Interview Review

Satyajit Ray – Was he really ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’?

In conversation with Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International, Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much

“[O]ne would like to remember Ray as one of the last truly great renaissance men of Bengal, moulded much in the tradition of Tagore, in the sense that his genius manifested itself in manifold directions: film-making, photography, writing, composing poetry, limericks, music, designing, drawing, developing new typefaces, you name it.

“For a long time, he was also our most distinguished cultural ambassador to the world.”

This perhaps is the one of the most apt descriptions of a man whose films were legendary in our lifetime and a part of the concluding chapter in The Man Who Knew Too Much by Barun Chanda. The book is an exhaustive account of Ray and his major films, how he made the films, what were the influences he had, how he directed the films and how versatile he was. Chanda is clearly impacted by this giant of Bengal renaissance, which started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the eighteenth century and encompassed Tagore.

The book is as much a memoir by Chanda about Satyajit Ray as it is a narrative about his films. Structured unusually, this non-fiction has an introduction sandwiched between two sections, the first being Chanda’s own interaction with Ray as a hero of his award-winning film, Seemabadha[1](1971), and the making of the movie; the second being the narrative that covers the titular content (borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1956 thriller), The Man Who Knew Too Much, about the genius of Ray as a filmmaker. Chanda shows us how Ray was truly unique and very gifted. He would remember all the dialogues and be intent on being involved with every part of film making, from costumes to camera, lighting and makeup — which is probably why his films had a unique touch so much so that he has to date been the only Indian filmmaker to win an honorary Oscar which Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn, collected for him as he lay sick in bed (1992) breathing his last, saying: “Dear Satyajit Ray, I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”

And this note has been quoted by Chanda to bring out the uniqueness of a man who counted luminaries like Arthur C Clarke, Jean Renoir, de Sica, Kurusawa, Cartier-Bresson among his friends. He has unveiled the unique persona further. “As Ray was wont to say, everything that he had done earlier in his career, helped prepare him to be a complete filmmaker. His sense of framing stemmed from his knowledge of still photography. His deep love of Western and Indian classical music helped shape him as a music director. His sense of art direction came from his earlier stint at D.J. Keymer. His power of illustration helped him design the sets of Hirak Rajar Deshe[2]and Shatranj ke Khilari[3], both marvellous instances of art direction. And a combination of these two factors facilitated his making of some of the most original and impressive cinema posters ever.”

Chanda goes on to describe the full genius of Ray’s film making which even stretched to scripts, songs — both the lyrics and music often, and of course his ability to visualise the whole movie beforehand. Ray is quoted as having said: “I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film.”

Interspersed with anecdotes about the films, the text highlights the eternal relevance of some of the dialogues and lyrics that Ray wrote himself. For example, listening carefully to the lyrics of ‘Ore Baba Dekho Cheye[4]’ (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 1969), one could see it as a comment from a current pacifist in today’s war-torn world. This book actually seems like an eye opener not only to understand Ray’s films, but also to find out what the world needs from the media, an important comment in times of false news and sensationalism.

However, the book is not all adulation. It is also a critique of the persona of a visionary who could risk all for realising his vision. Chanda tells us how to attain perfection, Ray could risk necks: “There was an element in Ray bordering on ruthlessness. To get a certain effect on the screen he wasn’t averse to taking risks, at times to dangerous levels.”

New perspectives are brought in from unpublished interviews: “In an unpublished Bengali interview of Ray which is in the possession of Abhijit Dasgupta, one-time chief of Doordarshan, Kolkata, when asked about his film Sadgati[5], the maestro is quoted to have said: ‘One needed to make a film on this story immediately. As a Marxist, Mrinal Sen would have probably made it differently, more angry … Had this film been angrier I’m not sure it would have served the purpose any better. I don’t think display of anger alone can lead to much of an achievement. To my mind a truly politically angry film hasn’t been made so far. Until now what has been done is to shoot at safe targets. It hasn’t made any difference to establishments in any way. If one were to achieve this kind of a thing, I would sooner be a political worker than a filmmaker.’”

