Dr Shampa Roy is an associate Professor at the Dept of English, Miranda House, University of Delhi, India. Her book titled Gender and Criminality in Bangla Crime Narratives: Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries was published by Palgrave Macmillan (London) in 2017. Dr. Roy is currently translating some of the earliest Bangla crime narratives/police accounts that were serialised and hugely popular in late nineteenth century colonial Bengal. The translation with an introduction will be published by Routledge in 2019.
Dr Shampa Roy, University of Delhi

Gender and Criminality in Bangla Crime Narratives: Late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

The cover of Gender and Shampa Roy’s Criminality in Bangla Crime Narratives: Late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

The book Gender and Criminality in Bangla Crime Narratives: Late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) examines diverse writings in Bangla related to crime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial Bengal in terms of gender. It analyses crime-centred fictions and non fictions in colonial Bengal to see how actual or imagined crimes related to women were shaped and fashioned into images and narratives for contemporary genteel readers. The writings have been examined within a social-historical context where gender was a fiercely contested terrain for publicly fought debates on  law, sexual relations, reform, cultural as well as class and caste related identities and ideas of nation. Even as female emancipation was urged by certain sections of society, paranoia about possible gendered transgressions like elopement or any other assertion of sexual agency by women was also strongly articulated in myriad writings. At the same time, from the mid-nineteenth century, the boundaries of legally acceptable behaviour were laid down by the colonial government through the codification of laws and patrolled through the formal creation of the police. It thus becomes interesting to see how crime writings in Bangla represented legally defined crimes like abduction, elopement, murder, theft and fraud which involved women, to their readers within a historical formation which was in a number of ways the crucible for several modern ideas, debates and practices related to reform, conjugality and law.

From Bankim Chatterjee’s domestic novels about marital disintegration in upper caste/class homes to the immensely popular “true” crime accounts of Daroga Priyanath Mukhopadhyay and the turn-of-the century Bangla detective  fictions by writers like Pachkari De, Sharachhandra Sarkar and Khetramohan Ghosh, the book mines both “high”/literary and non-canonical, popular culture in order to look at how criminal offences featuring women were narrated in very early Bangla writings about crimes. Through close textual readings of these writings, some of which are all but lost to most modern readers of Bangla, and by examining them alongside contemporary judicial case records and journalistic reports, this book explores gendered experiences of the time in terms of variant ideas of guilt and justice.

Written in the 1870s before the emergence of the dedicated genre of crime writings,  Bankim’s domestic novels like Bishbrikhha/The Poison Tree (1873)  and Krishnakanta’s Will (1878) (as also his very first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife (1864) which was written in English) offer a fertile ground for examining brutality and violence within domestic spaces and marital relationships. 

The immensely popular daroga accounts of Priyanath Mukhopadhyay, Darogar Daftar (published from the late 1880s through the 1890s) were based on his actual experiences of crime-solving  and were the true pioneers of crime writings in Bengal. The accounts that have been selected for scrutiny in the book are those in which the daroga’s investigation of crimes related to women that dismantle powerful cultural stereotypes of “Hindu” femininity either as impossibly virtuous or as pitiable and passive victims of untold suffering.

Meant to be seen as a faithful record of his experiences as an objective and meticulous investigator, Mukhopadhyay’s narratives also reveal his commitment to bhadralok values related to class, caste and gender.

Despite the daroga narrator’s rhetorical and representational strategies to shore up against the potential threats to the edifice of upper caste patriarchy, his truth-based accounts also end up mediating the barely-glimpsed lives of ordinary women for whom the much idealised domestic and familial spaces became sites of horrific brutality and oppression. Some of these accounts also reveal astonishing stories of female defiance of pre-scripted roles and relationships and of the forging of unconventional identities and alliances.

The final chapter of the book examines early Bangla detective (goyenda) fictions that began to be published from the mid-1890s and had as their protagonists  fiercely bold and adventurous goyendas. The hyper-masculine and dynamic goyendas in these narratives are often pitted self-assured, intelligent female criminals. These representations of materially ambitious femininity in terms of criminality surfaced at a time when surprising numbers of women were seeking legal redress against members of the family for their property rights. Represented as sassy, rational and articulate, the trangressive figures in the goyenda novels throw up the terrifying prospect of femininity that is not only aware of its material rights but is also willing to prioritize personal ambitions over familial roles and relationships.

The following extract is a translation of the opening section of one of Daroga Priyanath Mukhopadhyay’s true crime accounts titled Asmani Laash  which was published in his Darogar Daftar series in 1894. This is one of the accounts that has been examined in the book Gender and Criminality in Bangla Crime Narratives.

