Series Fiction and the Sleuth: The First Female Detectives in Bengali Print Culture

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:50 AM
Grant Park Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Poushali Bhadury, Middle Tennessee State University
This paper examines the mid-20th century children’s series fiction that introduced colonial Bengal’s first female detectives. Pioneering characters like Krishna Chaudhuri and Agnisikha Ray attested to the robust collaboration between author Prabhabati Devi Saraswati and Deb Sahitya Kutir (DSK), a Calcutta publishing house that influenced key trends in the Bengali children’s book business since 1924. As a leading children’s publisher, DSK becomes a vital case study for examining questions of (nation-building) readership, and those of the publication and circulation of children’s texts in a society that is trying to grapple with indigenous and Western notions of tradition and modernity.

Even as Anglo-American crime and pulp fiction genres, such as Golden Age detective fiction, heavily influenced the emergence of children’s crime fiction series in colonial India, the introduction of the female detective figure in the 1940s was a landmark literary event. Krishna and Sikha were the first Bengali female sleuths: essentially aspirational figures that seemed to articulate all the possibilities that a restrictive middle class mid-century Bengali society denied its women. In Krishna, we find for instance a radical character that explores the bounds of what it means to be a woman in a supremely patriarchal society, yet to dare to break its written and unwritten rules. This is especially significant, given DSK’s large female juvenile readership. Initially appearing in a general detective series, the characters proved so popular that DSK later devoted two separate trade series titles starring the female detectives. These texts are especially fascinating because they are radically progressive about women’s roles (even while paying lip service to traditional models of femininity), and in ideas about their marriage, proactive careers, and burgeoning sexualities. My paper examines this publishing phenomenon both in terms of their cross-pollinated origins, as well as the high-stakes gendered representations contained therein.