While looking at the maestro through an objective lens, Chanda finds it hard not to express his affection for the giant who impacted not just him but a whole generation of movie goers, film personnel and the world. His last sentence says it all:

“As far as I’m concerned, he [Ray] is always present. Not past. Not even past perfect.”

Chanda, a man who started his life working in the same advertising agency as Ray and dreaming of being an actor, with four books and multiple films under his belt, himself mesmerised audiences as a protagonist in Ray’s award-winning film and then suddenly withdrew from the industry for two decades. Why would he do that? Let us find out more about him and Ray in this interview.

Barun Chanda

First of all, let me tell you I am very honoured to be interviewing a Ray hero from a film I have watched multiple times. So, tell me, why did you act only in one Ray film, have a hiatus of twenty years and then go back to acting with Hirer Angti [6]  in 1992, the year Ray died. Did it have anything to do with Satyajit Ray’s presence or influence?

No. I’ll tell you what – after Seemabadha, I got a cluster of film offers, nine-ten offers and I did not accept anyone of them because they did not seem to be significant enough. I wasn’t interested in making money out of films or becoming a film star. I was interested in acting in good films. If they came my way, I would do. If they didn’t come my way, I wouldn’t. I would go back to my profession which is advertising. I was very happy there.

So, these offers that came didn’t quite satisfy me. And Manikda[7] did not call me back again for whatever reasons. The other significant filmmakers like Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak – they did not call me. I suppose I was branded as a capitalist actor. Or Imperialistic actor! I suppose it became ingrained in their mind I was an executive and nothing else. They felt they could not bend me into the roles in their film. A pity!

Is this your first non- fiction? What led you to think of writing a book on Satyajit Ray?

Yes, it is my first non-fiction. I had harboured this thought for a long-long time but there is a natural reluctance about writing anything. I am, by and large, a lazy person and there were a whole lot of things that were pretty personal, and I thought, you know, let it be stored in my mind. Maybe, I could narrate to my close friends’ circle certain stories and certain things that happened between me and him. But not for everyone. Even in this book, I have not mentioned a whole lot of things that are too personal, which he confided to me in good understanding that I will not tell another. I won’t speak about it.

Then the centenary year came, and many asked me why I did not write my out my memories. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri was one of them. He said the time is right and you have such wonderful anecdotes and experience, put it down for posterity. When I did the first part, I realised it could not just be my experiences but also something larger – in the sense what kind of a man was he in real life.

I was also dissatisfied with the books I have been reading about Ray and his works — starting with Marie Seton[8], who was supposed to be a gospel on Ray. I found it was a narration of his films in chronological order and what she thought of them. It was film-based assessment, not of the man himself or his qualities separated from the films. So, I decided to explore his persona. This book is quite different from any written on him. I have sections on music, editing with a whole lot of films but not in a chronological order. That is passé. The second part started with what has not been done. As I progressed, newer sections dawned on me – a whole lot of sections I have not used. I wanted a chapter on “The Rise and Fall of the Ray Empire” – but then thought I’d rather not finally. It would have been terrific, but I did not, perhaps want to spoil the public feeling about Ray. I did not want to criticise. I did do a chapter though — “Director or dictator”.

Absolutely. Your book is dispassionate but has no scandals or any unfair criticism. In fact, it seems to be based on not just your memories but also many interviews and lot of research. Can you tell us what went into the making of this book in this context? What kind of research and who all did you interview? How much time went into the making of the book?

I used Ray’s experiences with actors who are no longer alive – like Chabbi Biswas or Tulsi Chakraborty. I have used Aloknanda Roy who happened to work with Chabbi Babu in Kanchenjunga[9]. I used the living actors. I did not interview Soumitra Chatterjee – I know his feelings on Ray. So, I did not interview him separately. But there is a lot in the book about how Soumitra da perceived Ray or his equation with Ray.