The Aerial Corpse

This happened during the monsoons. The Sun God knowing full well that he would not be able to weave his web of rays for much longer, had mournfully decided to retreat quite  early in the day. And immediately the Goddess of night, had seized an opportune moment and marched in hastily in her dark robes to claim her seat of honour. The god of thunder and clouds had also arrived with a slight pitter patter of rain and was making loud, rumbling noises from time to time. The ominous noise of the thunder was enough to strike terror in the human heart and it felt as if the great Deluge was on its way. It was at such a terrifying time while I sat in the office of my thhaana gazing pensively at the skies that I saw a man come rushing in. The clothes on his body were soaking wet. His first question on entering the thhaana was whether I was there. On finding out that I was inside, he came to my office and after delivering a letter into my hands, stood at some distance and waited for me to read it.

I opened and read the letter and realised it was from a particularly wealthy resident of Kolkata who also happened to be an acquaintance of mine. I will keep the letter writer’s identity a secret. The reason for this is that the case that I am going to describe will have several shameful mysteries embedded in it. Hence I have no wish to reveal his name and humiliate him in public. Besides I knew him very well. When I asked the letter-bearer for details he claimed ignorance though it could very well have been that he didn’t want to divulge anything at that point.

In that letter it was written, “I am in a lot of trouble. I’ll be deeply grateful if you could come post haste with the bearer of the letter as soon as you have read it. I will explain everything once you are here. In short, please understand that I am facing a terrible crisis.”

On reading the letter I concluded that the letter-writer must indeed be in a terrible situation for why else would he, given his social stature, appeal to me in this desperate manner. It is true that we knew each other well, but he had never written to me in this manner. With such thoughts racing through my head, I decided to go to his house. I hailed a carriage and taking the letter- bearer along I started off towards the house.

When I reached the abode of that babu I found the living room of the house milling with police officials. From the constable to the chief official, a variety of officers– English, Bengali and non- Bengali—were all there. I gathered that an extremely dreadful incident must have occurred. Else why would so many officers collect in a house? Musing in this manner I alighted from my carriage and entered the drawing room of the babu’s house.

Almost every one of those officials knew me. As soon as one of the higher officials saw me he asked, “How did you manage to get here so quickly? It’s only been a few minutes since I despatched a letter seeking the help of my subordinates for this case. So how could you come here in such short time?”

I had to lie to him. Why exactly I lied to him at that point for no obvious reason, is very hard for me to explain. If there is amongst my readers a police officer, perhaps he will understand my reasons for lying. I cannot bring myself to discuss them here even if my ordinary readers were able to follow them. At any rate I replied, “I had gone elsewhere for work and on my way back I saw all of you here. So I came here to see what had happened.”

“Well it’s good that you are here. No need for you to go back now. Just try and see if you can solve this matter. From what I can gather, I don’t see anything coming to light easily nor the problem getting resolved anytime soon. For one, it’s the house of a wealthy gentleman and on top of that, right from the beginning of the investigation there’s been a posse of lawyers following us about as we go about our business. Moreover those very individuals from whom one can hope to get any relevant information about the case are the ones who cannot be summoned and asked specific questions. For they are all antahpur-bound women. What then does one do in such a situation? I have done everything that I could possibly do; now let’s see you give it a shot. After all you have been involved in investigating several cases and have also acquired quite a reputation for solving  particularly difficult cases. Try and see if you can do something about this one.” Saying this the officer pointed to a large tin trunk and said, “Go and first examine the contents of that trunk. We’ll then tell you what we’ve been able to find out about the trunk.”

At that very moment a servant came from within the household and  addressed me, “ My babu is waiting to talk to you in a different room. He has sent his regards and said that you should first go and meet him before beginning your investigation of this case.”

On hearing this I said to him, “Please tell your babu that I will go in to meet him as soon as I have finished examining the trunk.” The servant bowed and departed.

I then went to the aforementioned  to examine it. I saw it was a fairly large trunk, about four feet in its length and three feet high. Its lock had been broken. When I opened it and looked inside, I saw there was the body of a woman with its arms and legs twisted out of shape, that had been crammed into it. The corpse had rotted so badly that the slightest movement  led to skin and flesh peeling off. The head was bent at an unnatural angle, the face was contorted and the eyes were beginning to fall off. The stench was so unbearable that it was almost impossible to stand there for more than a moment. It was very hard to ascertain the identity of the person by simply looking at that corpse. Parts of it were covered with a black bordered saree. And barring a few iron bangles on the left wrist there were no other ornaments  anywhere on the body. After looking inside the box when I returned to my superior he asked, “So what do you make of it?”

Translated from the original by Shampa Roy