Who was the first writer of crime fiction in the Bengali language? Most are agreed that the honour falls to an ex-policeman, Priyanath Mukhopadhyay, who served in the detective department of the Calcutta police force for 33 years, from 1878 to 1911, and edited Darogar Daptar (The Inspector’s Files), the first-ever periodical dedicated to crime stories in the Bengali language.

In the introduction to his autobiography of 1911, Mukhopadhyay wrote: “I have served for many years in the detective department. From time to time, I publish in the pages of Darogar Daptar some of the cases that I have solved – and sometimes failed to solve.” What follows is one of the crimes Priyanath solved, and in the process unmasked perhaps one of the most ingenious of criminals. The story was titled Fantastic Author, and appeared in the Ashar 1301 issue (or June-July 1894) of Darogar Daptar.

Mukhopadhyay starts his account by referring to a series of complaints emanating from the registry office. He reminds us of the current law of the land concerning the registration of publications: “This was not very long ago. At that time, the rules of the registration office were not the same as it is now. At that time, the rule was that three copies of any book published in the land had to be submitted at the registration office and the government would pay the cover price of those three copies to the publisher. Now the rule about submitting the copies remains the same, but the government no longer pays for them. This change was instituted after the incident which I am about to recount. From that point onwards, publishers have been deprived of the price of their copies.”

But first, the scam itself: after cheating an itinerant Kabuli vendor of shawls of three of his wrappers, Purnananda sold them for the sum of four Rs 50.

With this capital, he arrived at Battala the following morning: “The following day I went to Battala. There was no dearth of rubbish books there, I bought three voluminous books at a very low price. The cover price of the books was Rs 5 but I bought them at 5 annas each, amounting to a total outlay of 15 annas.”

Purnananda’s next step was to go to a printing shop and get the following items printed: three fictitious title pages and three back covers. Care was taken to ensure that the new title was not too different from the original title, while the name of the original author was substituted by Purnananda’s own. The new price was fixed at Rs 10. After this, the old title-page and back covers were torn off and replaced by the new ones. The binder was told to trim the three sides expertly so that the size of the new books was not identical to their earlier incarnations. Now the old books took on a new look, announced Purnananda with satisfaction. Anyone would be mistaken that they were new titles.

From the printer’s to the registry office: Purnananda registered the three fictitious books and pockets a cool Rs 30 – all this for an outlay of Rs 2.50 and two days’ work. It is not surprising that Purnananda was to try this same wheeze several times but eventually he was to try it once too often. The registry office became suspicious and called in the police. Purnananda admits candidly: “It was not difficult to apprehend me. My name was printed on all the books, and the name and address of the printer who had printed the new cover were also prominently displayed. Why should there be any trouble catching me?”

Now on to Purnananda’s second forgery: this is, in fact, his first-ever criminal act, and the first step in what would soon become a Moriarty-like career.

Like many young men of his ilk, Purnananda dreamed of making a living from writing. But his first novel, Chiranmada—a title decided upon after much thought—failed to shift even one copy. Driven to despair, Purnananda hit upon an ingenious way of moving his unsold stock. First, he published an adulatory advertisement about his book is a leading Bengali weekly, not once, but for three weeks in a row, calling attention to the suitability of the novel for women readers. When this failed to produce the desired result, Purnananda decided on a last desperate throw of the dice. Borrowing Rs 10 from a friend, he made his way to a well-known bookseller of Cornwallis Street. Introducing himself as a bookseller from Dacca, he submitted a list of books he wanted to buy wholesale for his Dacca bookshop. The list is worth quoting in full, as it indicates the early Bengali canon in preparation:

  • Pratham Bhag / Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar: 100 vols.
  • Dwitiya Bhag / Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar: 50 vols.
  • Durgeshnandini / Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay: 5 vols.
  • Bishbrikkho / Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay: 5 vols.
  • Madhabi-Kankan / Rameshchandra Datta: 4 vols.
  • Bharat-Uddhar / Indranath Bandopadhyay: 3 vols.
  • Gocharaner Math / Akshaychandra Sarkar: 3 vols.
  • Mrinmayee / Damodar Mukhopadhyay: 3 vols.
  • Meghnadbadh Kabya / Michael Mahusudan Dutt: 3 vols.
  • Malini / Rabindranath Tagore: 3 vols.
  • Ghorar Dim / Rajkrishna Roy: 3 vols.
  • Tantiya-Bhil / Priyanath Mukhopadhyay: 2 vols. [A bit of self-puffery here.]

And finally, the joker in the pack:

  • Chiranmada / Purnananda Bhakta: 100 vols.

