Pother Kanta

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A Thorn on the Path
Author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay
Original title (পথের কাঁটা)Pother Kanta or transliterated as Pather Kanta'
Country India
Language Bengali
Series Byomkesh Bakshi
Genre Detective, Crime, Mystery
Publisher P.C. Sorkar and Sons also anthologized by Ananda Publishers
Publication date
1934 in hardcover Byomkesher diary and in the Sharadindu Omnibus in 1972
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 182 pp
ISBN NA
Preceded by Satyanneshi
Followed by Seemanto-heera

Pother Kanta (Bengali: পথের কাঁটা) also spelled Pather Kanta, (Lit: A thorn on the path) is a detective story written by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay featuring the Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his friend, assistant, and narrator Ajit Bandyopadhyay. It is one of the first forays that Sharadindu took in the realm of creating a mature logical detective moulded in the pattern of Sherlock Holmes in the Bengali language, and one that Bengalis could immediately identify with. As such, it is not as well-drawn out as some of Sharadindu's later works and relies heavily on Sherlock Holmes and Holmesian deductive reasoning for inspiration.

Plot summary[edit]

Pother Kanta starts off like many of the Byomkesh Bakshi novels while Ajit and Byomkesh are having a conversation in the living room of their Harrison Road flat. Byomkesh has noticed a rather unusual advertisement hidden away in the classifieds section of the Dainik Kalketu daily with the heading Pother Kanta (Thorn of the Road). Translated the ad reads, "If anyone wants to remove the Thorn of the Road, stand next to and hold on to the lamp-post on the southwest corner of the Whiteway-Ladley store on Saturday evening at 5:30." Byomkesh had noticed this peculiar ad being published without fail every Friday for the previous three months. Byomkesh immediately inferred that the person posting the add went to great pains to remain anonymous and chose this cryptic message on purpose. He also selected a meeting place in the centre of Hogg's Market in Calcutta at a very busy time of the day, so that he could pass by the responder without being detected. Byomkesh guessed that the advertiser would probably want to slip something into the responder's pocket, perhaps some instructions, and would want to accomplish this without being detected. Ajit argued that all of this was circumstantial evidence at best and challenged Byomkesh to prove it, a challenge that Byomkesh heartily accepted.

All this light banter was interrupted by the entrance of a podgy, middle-aged man who introduced himself as Ashutosh Mitra, a single businessman by profession, and a resident of Nebutola. He had come to seek Byomkesh's service with respect to the gramophone pin mystery. Ajit describes the mystery in detail for the benefit of the reader. Basically, metropolitan Calcutta had been plagued recently by the murders of quite a few influential businessmen who had all been killed by being shot with what resembled an Edison gramophone pin embedded in their hearts. All these individuals had been killed in busy areas of Calcutta in broad daylight while crossing the street. There were no witnesses to any of the crimes and no one had reported hearing anything unusual as would be expected from the release of a projectile from a firearm. The police had been frantically trying to nab the murderer or murderers and had even cordoned off and searched all pedestrians and motorists in the area of a crime immediately after an attack, but were unsuccessful in getting any leads. The police had started to arrest anyone who they suspected might have a motive, but still the murders continued. Calcutta was gripped in a spell of panic.

Ashutosh Mitra himself had been the subject of an attack the previous day but his pocket watch which he wore close to his chest had saved him from a death. Since he had lost his faith in the police, he approached Byomkesh, and pleaded with him to save his life. Byomkesh interrogated him and discovered that he had no children, but a nephew who was an alcoholic currently imprisoned for rowdiness. He did have a living will but he politely refused to state who his successor would be, apart from stating that it was not his cousin. Byomkesh took the broken watch and examined it and came to the conclusion that it was broken beyond repair, that the assailant must have fired from no more than 7-8 yards and that he was most likely alone since it is quite unlikely that more than one person would have developed such an acute sense of accuracy. Byomkesh inquired if Mr. Mitra had heard anything when he was attacked to which he replied that he had not, apart from the usual humdrum of midday traffic. Byomkesh noted that all those attacked had been attacked while crossing the street. He also noted a strange coincidence; all the attacked had been successful businessmen with no children to succeed them.

On spying on Mr. Mitra that afternoon, Byomkesh learned that he had a mistress, quite pretty according to his account, who lived in a separate house. This woman was accomplished as a musician, but relied solely on Mr. Mitra for living expenses. Unknown to Mr. Mitra, she, had a younger, more handsome lover, who as it turns out, was Mr. Mitra's lawyer.

In the evening it was time for Byomkesh and Ajit to pursue the mysterious Pother kanta advertiser. Ajit was sent out in disguise and Byomkesh followed him but maintained a safe distance. Ajit arrived at the designated spot and waited but nothing happened. On his way back he was accosted by a beggar who handed him an envelope. As Ajit was looking at its contents, the beggar left the scene. Ajit them took a roundabout way on his way back home. Byomkesh remarked that inside the envelope was the letter he had been expecting but since Ajit had been searching his own pockets incessantly, the advertiser had waited until he left the scene. did Inside was a letter with the message that when translated would read, "Who is your Thorn of the road? What is his name and address? Clearly state what you want. Next time we'll meet at midnight. Please come alone to the Khiddirpore Road and walk along it. A man on a bicycle will come and take your written responses from you."

The very next day a devastated Mr. Mitra arrived and told Byomkesh that his mistress had eloped with his lawyer with all the money that the lawyer could get his hands on. After consoling Mr. Mitra, Byomkesh advised him to go home and to not worry about being attacked again since he believed he was safe now. After Mr. Mitra left, Byomkesh told Ajit that he was responsible for warning the lawyer and the law enforcement officials. He mentioned in passing that he believed that the lawyer and the mistress had conspired to get Mr. Mitra killed by responding to the Pather kanta ad. He had expected the lawyer to elope with his lover and the Burdwan police had nabbed then while en route to escaping.

