How can someone seemingly brilliant like the medical student, Sukumar, make numerous idiotic mistakes in committing a premeditated murder? This is the question that perplexes Byomkesh Bakshi in Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s story Arthamanartham (অর্থমনর্থম্) and it is one that resonates with readers.
Arthamanartham is a magnificent story that demonstrates Saradindu’s skill at the top of his oeuvre. In this story, Byomkesh demonstrates his knowledge with important factors associated with homicide investigation that are taught to modern forensic researchers such as motive, modus operandi, time of death, condition of corpse, crime scene, and statements of the prime suspects. Sarandindu also displays remarkable economy in setting the stage: the murder is established in the sixth sentence of the story.
Karali Charan Basu, a wealthy Bengali, with no direct heir, has been murdered in his sleep. As Byomkesh determines later in the story, the victim was chloroformed in his sleep and killed by the insertion of a sewing needle multiple times between his medulla oblongata and vertebra, a curious choice that would indicate that this was a premeditated murder and that the culprit had at least some knowledge of medical procedures. The fact that the victim was very short-tempered and in the habit of frequently changing his will made it possible that anyone who could inherit his estate would have a motive to commit the crime. The five suspects who fell in this category included the victim’s three nephews, Matilal Kar, Maniklal Kar, and Phanibhushan Kar- all uneducated brothers with no source of income who would definitely benefit from a windfall. The other two suspects were the children of the victim’s sister-in-law, Sukumar and Satyabati.
The story also presents a whole range of characters who make it interesting such as the police officer, Bidhubabu, whose incompetence is only matched by his dislike for Byomkesh. If Sherlock Holmes had his impediments from Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, then Byomkesh certainly had his from Lalbazar!
The story also has introduces the readers to Satyabati, who of course, Byomkesh later gets married to. I suspect many readers who are not familiar with this story will know this and end up eliminating her name from the list of suspects. However, she is by far, the most interesting of the characters in Arthamanartham and she displays exhibits exceptional poise in order to protect her brother, Sukumar, who turns out to be the prime suspect once key evidence such as a modified will, and bottle of chloroform are found in his room. Murderer, Sukumar, is not, and this is evident in part because the evidence is too neatly stacked up against him. It turns out that Phanibhushan, the very well-read, but crippled youngest brother of the trio is the perpetrator. In the end, Phanibhushan decides to kill himself instead of handing himself over to the authorities and admittedly this seems a bit contrived to modern readers.
There are also passages in the story which modern post-colonial and feminist readers may find somewhat paternalistic and condescending especially when referring to Satyabati and Phanibhushan. I’d like to remind readers the obvious: Saradindu, was a politically-incorrect writer in a politically-incorrect, colonial age.
(Please also see the Byomkesh quiz on Arthamanartham)
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