Dan Morrison’s book on the killing of Amarendra Pandey, the heir of Bengal’s Pakur zamindari estate in the 1930s, inhabits several skins: family drama, sociological treatise, forensic thriller
Journalist Dan Morrison’s The Poisoner of Bengal: The 1930s Murder That Shocked the World (published in India by Juggernaut) is a howdunit and not a whodunit, and that’s rather the point. The victim, Amarendra Pandey, was the heir of Bengal’s Pakur zamindari estate in the 1930s, which at the time was ruled by his half-brother Benoyendra (“Benoy”), the official raja of Pakur.
In order to remove his brother from the line of succession, Benoy planned a killing of astonishing pre-meditation and — for the era, at least — a high degree of sophistication. Morrison places the outline of the bare facts before us as early as Page 40 or so. That’s because this book has loftier ambitions in sight and by the time you finish the last chapter, it has achieved pretty much every one of them.
A portrait of pre-Independence India
In deconstructing the murder—its inception, planning and execution — Morrison ends up drawing a vivid portrait-by-proxy of pre-Independence India itself. We see the uneasy, distrustful dynamic between the country’s colonial masters and Indian figureheads like Benoy and Amarendra. We see the complex relationships between various members of the Pandey clan; their fraternal bonds are at once transactional (who will corner the lion’s share of land?) and not.
We also, albeit briefly, assume the point of view of the average Bengali at the time, someone who had to suffer two different sets of tyrants. In this vein, The Poisoner of Bengal inhabits several skins — family drama, sociological treatise, forensic thriller and so on.
Early in the book, for instance, Morrison explains the zamindari economy in detail, explaining exactly how the two brothers and their clan made their money, essentially acting as middlemen on behalf of the British state. The British would usurp any zamindari that failed to pay its allotted share of revenue for the year, regardless of flood, famine or any other natural factor that prevented the peasants from paying up. Because of this, most Bengali zamindars, the Pandeys included, were extremely strict with their tenant farmers.
“If poor farmers and other tenants formed the base of this pyramid, the upper layers were taken up by the extracting class, the retinue of hired assessors and collectors paid to manage the estates and squeeze money from the residents, followed by the bookkeepers and pleaders who managed a landlord’s accounts and his many legal disputes. An estate like the Pakur Raj had diverse income streams, ranging from the rent roll, the zamindar’s own crops from land he personally controlled, and the stranglehold loans he made to tenants and local businessmen,” writes Morrison.
The Sherlock Holmes angle
One of the (perhaps unintentional) side-effects of this seemingly digressive strategy is to demolish any leftover “good guy/bad guy” binaries the reader might be holding onto. Through these passages, Morrison makes it clear that when it came to the big picture in Bengal, there were no real good guys anywhere to be seen, just two spoilt rich kids, Benoy and Amarendra fighting for ill-gotten riches (and they really are spoilt, as the detail-rich passages about their lavish boyhoods reveal).
My favourite aspect of both this murder and Morrison’s telling of it is the Sherlock Holmes angle. In order to lay down context for non-Indian readers, Morrison first explains how and why the Sherlock Holmes stories became so popular in India in the 1920s and 30s, a relationship that has stood the test of time. Then, in a thrilling, scarcely believable turn of events, we are shown how Benoy derived the inspiration behind the murder from the Sherlock Holmes story called ‘The Dying Detective’.
In this story, the villain, called Culverton Smith, is known for his signature mode of assassination — weaponised bacteria, delivered to the victim via syringe or even a strategically placed needle in a public place. Quick, deadly and by mid-20th century standards, difficult to trace, as far as brazen daylight murders go. Morrison explains the connection admirably in a chapter that’s equal parts literary criticism and forensic examination:
“Holmes ‘is an amateur of crime, as I am of disease’, Smith brags to Holmes’s compatriot Dr John Watson. ‘For him the villain, for me the microbe. These are my prisons’, he says, gesturing to a row of bottles and jars in his office. ‘Among those gelatine cultivations some of the very worst offenders in the world are doing time.’ The story’s murder weapon is an unnamed germ, a sample of which Smith has cultured and carried home from Sumatra. Victor Savage is infected by the pointed tip of a steel spring coiled, ‘like a viper’s tooth’, inside a small, decorative ivory box with a sliding lid, his flesh pierced when he opens the ‘gift’ from his uncle. The young heir dies in agony four days later.”
‘The story of a fascinating, overlooked time and place’
I won’t spoil exactly how Benoy pulls off his murder-heist, but suffice it to say that the conspiracy alone is worth the cover price of the book. It even involves the Haffkine Institute, named after Waldemar Haffkine, the microbiologist who first developed the vaccines against cholera and the bubonic plague. This part also demonstrates just why medical research laboratories everywhere are regulated so strictly, often with difficult-to-parse laws and compliance standards. The bounty these places offer to a potential murderer is just way too risky.
Over a decade ago, Morrison (already a respected foreign correspondent by then) wrote The Black Nile, a delightful blend of travel writing, reportage and political commentary. This is a writer obviously adept at several disparate modes of storytelling, and The Poisoner of Bengal shows off his versatility, among other things. As the words below — the ending of the book — reveal, it pays as a writer to have your eye on the bigger picture, at all times:
“The Pakur Murder Case was part of a new chapter in the story of homicide, one tailor-made for a world tumbling midway between mustard gas and the atomic bomb. Amarendra’s death provided the eye-popping core narrative for a story encompassing topics as diverse as pandemic disease, popular film, and the social and political cauldron of a tabloid-ready Calcutta on the verge of war and independence. It’s the story of a fascinating, overlooked time and place, one that won’t be seen again.”