The next morning a certain Mr. Prafulla Roy arrived at their doorstep. He said he was an insurance agent currently in trouble, and he had responded to the Pather kanta ad. He asked Byomkesh whether or not he should pursue it or call the police. To this Byomkesh reacted violently and said he never collaborated with the police and if Mr Roy wanted the police's help he would get none from Byomkesh.

The meeting between Ajit and the advertiser was set up to proceed. However, both Ajit and Byomkesh had thick porcelain plates fastened to their chests before heading out for the denoted destination. At the mentioned time while Ajit was on the street he heard the bell of a passing bicycle coming from the opposite direction and immediately fell to the ground. However, the plate had saved his life.

Byomkesh jumped on the assailant and thus his sting operation was successful in nabbing the culprit who was none other than Prafulla Roy. But before the police arrived, he was successful in committing suicide by eating a poisoned betel leaf. His only regret before dying was that he had not taken Byomkesh more seriously and had thus fallen prey to the trap Byomkesh had set for him. Byomkesh was awarded by the Metropolitan Police and received a check for two thousand rupees from Mr Mitra. However, he did have to relinquish the bicycle bell which had a spring action mechanism for shooting the gramophone pins while masking the noise with the ringing of the bell.

Allusions/references to other works[edit]

  • Sharadindu's Byomkesh is wholly a Bengali character but borrows heavily from Sherlock Holmes in manner of reasoning, style and in direct references. For example, Byomkesh mentions to Ajit early on that he finds reading the classified ad section or the agony columns to be the most interesting for someone in his line of work. The conversation is intriguingly similar to one that Holmes and Watson had in their adventures.
  • Although separated by time and location, both Ajit and Byomkesh are members of the gentry in a British controlled legal system, similar to Holmes and Watson. Also the use of disguises in Pother kanta is clearly reminiscent of that of Holmes'.
  • Ajit is sort of a Watson to Byomkesh. Useful as an ally and as a descriptive narrator, but clearly lacking in the acumen of Byomkesh. Also the fact that Byomkesh does not reveal all his thoughts to Ajit but in some way ues Ajit's enthusiasm and naivete reminds one of the Holmes' adventures. However, Watson gets married soon after The Sign of Four, while Ajit remains forever a bachelor.

Literary significance & criticism[edit]

Part of the popularity of Pother kanta lies with the exquisite details the author portrays to lend some degree of accuracy to the description of the crimes. Up until the publication of Pother kanta in 1934, this had been unheard of in Bengali detective fiction. Another aspect that readers even today find intriguing is the novel weapon the assailant chose to use.

  • Pother kanta is the earliest of Sharadindu's work and as such lacks much of the refinement of his later novels. For example motives are clear cut, characters are few and far between, and economy of language suggests every detail is to come to light in the climax.
  • A technical flaw suggests that it would be almost impossible to shoot different men of different heights in the heart with a fixed bicycle bell. This can be countered by the assumption that although not stated, all men were of similar heights; the assailant adjusted the bell and practiced shooting before actually attempting, or that the bell was fixed to the front of the bicycle with a gauge to determine the height of the victim.
  • Another flaw might be in how it might be possible for a gramophone pin to pierce the sternum and inflict wounds to the heart and not be able to do so when a plate or watch impedes it path. This can be countered with the notion that the energy of the moving pin is small enough to be absorbed by the entire plate so as to shatter it but the resulting loss of momentum makes it unable to pierce the sternum.
  • The link between Prafulla Roy and Ashutosh Mitra's lawyer is only vaguely hinted at. Also the motive for the crimes seems to be greed but this is not well-established.

Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science[edit]

  • The customs and manners of Calcutta during the British Raj are very well portrayed in this book, from street names to the names of the shops. Interestingly, the bridge spanning the Hooghly river, was a pontoon bridge as mentioned by Byomkesh twice in the novel. This was prior to the current Howrah Bridge, construction of which began three years after the publication of the first edition of the novel.
  • Sharadindu had a great fascination for serial killers. Although the motive for the crimes is established quite early on, Sharadindu used Byomkesh as a vehicle to express what forensic scientists and detectives know about serial killers. Even when a pattern is easily established, it is difficult to predict with precision when an insane serial killer will strike next. Even after 50 years of publication of this novel, Bengali readers were fascinated by the complexity of the subject, especially since in 1988, a serial-killer dubbed the Stoneman prowled the streets of Kolkata and was never successfully apprehended.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

  • This was one of the stories that were recreated for broadcasting on Doordarshan, the Indian National Network, by Basu Chatterjee, and immediately went on to become one of the most memorable episodes.

Trivia[edit]

  • In the foreword to the first anthologized edition published by Gurudas Chottopadhyay and Sons, which also contained Satyanneshi, Seemanto-heera and Makorshar rosh, Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay wrote, "Many will be anxious to know whether these are original stories or merely transcreated from foreign novels. For the interest of the general reader, I'd like to make it known that these are completely my own creations"
  • Although Pother kanta was the first novel featuring Byomkesh that Sharadindu wrote, since Satyanneshi is the novel in which the character of Byomkesh Bakshi is established, it is considered by readers to be the first in the series.
  • A later Byomkesh Bakshi story, Shorajur Kanta (The quill of the porcupine), uses a similar unusual form of murder where the murderer kills people using porcupine quills thrust from behind into the heart.

External links[edit]