As a schoolgirl, I remember being delighted as I came upon the adventures of Goyenda Gondalu in my  beloved magazine, Sandesh. Much as I enjoyed the world of Jayanta-Manik, Byomkesh-Ajit and of course, Feluda and Topshe, there was something very exciting about four girls, namely, Kalu, Malu, Bulu and Tulu. They went to boarding school in a fictional hill town, and were detectives to boot!

Inspired by Enid Blyton (and, possibly, many other writers), Nalini Das had created Bengali literature’s first female detectives. Interestingly, these detectives were not only female but they were children! And were probably the first “kid detectives” in Bengali literature. But after these four young girls, for a long time, we did not meet another woman detective in Bengali fiction.

Enter the aunt as detective

Suchitra Bhattacharya, known mainly for her perceptive writing about the urban middle class Indian condition, stepped into the world of detective fiction for young adults with her Mitin Mashi series. Pragyaparamita Mukherjee, who, like all good Bengalis, is known by her pet name, Mitin, lives in  Kolkata, with her husband, Partho and son, Boomboom, and works as a private detective.

She is the 21st century, educated, confident Kolkata woman in her mid 30s – a person many of her readers know and identify with. And like many eminent detectives, Mitin has an assistant: her niece, Oindrilla, popularly known as Tupur, who is still in school. Since we have an aunt and niece detective team, our detective is Mitin Mashi or Aunt Mitin.

Although we have a third person narrator in these novellas, the action is seen through Tupur’s eyes. Not surprising, since Bhattacharya’s target readership comprises young adults and through Tupur’s eyes we see the world unfolding before them.

Thrills and spills

The Mitin Mashi books have the thrill of adventure and detection – why does Shalini have a recurrent nightmare; does the old house in Badridas Temple Street have a vast storehouse of buried treasure; will Ronnie’s kidnappers get caught; why was Rachel Joshua murdered? It is indeed exhilarating for the young Tupur to partner her aunt in such adventures.

However, we are often reminded by Mitin that as a detective, she is not merely interested in solving a mystery but has a higher calling of searching for the truth. Shades of Satyaneshi Byomkesh did you say?

Mitin Mashi’s stories are an amalgamation of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the everyday and the exotic. Kolkata plays a big role in the stories. Mitin Mashi lives in “modern” Dhakuria, whereas, Tupur and her parents live in Hatibagan in north Kolkata, an older part of the city. There are frequent comings and goings between Dhakuria and Hatibagan and comments on the distinctiveness of life in the older part. There is perhaps, also, a regret for the days of yore.

Social structures

Through Mitin Mashi’s adventures, we are introduced to the histories and cultures of the many communities who have made Calcutta their home – the Marwaris, the Parsis, the Jews. But there is no wallowing in nostalgia – Mitin Mashi drives a car, uses a computer and always has her smartphone handy.

The Mitin Mashi books are also a tribute to an idealised upper caste, Hindu Bengali way of life. Mitin Mashi’s profession which requires her to use her “little grey cells”, which embody the Bengali intellectual curiosity and, dare I say it, also subverts it slightly, by housing it in a female body. Tupur and her uncle, Partho Mesho, bond over their love of food. Partho is the essential gourmand and regularly patronises Kolkata’s many eateries for their delicious, unhealthy offerings. Aroti, the cook, provides her skills and labour to keep her emloyer’s life running smoothly.

We see Aroti, the efficient, dependable worker, but I can’t recall learning much about Aroti the person. Mitin and Tupur also travel with their extended families and we see them on holiday in different locales – needless to say, these holidays also become the backdrop for Mitin Mashi’s search for truth.

The world of young adult Bengali crime fiction is like Kolkata’s parks – very rarely do you see girls playing there. I am glad Suchitra Bhattacharya decided to try her hand at crime fiction and brought us Mitin Mashi and Tupur. We can’t look forward to many more Mitin Mashi stories but I believe that there are films being made.