BOOK EXCERPT

Prick of death: How the Calcutta police solved one of India’s first cases of biocrime 85 years ago

First, a Kolkata Police officer wrote up old case histories on Facebook. Now, they have been translated and compiled into a book.

November 26, 1933: At the station, Amarendra’s family members and friends were astonished to find Vinayendra hanging around there again. “What is this scum doing here?” some of them asked. Amarendra allayed their fears. What if he was there, Amarendra said to them. He was a brother, after all. Amarendra had absolutely no idea what was coming his way. A few moments later, a man wrapped in a dirty shawl sprang out from the crowd, pricked him with a needle-like object and vanished into the crowds before anyone realised what had happened.

Amarendra checked the wound. It looked negligible. A colourless liquid was seeping out from where the needle or pin had perforated the flesh. A few drops of this liquid had stained the sleeve of his kurta. There were still five minutes left for the train’s departure. His sister Bonobala was sick with panic, as were Kamalaprasad and the other friends. Let’s cancel the journey they said, and suggested Amarendra visit a doctor right away. Vinayendra, too, pretended to be greatly concerned, but made a quick and subtle change of stance: “You can visit a doctor on reaching Pakur, can’t you?” When Kamalaprasad insisted that a visit to the doctor was urgent, Vinayendra pretended to lose his cool and bragged, “We are scions of the Pakur zamindari. We aren’t worried about silly things like ordinary people.”

Finally Amarendra decided to leave for Pakur as planned as he had some important work to attend to after a couple of days.

A change of travel plans could jeopardise matters, he thought, and a doctor could address the wound once he reached home. So he boarded the train – an act that would prove fatal.

Bonobala continued to worry throughout the journey. “Dadabhai, I am so worried,” she told Amarendra over and over again during their train journey.

“About what?”

“I can’t forget the way the man injured your arm.”

“I don’t think it is something to be worried about. Maybe he was a pickpocket trying to steal some money. Maybe he had a knife on him.”

“Would a knife make such a perforation? Doesn’t it look rather odd? I am beginning to think I may have seen the man somewhere...but I just cannot recall where...”

“What are you saying! You are imagining things now.”

“I don’t think so. I am sure now that I have seen him somewhere. Such uncanny similarity...”

“I saw him quite clearly at the station. He was short, dark with a grimy shawl wrapped around himself, wearing slippers.”

“Dadabhai! Yes, I clearly recall now! Remember we went to Purna cinema hall to watch a movie last week? That man was walking aimlessly around the ticket counter.”

“I am sure you are mistaken. How can you remember every vagabond in the city? Don’t worry about it.”

But Bonobala’s worst fears came true. Amarendra fell seriously ill in some hours, and the following day was rushed to Kolkata. The family rented a house on Rash Behari Avenue. This time, another reputed physician, Dr Nalini Ranjan Sengupta, was called.

Dr Sengupta prescribed a detailed “blood culture” immediately. Amarendra’s whole arm had swollen up, his temperature was stuck at 105 degrees, his pressure and heartbeat were shooting up and coming down rapidly – the overall condition was quickly deteriorating. It was going beyond the doctors’ control.

On December 3, Amarendra sank into a coma, and died the following day.

The blood culture report came the day after his death, leaving the doctors in silent terror and disbelief. There was Pasteurella Pestis bacteria in the blood – the plague bacteria. There was no doubt now that Amarendra had died of the plague.

Since it was an apparently natural death, there was no need for a post mortem, and the body was cremated. Social and family rules required elder brother Vinayendra to do the main rituals at the cremation. Through it all,Vinayendra never stopped sobbing for a moment, never giving a hint of his role in the despicable act that had been committed.

Though there was no post mortem, Amarendra’s friends and family members had no doubt about Vinayendra’s hand in Amarendra’s death, and were treating it as murder. But where was the proof? It was absurd to want to punish someone in the absence of evidence, no matter how strong or convincing the suspicion.

The unusual death had a serious impact elsewhere, too. It set some renowned doctors of Kolkata thinking how a healthy young man, used to a regular fitness regime could suddenly die of plague! They spoke with his friends and relatives, and took relevant notes including the pin pricking episode at the railway station. They took it upon themselves to solve the riddle that could not be explained by logic and years of experience. It was a professional affront after all, a wavering of the firm base of the towering positions they had come to occupy in their area of work.

Accordingly, they sent a letter to the Director of Tropical Medicine on February 12. Was it possible to inject plague bacilli into the body through a hypodermic needle? If so, what would be the volume required to be injected? Would it be potent enough to induce plague and lead to death? The doctors had other technical queries to clarify too.

The reply came four days later. Yes, the death had indeed been unnatural, induced artificially.

As suspected, it was “homicidal death”, or murder. Doctors were even more baffled to learn that the bacilli wasn’t even available in Kolkata. The Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing in Mumbai was the only place in India from where it could be procured.

Amarendra’s friends were outraged, especially because they could do nothing to prevent the death, despite knowing that Vinayendra had long tried to harm him. The pang of guilt and anger led them to visit senior officers of Kolkata Police’s detective department right after his passing.

