Review of Dan Morrison’s The Poisoner of Bengal: Murder most foul

Dan Morrison digs up a fratricidal killing with a plague virus in Calcutta of the 1930s and its eerie connect to a Sherlock Holmes story

Updated - February 09, 2024 09:56 am IST

Published - February 09, 2024 09:00 am IST

On November 29, 1933, Amarendra Chandra Pandey, a 22-year-old wealthy young zamindar was about to board a train from Calcutta’s bustling Howrah station when a stranger collided with him. Though he felt a sharp pinprick in his arm, Pandey continued on to the family fiefdom of Pakur. Within a few days he developed a lump under his arm and fever. On December 4, he was dead. A little over two months later, his half-brother, Benoyendra, the Raja of Pakur, was dramatically arrested from a train and charged with committing what writer Dan Morrison calls “a thoroughly modern murder.”

Dan Morrison

Dan Morrison | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Morrison, who now lives in Brooklyn, didn’t set out to investigate a murder from 1930s Calcutta. It was, he says, “a tangent of a tangent of a tangent.” A story he was working on about ultraviruses and bacteriophages led him to the Haffkine Institute in India, the plague research laboratory set up by the Russian-French bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine and he discovered a tiny news item about how the plague virus had been used to kill someone. That led him down the rabbit hole that was the Pakur murder case. “It made tremendous news in India but also beyond,” says Morrison. “It reached the front page of The New York Times.”

A ‘juicy’ story

It was a “juicy” story, says Morrison. The accused Benoyendra fancied himself as a film producer, had a long-suffering wife, “dancing girl” mistresses and an entourage of shady characters. The who’s who of the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine were involved as was a former medical student pretending to be a vaccine researcher.

Germ murders were not unknown. In the 1917 Sherlock Holmes mystery, ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’, a greedy planter kills his nephew by a pinprick as well — from the pointed tip of a steel spring, infected by an unnamed germ from Sumatra. No one knows if Benoyendra had read that story or seen the film based on it, but the Pakur murder eerily echoes the Dying Detective. It went beyond fiction.

Karl Hopf, a German fencing master, was accused of trying to spike his third wife’s food with cholera and typhus after having poisoned the earlier two (and assorted other family members.) He was beheaded in 1914. “All these stories were covered with sweaty-palmed glee but Karl Hopf was not called a Teutonic horror,” says Morrison. “Hopf was an aberration. The Pakur case was an Asian horror.” In the 1930s, the freedom movement was in full swing and the case, says Morrison, likely “fed into the need to show the Asiatics as beyond the beyond.”

Connecting the dots

However, it did not fit the colonial stereotype of Indians as barbaric savages who needed the civilising touch of the British. The accused, says Morrison, was a “bona fide 20th century man looking to remake himself, taking a hammer to centuries of tradition.” But as he followed the paper trail of the case, Morrison found himself empathising more with Kalidas Gupta, the lawyer-turned-sleuth, “a small bespectacled man who does the shoe-leather work that cracks the case open. He does it not for money but because he cannot stand the injustice.” Gupta figured out how Benoyendra and his associate bribed and lied their way to the highly protected virus.

The seven-and-a-half month trial offered much tabloid fodder. The prosecutor alleged without proof Benoyendra shared his mistress with his associates. “They probably hoped the upright middle class jury would think such a man was capable of anything,” says Morrison. One of the jurors was a school teacher. Filmmaker Satyajit Ray was his student and remembered his teacher giving them thrilling updates even though the jury was sworn to secrecy. The judge was determined to get a conviction out of the jury at a time when British authority was being tested by the freedom movement. Though a High Court bench later took the judge apart for his zeal, they still concluded what remained was enough to hang Benoyendra and his associate. But they commuted it to life imprisonment.

The ‘bhadralok’ club

Benoyendra never showed remorse even after his release post-Independence when he had a fiery standoff with the government. He never covered his tracks because he was arrogantly confident his half-brother would just die quietly in faraway Pakur. Morrison was struck by how “passive” everyone was despite their suspicions about Benoyendra. “These people were not active verbs,” says Morrison. “Benoyendra was an independent actor. The rest of his family were not.” But Amarendra somehow shook off the family’s inertia, its paranoia about protecting its name and came back to Calcutta to get his blood tested. Though Benoyendra had him hastily cremated, the laboratory results came back to damn him.

Looking back at the case now, Morrison is struck by something else. “There was no curiosity in the press about the doctors involved in small and mid-sized sins of omission and at least one fat sin of commission. The head of the Bombay hospital clearly appears to have taken a bribe.” In the end, the establishment protected its old bhadralok’s club.

The Poisoner of Bengal; Dan Morrison, Juggernaut, ₹499.

The reviewer is the author of ‘Don’t Let Him Know’.

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