The book worked well for me – I would have gone to a madhouse but for this book. You have to believe me. For it helped my sanity, writing this book during the Covid period[10]. The eighteen months—closer to two years. I could really concentrate on something as I am an outgoing person – not that I am a club person – but I would like to meet my friends, lead an active life. Suddenly, I felt imprisoned – it was like house imprisonment. So, I turned my attention to writing this book and whatever I could get out of YouTube, whole lot of other’s books, Ray’s interviews. One gentleman, Abhijit Dasgupta, who was the head of Kolkata Doordarshan, had conducted an interview. He gave me part of it which I found very intimate. You could do a book on Ray and Mrinal Sen dispassionately –Mrinal’s films would be of historical importance but not of relevance otherwise whereas Manikda’s films can be watched again and again because it touches your heart.

That is so true. Your book is structurally unusual with an introduction in the middle of two parts. Why did you follow such an unconventional format? Do you feel it helped your presentation in any way?

Yes. Because I was writing a different book. No one has written a biography in two parts. In a way it is not a biography, but it is trying to understand and appreciate Ray as a filmmaker. That’s what the book is.

I was in an advantageous position to write on Ray. Actually, Dhritiman Chatterjee could have done the same. I admire Dhriti for his thinking, but I guess there is an innate laziness. He did interview Manikda but I do not know where the tapes are.

I felt the way I did it was the right way. The book came naturally to me. For somethings, I went out of my way — like the titling.

To this date, no Indian director has made a film where the title is relevant to the film. The film follows from the title. The thought is not there. But it is there in the West. That is why you have people like Saul Bass. Ray wanted to do things himself – that might have been why he did the titling too. He would draw and present to the art director who would work further on it. I should have had a whole lot of drawings in this book, but it was not readily available.

I continue to feel I could embellish certain chapters, especially on music. Debojyoti Mishra, a film music director, has written a book in Bengali which actually traces from where Ray has borrowed what piece of Western Classical music. It is not unlike Tagore – there are analogies in the use of music between the two.

Ray spent a few years in Santiniketan when he was young, I think around 1940. Was he impacted by Tagore? Can you tell us about it? Did he meet Tagore or have any conversation with him as it was a year before Rabindranath passed on?

He did not actively seek out Rabi Thakur. He was a very shy person. There is no mention anywhere in his writings about seeking out Tagore, knowing very well Tagore held his father and grandfather in great esteem. His mom knew Tagore well. But he never sought him out. It is rather difficult to understand why he did not utilise the time speaking with Tagore. Maybe, Tagore was inaccessible. I could have asked him, but I never did. I do not know why I never asked.

Why would you borrow from Alfred Hitchcock to name probably one of the last of the Bengal renaissance men? Can you please elaborate?

I thought that the title was absolutely apt. As a director he knew more than any director did. It described him to perfection. He would draw, give music and work with his basic idea with the rest of the team.

What would you say is Ray’s most major contribution to the world?

The brilliance of Ray’s portrayal of the village was outstanding. You watch the film and think you cannot improve on it. And Ray knew it and has said it.

Does Ray continue to impact current trends in cinema?

Ray was a classicist. The film making style has moved away from that. He would not move the camera unless it became imperative to his film. But now, cameras are handheld, and they have fast shooting. Film making has transformed with the emergence of the web series. Shooting has become so much easier and quick, though they work very hard. There is something more raw about web series. The feature film is more stately, more crafted. Films have enough time. You cannot get a good film if the actors are not brilliant. You cannot shoot a good film in ten or twelve days as they do for web series. That is not physically possible. In the West, they take eighty to ninety days to shoot a film.

Ray wrote many novels on Feluda and Professor Sonkhu. Yet made few films on them. He made films of others’ books rather than his own. Can you tell us why?

Maybe, the writing part started late in his life. It was propelled by his need to feed Sandesh[11] and he had to supply stories to Desh[12] — one per year, for the puja [13]special. His writing came as an offshoot – it was an accident. But the preparation was there – if you read his scripts or lyrics, they are fantastic. The scripts he wrote were brilliant. There is much to admire and respect about him. He was a writer too.

You are known to be a writer too. Are your books impacted by your association with Ray?

