Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Curious Case of the Unending Village

A Hanuman languar guarding the road into Itna.

What were those two men doing, standing in the empty field at dusk, at the very edge of Itna village of Lohagara in Narail? Itna has no neighbouring village – it’s situated on a broad finger of land created by a horseshoe bend in the Modhumoti River. Akin to a fish trap, the one road in is the same way out. It’s not a place to anticipate being observed by strangers’ eyes.

Itna seems thinly populated compared to other villages. Ample are quiet, secluded spots for unheard conversations. In front of the two men were vast stretches of land, some fields dabbed with the tiny flowers of lentil crops or shining green with new paddy. The last of the day’s birds overhead were the only conceivable witnesses to any goings on.

It could’ve been entirely innocent, but for what motive had those two men covered their faces? What was in the shadowy sacks and boxes scattered about their feet?

Itna has no neighbouring village. It's not a place to anticipate being observed by strangers' eyes.

There were clues – little clues. Rumours spoke of gold traders nearby. There’s an abandoned manor in Itna with dark empty rooms to attract bats. In the Chourasta tea shop where one might expect local gossip the assembly of tea-drinkers and staff had instead confessed they were all actors. They were laughing. Did everyone in Itna wear a proverbial mask?

To identify and assemble the seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces would be a challenge for most of us. But for those few with a flair for detection it’s elementary: no riddle can defy solution. With a trained eye Sherlock Holmes would’ve been able to follow that deduction trail which reveals truth – a trail that in Itna seems without end.

Goats relax at luxury ghat. Itna is an affluent village.

Yet being Bangladesh solving Itna’s riddles is better a task for Holmes’s Bengali counterpart, Kiriti Roy. Six and a half feet tall, fair and stout, Roy wore his curled hair combed back as a rule – so author Nihar Ranjan Gupta tells us – and black celluloid spectacles made Roy’s clean-shaven face handsome.

As might be expected, Roy sported a long coat and cap, enjoyed a puff on a pipe and carried a magnifying glass. Usually accompanied by his trusty associate Subrata Roy, Gupta’s sleuth was undoubtedly qualified to pursue escapades from first introduction in Khalo Bhromor through around eighty subsequent novels from the middle of the twentieth century.

An abandoned many: with dark rooms attractive to bats.

Of course a detective like Roy wouldn’t merely analyse clues that came before him. He’d engage his inquisitive nature, surveying the area, talking to people. In Itna, Roy must’ve noticed that conspicuous ship’s helm, the steering wheel attached to the wall of another, still growing, manor – yes, Itna is an affluent village. What would a ship’s helm be doing a great many miles inland?

Roy would’ve found himself on Modhumoti’s bank at night with just a few hobby fishermen and the silvery moonshine for company. Anything sinister could happen in such a scene – but perhaps it was unrelated, just the exquisite nature of Bangladesh with cross-river views to Gopalganj. Perhaps it wasn’t more than that reader-anticipated red herring.

There would’ve been little investigation breakthroughs. Roy would’ve observed the brick stages at the various clubs and deduced what further conversation confirmed, that Itna regularly stages amateur jatra dramas during which the villagers were exactly as they said – actors. It fit. There was nothing suspicious in it.

A jatra stage at one of the clubs in Itna.

Roy would’ve learnt that the gold traders mostly reside in Dhaka tending their businesses – that it was a traditional occupation. And regarding the ship’s helm, he would’ve heard the history of a young man who’d once left for Chittagong to find a new beginning and found his fortune besides. Thereafter he employed many other Itna folk – so the villagers say – bringing benefit to his community.

Yet none of this would’ve satisfied Roy. There was still the baffling situation of the masked men in the field and the abandoned manor – and where chat fails it cannot be an error to find an expert. Mina Razib Ahmed is a retired Bangla literature teacher from Itna Girls’ High School and a freedom fighter. It is little wonder he maintains an interest in history.

The curios ship's helm many miles from the sea.