They narrated the chain of events in the presence of the Pandey family lawyer. They didn’t have any proof or any documentary evidence to lodge an official complaint, but surely some unofficial snooping could be done on Vinayendra and Dr Taranath Bhattacharya?

An unofficial investigation started. Once the Tropical Medicine report came in, an official complaint was lodged by Kamalaprasad with the Tollygunge police station against five persons – Vinayendra Chandra Pandey, Dr Taranath Bhattacharya, Dr Shibapada Bhattacharya, Dr Durga Ratan Dhar and the unidentified person who had injured Amarendra with a needle at the railway station.

When Vinayendra learnt that a First Information Report (FIR) had been lodged against him, he tried to flee. But he had long been under police scrutiny, and was arrested that night from a train at Asansol railway station. Dr Dhar was arrested the following day, Taranath a day later, on the morning of February 18. Dr Shibapada Bhattacharya was able to escape arrest for the longest time, and was finally picked up on March 24.

The man who had caused Amarendra the grievous injury, however, could not be found. The short man wrapped in a dark shawl – where was he? Vinayendra later admitted that he had, in fact, sent him to Purna cinema hall to identify his brother. Bonobala’s recollection of the man had been precise – but alas, it had been too little, too late.

Vinayendra gave the police various addresses for this man, each a different one whenever he was asked. Yet, the killer could not be traced by the police despite every possible effort, including releasing his sketches to the public.

There remained two possibilities – one, he would have been offered a huge sum of money to leave the state for some destination which even Vinayendra did not know of. Two, Vinayendra could have sent another person to kill him in order to prevent getting blackmailed in future. It is more likely that the latter is true.

Vinayendra’s statement before the police would make detective thrillers seem flat and bland narratives in comparison. Imagine a young man of thirty chalking out a meticulous and diabolical plan to kill his younger brother by inserting bacteria into his body!

In Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi stories, gramophone pins aimed from a bicycle bell, and porcupine quills are used as murder weapons. But the ingenuity of Vinayendra’s murderous plan was much more evil, no doubt about that.

As the details unravelled, the police understood that Vinayendra had started planning the murder right from the day Amarendra asked for his share of the property on turning eighteen. After a failed attempt to kill him using Tetanus serum on pince-nez glasses, Vinayendra was on the lookout for something more reliably fatal. He took Taranath as a partner in the crime.

Taranath wasn’t even a doctor – he had just pretended to be one. He worked as a research assistant in a laboratory called Calcutta Medical Supply Concern on Cornwallis Street and was therefore familiar with diseases and how viruses and bacteria worked on the human body. The plan to use the plague bacteria as the perfect murder weapon had sprouted from Taranath’s head.

But how had they managed to procure the plague bacilli? Who gave it to them?

The Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing, originally named the Plague Research Laboratory after its founder, Dr Waldemar Mordecal Haffkine, was established in 1899 in Mumbai’s Parel area.

Taranath sent a telegraph to the organisation introducing himself as a diploma-holder in tropical medicine researching bacteria-borne diseases. He pretended to need the bacilli for his research. The Haffkine Institute replied that only a request backed by a recommendation from the surgeon-general of Kolkata would be taken seriously enough to deserve a detailed examination on the part of the institute.

But why should anyone write such a recommendation for Taranath? This was a serious setback to the murder plan. Enter Dr Shibapada Bhattacharya and Dr Durga Ratan Dhar. Vinayendra paid them good money to help in his plan to eliminate his step-brother. Dr Bhattacharya wrote a recommendation praising Taranath; he justified the plague bacilli’s requirement by mentioning that the research had great potential. The endorsement however, had no impact.

The Haffkine Institute turned it down. Vinayendra was strong-willed and unbending in his plan, and every rejection made his resolve stronger. Perhaps he had even taken a fancy for this plague bacilli plan, for he began to explore other devious means to procure the injection from the same institute, instead of planning out some other way to kill his brother.

He travelled to Mumbai several times and roped in two doctors from the Haffkine Institute. For days, he splurged on them, arranged for their entertainment in the very expensive Hotel Sea View.

The doctors were smitten by the money. Without any official record or proof, a vial of live plague culture from the institute was quietly sneaked out and handed over to the foursome on July 7, 1933. The duo from Mumbai also introduced Taranath to the Bombay Plague Hospital as a bacteriologist, where he used the sample to conduct tests on white rats until convinced of its effectiveness.

That’s how the bacilli was procured and eventually injected to murder twenty-year-old Amarendra. A murder most foul, a murder most rare not just in pre-Independence India, such a plan would be considered unusual even now.

The lower court ordered death by hanging for Vinayendra and Taranath. Dr Dhar and Dr Bhattacharya were acquitted. The case then moved to the higher court where Vinayendra’s punishment was toned down; he was ordered lifetime imprisonment and exile to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The judge mentioned in the order that the case was “probably unique in the annals of crime”.

Excerpted with permission from Murder In The City: Twelve Incredible Case Files Of The Kolkata Police, Supratim Sarkar, translated by Swati Sengupta. Speaking Tiger.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.