“Magic is dying, my friend,” said Janardan Maity.

It was just after nine in the night. We had walked out of the Mahajati Sadan Auditorium on Chittaranjan Avenue, flagged down a cab and settled down in our seats, the gentle night breeze from over the river in the west just managing to provide some much-needed relief from the sweltering heat of June. I was admiring the line of handcarts arranged neatly along the side of the footpath near Muhammad Ali Park, when Maity let out a sigh and uttered those dismal-sounding words.

“Right in front of our eyes,” Maity continued, “and we aren’t doing a thing about it.”

We had just come out after watching a magic show. The magician was a young up-and-coming illusionist whom the papers had given rave reviews. Good magic was a rarity in Kolkata these days most of the performances were cheap parlour tricks that wouldn’t even impress children, and the rest depended so heavily on glamour and machinery that it sort of ruined the fun. At least that’s what Maity said. During tonight’s show, I had glanced at Maity a couple of times to find that he was not at all impressed by the quality of the tricks being played out on stage by the young man who had his sleight of hand. But I could also see as easily that Maity really wanted to enjoy the show, that he was trying his best to do so and failing hopelessly. With the announcement of every trick, he would sit up straight, in anticipation of a baffling enigma, an awe-inducing miracle, but when the cymbals would crash and the trick would be complete, Maity would sink back in his seat like a deflated balloon, disappointed and dejected. This went on for three full hours.

“In Europe, Australia, even in the Americas, there are so many schools that are completely dedicated to teaching the art of circus. Theatre and fine arts are being taught widely. There is at least an effort to preserve these old arts, either in their original, ancient forms or in their contemporary avatars. But magic? No, there’s no school of magic you can go to in order to learn the good old illusion. Schools of magic remain only in fiction now, don’t they? Every once in a while, you see an old, widowed lady on the footpaths of Kolkata somewhere, showing one wondrous trick after another. Coins, keys, cards, even stones and pebbles and toothpaste caps, Prakash! Toothpaste caps! Can you believe it? Nothing else, no fancy apparatus, no dazzling lights, no screens, no assistants, not a single word of patter uttered to distract the audience. Just a few ordinary items, and ten wrinkled brown fingers creating magic. True magic! All for a square meal at the end of the day.”

The hurt in Maity’s voice was unmistakable. Not once while saying these words had he looked at me. His sight was fixed outside the cab’s window, on the streets, and although I could not see his face, the choke in his voice told me that it was accompanied by a glisten in his eyes. Bhowanipore was a fair distance away; I was staying over at Maity’s for the night, and I couldn’t obviously let him go through the rest of the evening lamenting, so I tried to steer the conversation towards another direction, with the express objective of lifting his mood. It took some doing, but gradually, it seemed to work.

I spoke about a new plot that was bouncing around in my head. Maity heard it with some attention, and gave me a few suggestions which I thought were extremely useful. I asked him if he had ever considered writing, and he responded by claiming that he lacked the discipline to do so. I was wondering if there was anything under the sun that Janardan Maity lacked the discipline to do and accomplish, when our taxi pulled up in front of Maity’s ancestral mansion.

The door was answered by Maity’s loyal and aged servant Mahadev, who informed us that a gentleman had been waiting to see us, and that although he had been duly informed that Maity would be late in returning home, he had repeatedly insisted much to the chagrin of Mahadev that he would wait. For, as he had claimed, the matter was of utmost importance.

When we stepped into the drawing room, the young man stood up to greet us. I would have described the man as pretty much ordinary-looking, but I knew how much Maity hated that description, so I quickly add that he was of medium height and build, wore an inexpensive shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a pair of faded jeans, carried a black cracked and patched leatherette satchel on his left shoulder and wore a pair of flip-flops on his feet. His hair, all haphazard and poorly trimmed, had clearly not received a touch of oil over months, if not years. There was a thin moustache over his lips, and somehow it seemed to my eyes that on a regular day, he was a decidedly unkempt man, but that he had made an extra effort to dress up a little on the occasion of meeting the greatest detective of Kolkata, if not the country. I noticed that Mahadev had dutifully placed a cup of tea in front of the man, but from the thin, crusty film that had formed on the surface of the tea, it was obvious that the cup had remained untouched.

Excerpted with permission from Aperture: A Janardan Maity Mystery, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, Penguin India.