What I learnt from him was how to write dialogues. The publisher of my Bengali books, Tridib Chatterjee, said he found my dialogues “smart”. Ray’s writing was very tight. I tighten my descriptions. I do not expect the readers to read a book like Tom Jones[14].

Can you tell us about your other books? Coke (2011) interestingly, is available in both Bengali and English. So, which came first — the Bengali book or the English? Are they both your handiwork? Tell us a bit about your novels?

I wrote it in Bengali first and then wrote it in English later. Actually, it was not a direct translation. I write in both the languages. Another one which is in English is Murder in the Monastery. The second edition is being brought out by Rupa, should be available on Amazon soon hopefully. Post-Covid, people have gone into hibernation. So, many have complained they cannot get it.

I have two books in English, Coke and Murder in the Monastery. The others are in Bengali.

Which genre is preferable to you — murder, mystery thrillers or non-fiction like this one?

I get my high writing fiction, especially crime.

Are you giving us any new books in the near future?

Yes, a collection of short stories in Bengali, probably after the pujas. I have created a character called Avinash Roy. He is learned and intelligent but not overtly brilliant like Sherlock Holmes. My favourite character [fictional] among detectives is that of Inspector Morse – I have seen the TV series but not read the books. He was very human. Absolutely brilliant. But coming back to my current book, it is also facing delays, but I am hoping it will be out this October.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering our questions

[1] Translates to ‘bound by limits’

[2] 1980 film by Ray, translates from Bengali as ‘In Hirak Raja’s Kingdom’

[3]1977 film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘The Chess Players’

[4] Translates from Bengali to ‘Oh dear look around’

[5] 1981 television film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘Deliverance’

[6] A film by Rituporno Ghosh, translates as ‘Diamond Ring’

[7] Satyajit Ray – he was often referred to as such by his friends

[8] Marie Seton: Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, 2003

[9] Ray film released in 1962

[10] Lockdown due to the Pandemic

[11] A magazine started by Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray in 1913

[12] A Bengali magazine that was started in 1933

[13] Durga Puja, the main festival of Bengalis, where the Goddess is said to return to her parent’s home for five days

[14] The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) by Henry Fielding


(This review and telephonic interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)





The Nefertiti Diamond

By K.N. Ganguly                                        

I live in a small flat in London. I teach in a school here, the students of which are mostly of Asiatic and Caribbean origin. Every morning I leave my flat after breakfast, which I make myself. I dine out and return to my flat around ten every night. I have very few friends but I know quite a few Indians who come to London regularly on business or on holiday.

It was a Sunday morning. I was still lolling in bed, soaking in a mixture of laziness and fresh air, when my telephone rang.

I picked up the receiver sleepily and said, “Hello?”

“Monty, this is Jhun Jhun,” came the reply. “I want to meet you just now.”

I became alert at once. “Jhun Jhun, what is it about?”

“It’s something serious, really serious. I am in deep trouble. I’ll tell you everything when I meet you.”

“Come along, then,” I said. “I’ll be waiting for you.” Jhun Jhun’s real name was Rajesh Jhunjhunwala. He was a diamond merchant. We knew each other from our school days, and we were good friends. He made it a point to look me up when he came to London. Occasionally, we spent weekends together on the seafront. Jhun Jhun owned a small bungalow outside London.

I had just got dressed when a cab stopped outside my flat. Jhun Jhun paid the cabbie, then hurried in, but paused a moment outside the door. As soon as he entered the flat, he locked the door, then peered through the roadside window. His podgy face certainly looked disturbed. I made him sit on a sofa. Then I gave him a cup of tea and asked him to tell me his story.

“Well, it’s a long story. As you know, I’m in the diamond business. It’s a small firm really, and I thought I could do better if I tied up with some other diamond merchants. So, about six months ago, I posted a notice on my website seeking business contacts with other diamond firms. There was hardly any response, but that was only to be expected. The diamond trade is controlled by cartels which fiercely guard themselves against poaching by outsiders. And then, I got a pleasant surprise. Someone who introduced himself as Nobles contacted me. He promised to give me tips about family jewelry held as heirlooms by old and noble families, now impoverished and eager to dispose them off secretly. He also expected similar gestures from me, which I promised to do.

