Since it had been the placid village of Suttanutty before becoming this bustling city that we see before us, Calcutta had never faced such an existential crisis as during the years of the Great War. For though it was fought in distant Europe, and neither a single shot was fired, nor a single enemy soldier ever sighted here, the vagaries of economics that always doggedly follow the footsteps of war were not late in embracing the city in their arms. While prices of essential supplies kept rising, at the same time, many people also distressfully found themselves outside gainful employment.
These twin challenges to living a decent life saw the Bengalee bhadralok departing the city in large numbers for their country seats, where, one assumes, the pressure of living was perceptibly less than in a modern industrial city. For both of us, though, with people leaving the city and houses losing tenants, this period of distress proved to be something of a blessing because we were finally able to move out of our cramped quarters on Amherst Street and take up more spacious accommodation in a house next to the Nebootolla grounds. We did not save much in the way of rent, but our new residence, with its big airy rooms on the first floor, an open terrace on the second floor, and the additional wide room next to the terrace, was no less endearing to us than a nabob’s bejeweled palace.
The first-floor rooms consisted of our lodgings as well as a parlour where Dhoorjoti entertained his clients. We, however, were in the habit of generally spending our leisure hours in the room next to the terrace. This served both as Dhoorjoti’s library as well as laboratory, and here he had built up a large collection of the most exotic and the bizarre. Yalee claws, gaundaberoonda feathers, kukulkan poison, cyclops ichor, absolutely nothing was lacking in that veritable cornucopia of the fantastic.
Our story starts on an idle Sunday morning. It was early autumn, I remember, and the mellow sunlight lay languorously draped across the terrace. Even the solitary crow perched on the terrace wall that basked in its warmth had an indolent air about it; its lazy cawing was a perfect counterpoint to the excited and carefree clamour of boys engaged in a game of football on the Nebootolla grounds. After a simple but hearty breakfast of toast and omelette, I relaxed with a cup of aromatic Daurjeeling tea nestled between my palms, while Dhoorjoti, never a connoisseur when it came to beverages, had buried his nose in the newspaper with a small tumbler of strong dark tea clutched in his hand. His brows, I noticed, were knitted with some concern, perhaps from something he had read in the paper.
Leaving its perch on the terrace wall, the crow flew down to our doorstep and, with a few loud caws, implored for food. Throwing a few breadcrumbs at it, I looked at Dhoorjoti.
“What? Found some useful news, did you?”
Dhoorjoti snorted with some annoyance, “Useful, my foot!” Folding up the newspaper, he offered it to me. “Here, see it for yourself. It is right there on the front page.”
Taking the newspaper from Dhoorjoti, I glanced at the front page. The large headline announced a theft at the showrooms of the Indo-British Clockworks on Old Court House Street. Sometime during the previous night, thieves had cracked open the safe and had decamped with the day’s proceeds.
“The name Indo-British clockworks sounds familiar. Aren’t they the manufacturers of all kinds of clockwork appliances?” I asked.
“You are not wrong! Music boxes, difference engines, machine minions, the list of their products is long and diverse. With rajahs, merchant firms and agencies of the sircar bahadur as their customers, their affairs are spread far and wide in both the Presidencies of Madras and Calcutta.”
“Don’t say!” I exclaimed, “Who would think that some thief would dare stick his neck into such a lion’s den! Why not go and take a look at what transpired? It may gain you a client of quite generous means!”
Once more, Dhoorjoti snorted with disdain.
“Who cares! One hardly needs Dhoorjoti Seal to solve such petty thievery. The beat peeadah should be able to handle it sufficiently enough.” He was about to say more, but the sound of a steady stomp of heavy booted feet on the stairs put a stop to his outburst. Since the terrace room was out of bounds for most but a few of our close acquaintances, it was not difficult for me to guess the identity of our visitor.
Smiling, I remarked, “Your objections are about to come to nought, I am afraid, for Hem is on his way.”
Hem, or more appropriately Inspector Hemchunder Bose, had been, in some distant past, a fellow student of Dhoorjoti at a boys’ school. These days, however, he crossed our path in his capacity as an officer of the Detective Department. Dhoorjoti looked at me with a grimace on his face, but before he could make his feelings known, Hem stepped into the room.
The soft sunlight momentarily shone on the brass buttons of his spotless white tunic and the insignia on his peaked hat. His sharp police gaze did not miss the newspaper clutched in my hand. “Good! I see you are already aware of last night’s burglary. Get ready now. I have kept a motor car waiting downstairs.”
Dhoorjoti tried mumbling out a weak objection. “Look, this seems to be an ordinary burglary. What possible help could I be to you in this?”
“The burglary may seem ordinary, but in this particular case, the fariyadee definitely is not. No crime committed at the Indo-British Clockworks can be taken lightly. Commissioner Reginald Clarke himself is keeping a close eye on the case. Come on now, let’s go.”
Excerpted with permission from Avarice, Sumit Bardhan, Kalpabiswa Publications.