“On 8 May 1971 the Pakistani army reached Char Batpara village across the river in Gopalganj,” he recounts, “When the Pakistanis tried to shoot a farmer, the soldier found his gun had no bullets. The farmer snatched the weapon, attacked the soldier and the army men retreated.” After his lucky escape the farmer threw the rifle in the river and swam to Itna. His fellow villagers, fearing revenge, told the Pakistanis he didn’t belong to their village but was from Itna.

“On 23 May the Pakistanis attacked Itna early in the morning. 39 people were killed including four brothers from one family,” says Ahmed, “The event galvanised resistance.”

According to Ahmed, Itna was named by the Raja of Natore’s sister who once visited the area. She came by palki, sedan chair, and yet found the journey exhausting. When she reached the village once called Ballavpur, she felt it was a village that stretched on forever. The village was iti-na – without end: the name that became Itna.

Author Nihar Ranjan Gupta, courtesy Mina Razib Ahmed.

“During the British period the area was coopted into producing indigo,” Ahmed says. In the village of Radhanagar there was a nil kutir, an indigo compound, and a large river port with up to 360 prostitution houses. “Many girls were kidnapped or lured into working there,” says Ahmed, “Anti-British activities were strong here.”

Itna is also the ancestral home of novelist Nihar Ranjan Gupta. The abandoned manor, to Kiriti Roy’s surprise, is none other than his inventor’s family home. But for what motive would a fictional character investigate his very creator’s house?

Born in 1911, Gupta studied medicine in Kolkata and the United Kingdom, where he qualified as a dermatologist. While a student his sister died after being stung by a scorpion. But how could it be that a dermatologist wrote novels?

Inside the yard of the Gupta ancestral home.

“When he returned from England,” says Ahmed, “he brought his British Christian wife. His family said he could not bring a foreign woman into the house so he took a steamer back to Khulna, then Kolkata. He never came here again.” His family also moved to Kolkata at the time of Partition.

Indeed from childhood Gupta’s dream was to become an author – and his first novel, Rajkumar, was published when he was eighteen. Gupta once visited Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan for encouragement; but it was his time in the U.K. that fostered interest in detective fiction – and he met Agatha Christie.

The Gupta ancestral home. Itna, Narail.

Kiriti Roy came to life upon his return, to become the most prominent character in a career spanning more than two hundred novels, short stories, plays and essays – many of which were made into Bollywood and Tollywood films. Gupta died in 1986.

Kiriti Roy meanwhile would’ve known that sometimes the best approach is the direct approach. In coming closer to the two men in the field it could be noticed their face coverings were made of netting – what looked like sacks were actually clumps of dried water hyacinth atop boxes which were bee hives. There was no funny business – only honey business.

One of them handed his beekeeper’s hat to the stranger who took a few strides closer. Almost immediately a bee landed on his arm. He tried to brush it off but it was late. The bee sunk its stinger into the stranger’s skin – a dermatologist would’ve been horrified.

The Hindu protima at the Gupta house.

With that, one of the men brushed the bee aside – and as the bee left a trail of sweet honey remained behind. There was no pain. It was the final puzzle piece! In Itna one may arrive as a stranger but one will not leave that way. Itna had stung him, he knew. It was elementary: another case successfully closed.

Beehives. Not funny business but honey business. Itna, Lohagara, Narail, Bangladesh.

A still-growing manor in Itna.

This article published in Star Magazine, here: The Curious Case of the Unending Village

Itna Bazaar.

Lentil fields at Itna, Narail.


  1. A very interesting piece. I finished reading it in one go. Incidentally I hail from the same family, although I have never met Late Nihar Ranjan Gupta. My Grandfather Ananta Gupta stayed in this house of Itna for a very short period of time in his childhood.

  2. Glad you liked it! If you ever get the chance, do visit Itna. It's a really picturesque village that is quite advanced in terms of literacy and culture, no doubt due in part to Nihar Ranjan Gupta's influence and also the artist SM Sultan who inspired all of Narail District and once visited Itna.