried to emulate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Byomkesh was modeled after the famous Baker Street resident. Byomkesh looked like the Bengali version of Sherlock Holmes and even Calcutta looked more like London, but all this changed with the Menagerie. Bandyopadhyay puts Byomkesh and his "Watson" Ajit in rustic and very raw settings, like in The Menagerie when Byomeksh and Ajit are taking a horse carriage to visit a farm, Bandyopadhyay describes how the horse carriage has empty vegetable carts and flies keep hovering over them for the course of their journey and then how on the farm they meet people of different castes and creed.
Then in the Quills of the Porcupine Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay skillfully puts a young seventeen year old girl in a unhappy arranged marriage. The stories in the book turn out be very authentic and enjoyable. Please see below for a brief synopsis about the plots:
1. The Menagerie Published as 'Chiriakhana' in Bengali in 1953 - The longest and the best mystery in the book. Someone is sending broken motor parts to Nishanathbabu at his farm which locals refer to as a "Zoo" because of its unique residents, under the shroud of darkness many reprobate activities are undertaken on the farm and on one such night Nishanathbabu is murdered. Byomkesh Bakshi is called to investigate. As Byomkesh gets embroiled in the Menagerie the reader is treated to some of the best characters in all Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay books and a cracking mystery involving blackmail, murder and disappearing film actresses. Proletarians were never so interesting.
2. The Jewel Case Published as 'Monimondon' in Bengali in 1958 - A 30 page story about the disappearance of a diamond necklace from the house of Jeweler. since none of the residents left the house after the theft, where did the necklace go? Byomkesh Babu is at his presumptuous best.
3. The Will that Vanished Published as 'Khuji Khuji Nari' in Bengali in 1961 - Even shorter the the Jewel Case a twenty page story but a very interesting one where Byomkesh is asked to search for the will of an old acquaintance.
4. The Quills of the Porcupine Published as 'Shojarur Kanta' in Bengali in 1967 - This one is a 100 odd pages and the mystery takes a back seat as Bandyopadhyay explores the conjugal life of a unhappy couple where the wife wanted to elope with her lover but caste complications and the rigidness of her family led her to marry a man of her own caste. In the backdrop of this "Romantic Mystery" we have a mad man killing a Beggar, a laborer, a shopkeeper and then....
Read the whole story in 2 hours, both the mystery and the conjugal tale is very well written and you cannot put the book down until you have read it till the end.
A special mention to Sreejata Guha who I think has done a really god job of translating these books from Bengali and still retaining the essence of Bengali and Bengal. I will definitely be reading more of these in the days to come.
A must read for all mystery fans.
Where can you get it: I got it from Flipkart for Rs 350.