Not surprisingly, the Cornwallis Street-wholesaler professed ignorance about both Chiranmada and Purnananda. At which, great astonishment expressed by Dhaka bookseller: the wholesaler, not wanting to lose such a large order, offers to have the books obtained from the residence of Purnananda and have them ready for the Dhaka bookseller by six in the evening. Purnananda proffers his Rs 10 as an advance, doubles back to his own residence and lurks in an inside room while his factotum Mahesh spins an elaborate yarn about Purnananda being away in Munger on an important lawsuit.

On being asked for 100 copies of Chiranmada, Mahesh went into a lament about the extreme demand for the book and how there were only two–three hundred copies left and how there was only bookseller who was authorised to deal in them. After long haggling, the gulled shopkeeper’s assistant managed to buy 100 copies of the novel at a rate of 15% commission, far lower than the usual trade discount offered to the wholesale and retail trade. The Cornwallis Street wholesaler waited in vain for the Dhaka bookseller to turn up, who, obviously, never came. Finding himself suddenly burdened with a huge stack of Chiranmadas, the wholesaler tried to cut his losses by selling them but failed to shift even a single copy.

How much did Purnananda make on this transaction? Purnananda’s total outlay had been Rs 175, with which he had printed 2,000 copies of the two-volume novel. But after several reruns of this scam with a few other booksellers, he ended with a net profit of almost Rs 1,500. Purnananda concludes with satisfaction: The gullible booksellers who were conned by me were too sheepish to share their plight with other shop-owners. Although, many of them now remained alert, but I’ve heard that the names Purnananda Bhakta and Chiranmada remained etched in their hearts for a long time.

Purnananda’s next scam was also around similar lines and involved the cheating of yet another bookseller.

A worthless new book – Chatturdas Ratna, or Fourteen Gems – had to be written for this purpose and 2,000 copies of it were printed. Again, by Purnananda’s admission, the wholesaler who was gulled into buying up the whole stock, failed to shift a single copy. One begins to wonder – is it possible to write so badly that not a single copy is sold? Certainly, a perverse kind of genius is necessary to be able to produce such unreadable prose, and it is a pity that Mukhopadhyay has left us no samples of Purnananda’s prose style.

Anyway, the success of this scam was contingent on two key features of the book trade: first, the commission system of sales, which was the mode preferred by most booksellers, especially with new authors: The other feature was mail-order book-buying, which was becoming common during this period. In his later scams, in fact, we find Purnananda concentrate increasingly on rural and mofussil targets as likely victims—the city book trade by this time had become wise to the threats posed by this smooth-talking confidence man. In order to reach his rural and mofussil targets, Purnananda made extensive use of newspaper advertisement and handbills.

This brings us to the last scam: the case of the pornographic books which were not.

By this time, the Obscene Publications Act was well in force – this had been legislated in 1856, largely at the behest of Reverend James Long, to prevent the public sale of and exposure of obscene books and pictures. Shortly afterward, Long was to declare with some satisfaction that three persons had been arrested for selling an obscene book of songs by Dasarathi Roy, and that 30,000 copies of the book had been sold at four annas. The Supreme Court imposed a fine of Rs 1,300 upon them, a considerable sum.

It was in this climate of hostility that Purnananda embarked upon his most audacious scam. In a no-holds-barred advertisement, he announced the forthcoming publication of four books on sex: Ratishastra, Sambhog-Ratnakar, Kamratna and Lajjatalessa, priced at Rs 2, 5, 2.50 and 8, respectively. Not surprisingly, no newspaper was willing to carry this advertisement, but Purnananda got around this in an ingenious way: first, by inserting the same advertisement but with changed and innocuous titles; second, by bribing the office-bearer (daptari) to insert handbills with the real titles into the folded newspapers just before being despatched to outstation subscribers.

No doubt swayed by the eloquence of Purnananda’s ad copy, many prospective buyers remitted sums of money, without getting anything in return. Purnananda had reasoned correctly that very few would take the matter to the police since they themselves would then be proved guilty of buying obscene literature, but he had not taken into the account the tenacity of one or two of his subscribers who threatened to take him to court. At this juncture, Purnananda resorted to another ingenious wheeze: he wrote four perfectly harmless pamphlet-sized stories, but keeping the salacious titles intact. One can only imagine the rage of the subscribers when the books finally reached them.

By this time, Purnananda’s advertisement had also attracted the attention of the detective department and a raid on Purnananda’s premises yielded several hundred copies of the offending articles. Charged with stocking and selling obscene literature, Purnananda, however, turned the tables when he was able to prove that there was nothing remotely objectionable about the contents of the books. With disarming candour, he admitted that he had used pornographic titles so that they would simply sell better. The magistrate had no option but to let him go and went to the extent of reprimanding the police for their excessive zeal.

This article first appeared on Digital Writer’s Lab, an online collaborative project on the techniques of crime writing between writers from Scotland and India.