Having read a collection of Bengali mystery stories featuring the brainy Byomkesh Bakshi, I had formed a picture of what an Indian detective must be like. So it was high time for a reality check.
Another trigger, partly, was an intriguing film based on Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, in which director Robert Altman experiments with the detective genre and Elliot Gould stars as a disorganized and fuzzy Philip Marlowe, who can’t adjust to modern times—the classic noir detective has been transported to the 1970s, where he lives next door to some nudist hippies.
Sleuth tale: A TV version of Byomkesh Bakshi aired on Doordarshan in 1993. Hindustan Times
So the next time I spot a sign for a detective agency, I decide to drop in—being, as I was, in a highly experimental mood. Already on the staircase I get the feeling that I’m not going to find any chain-smoking private eye, because there’s a notification that wannabe detectives looking for a job must be well-groomed, shaved and have proper haircuts. I touch my own chin and realize that I should have visited a barber first.
It turns out that an Indian detective bureau is like any open-plan office; this could be, say, an accountant’s office or even a low-end call centre, if it wasn’t for all the staff looking like ex-armymen. They also don’t care much for PR.
I meet the detective in charge of operations, and after I’ve given him an issue of Lounge (with my column in it), he ponders things for a while before saying, “So you write for The Times of India and live in Czechoslovakia?”
I feel I ought not to contradict. A detective might get angry if I point out flaws in his detection skills. When I try to interview him, he says I’d better talk to his boss.
Next, I’m invited into a glass cubicle where the head of the bureau sits; I am, of course, brimming with excitement as I ask my first question: What do real detectives work with?
The boss replies, “That I can’t tell you, because it is secret.” I try again: If I wanted to hire you, what could you do for me? He stares out through the window and those all-detecting eyes lose themselves in the distance. “Supposing you wanted to buy that house over there and needed to know who owns it, we could find that out.”
I turn to look at the house, but no, there are no partying hippies on its terrace. Besides, if I wanted a house I might go to a real estate agent rather than a secret agent, but I find it wiser to say: So that is what detectives do for a living? He shakes his head vigorously. “No, not at all. I just said that supposing you wanted to know.”
And how much would it cost to hire a detective to do that? He looks at me doubtfully and says, “That I can’t say, it’s secret.”
Although he lets me ask about everything I always wanted to know, he can’t answer because it’s all secret (but if you do your own detective work with the help of Google you’ll find that detectives do prenuptial check-ups and investigate candidates applying for jobs, and generally keep an eye on us people).
And no, this detective doesn’t read detective stories; fiction has no connection to what they do here. Suddenly the tables are turned and he interrogates me, with questions like: “What is this newspaper, anyway, that carries silly columns about fictional detectives?”
Very soon, I’m worrying that I broke some invisible law by coming here (fiction is fiction and fact is fact, and never shall the twain meet?), and that my next reality check might involve basket-weaving in Tihar jail.
Rather traumatized, I walk away and can’t help glancing over my shoulder now and then. I don’t dare to jaywalk or pick my nose for the next couple of hours.
Paranoia being one of the most contagious diseases known to man, I surmise that a detective’s real job must be to instil paranoia in people, so that we behave.
And I think that from now on, I shall stick to that phenomenal Feluda and his other fictional colleagues.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based Swedish writer of crime fiction.
Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org