Arunava Sinha talks of the joy of translating Byomkesh Bakshi into English

Most of us were introduced to Byomkesh Bakshi thanks to the super series on telly in the Nineties. Directed by Basu Chatterjee, the series had Rajit Kapur playing the famous detective. However, Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s creation was a phenomenon in Bengal from his first appearance in print in 1932. While Byomkesh has a lot in common with iconic detectives such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot including the slightly dim sidekick/chronicler Ajit the stories were rooted in space and time — Bengal between 1930 and 1950. Byomkesh far from being a loner, falls in love and is happily married to Satyabati. He doesn’t like to be called a detective and prefers the term Satyanweshi, or truth seeker.

And now we have a chance to rediscover these thrilling stories thanks to the launch of The Rhythm of Riddles (Puffin Classics, Rs. 199). Translated by Arunava Sinha, the book features three classic stories with an introduction by filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee.

The introduction with the mention of lazy summer holidays in a small town, broad window ledges and hot parathas sets the tone for a crackling time between the pages. The first story, The Rhythm of Riddles, features a classic closed door mystery where Byomkesh has to find out who killed Natabar Nashkar in a boarding house. To solve the mystery, Byomkesh goes into the past and finds the answer in the Partition.

In Byomkesh and Barada, there is a dash of supernatural, as Byomkesh and Ajit travel to Munger in Bihar. There, at the insistence of a childhood friend who is now DSP, Byomkesh agrees to look into the mysterious death of a goldsmith, the disappearance of jewels worth two and a half lakh rupees and a ghost that subsequently haunts the scene of the crime.

The third story, The Death of Amrito, finds Byomkesh hot on the trail of black marketeers in a village in Bengal called Baghmari. Murder and a ghostly black horse with fire coming out of its nostrils are added into the mix.

Arunava Sinha, who translated the stories, said the book was commissioned by Puffin. “The publishers had two pre-conditions for the selection of stories — they should be suitable for young adults and not have been translated before. These three tales are good representatives of detective stories.”

Arunava, who has a day job “as head of and”, translates late into the night. “Translating across time and culture is bound to be challenging. The language was contemporary at the time it was published. At no point do you feel the language is archaic or abstruse. I personally believe in the credo of being faithful to text, to maintain the smoothness of the narrative.”

Describing the translation process, Arunava says he first reads the story “holistically, then I do the translator’s reading going line by line.”

Like all Bengali families Arunava also read Byomkesh Bakshi stories as a child. “The stories are fascinating because Byomkesh is suave, intelligent and also has an interesting moral compass. He has a larger sense of right and wrong — there are some guilty people who he lets go free as the victim could be a villain who is better of dead.”

The award-winning translator said the stories didn’t present any politically incorrect views. “I would rather not translate such stories than bowdlerize the text. Having said that, there are two references to smoking that I removed from the text.”

The stories are a wonderful introduction to simpler times or a great way to reconnect with a time when the truth was absolute.

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