“I didn’t hear from Nobles again till last week. He said he would send me a diamond for valuation. But there was no real hurry. I could keep the diamond with me, a la ‘The Purloined Letter’ by Edgar Allan Poe. He would collect it from me, and of course, there would be a consideration for my services. I had read the story of  ‘The Purloined Letter’ in school. I understood that Nobles wanted me to keep the diamond in an easily accessible place rather than in a safe, so as to hoodwink criminals if they got wind of it.

“That very night around 3 a.m., my doorbell rang. As I opened the door — you know, I stay alone in my house — I saw a man with a moustache wearing a hat and dark glasses. He drew out a small packet from the inside pocket of his coat, gave it to me and vanished. All this happened so fast that I hardly noticed the face of the man or his general appearance.

“Anyway, I locked the door and went to my bedroom. When I opened the packet, I was simply dazzled. I had never seen a diamond of this size. It sparkled from all angles. My immediate assessment of the value of the diamond was between one and one-and-a-half million pounds. However, I left the diamond in a tin box containing buttons, skeins of thread and needles.  Surely no one would look for a priceless diamond in a tin box left on the dressing table. Every day I checked the tin box to assure myself that the diamond was still there. But last night, to my horror, I found the diamond missing.

“My first thought was to call the police, but I immediately checked myself. I didn’t know the antecedents of Nobles. Besides, how could I be sure that it was not a stolen diamond? On the other hand, Nobles was bound to hold me responsible for the loss of the diamond. He might even suspect that I had caused the loss intentionally with the help of my associates.

“So here I am, Monty. I am not even able to think anymore. I have many acquaintances in London, some in high places. But you are the only one to whom I could confide a matter like this.”

I understood the seriousness of the problem but managed to stay calm. Suddenly I remembered my schooldays’ hero. “Eureka!” I shouted. “Come on, let’s go to Sherlock Holmes!”

“Sherlock Holmes? Are you mad, Monty? Holmes will have been dead many years now!”

“How do you know? Vitamins and medicines can rejuvenate and prolong life. Well, he may not be active now, but it is the mind that matters. Let’s find out from the telephone directory.”

I looked up the Telephone Directory and was happy to find in it, Holmes, Sherlock, 21B Baker Street.

“Come, we’ll catch him now”, I said and simply dragged my friend out of the house.

When we arrived at Holmes’ address, we found it was a very old, rather shabby building. We pressed the bell at the entrance door and within a few minutes, the door was opened by an old and wizened woman wearing an apron and a very pleasant smile. “Good morning, gentlemen. Do you want to see Mr. Holmes on some very urgent business? Well, please come in.”

We were ushered into a large sitting room. The floor was covered with an old, worn-out carpet. There were a couple of sofas, several easy chairs and a rocking chair. At one side of the room, there was a marble-topped table with a pipe, an umbrella and a violin on it. There was a grand piano at one end of the room and photographs of Sherlock Holmes covered practically all the walls. I was taken aback. Was it a Sherlock Holmes Memorial and was the old woman merely trying to tease us? Just then, two middle-aged gentlemen entered the room—one, tall and gaunt with clean features, the other a bit swarthy and portly. The tall gentleman said, “I am Sherlock Holmes, and this is Dr. Watson. Those are my grandfather’s memorabilia that you were looking at. Dr. Watson is also the grandson of my grandfather’s friend.” At this stage, Dr. Watson came forward and shook my hand. “I am Anil Watson,”he said.

“Anil or O’niell?” I asked. “Anil is an Indian name.”

“Yes, I am part Indian,” he replied. “You see, my father, also a doctor, married a fellow-student who happened to be an Indian. My mother named me Anil.”

We introduced ourselves. “I am Montu Gangaur, Monty Gang for short. This is Rajesh Jhunjhunwala, better known as Jhun Jhun.”

“Fine. Well, gentlemen, I know you have come to see me on a specific problem of yours. We will get down to business shortly, but before that, I would like to indulge in a game, as was my grandfather’s practice. You may call it a guessing game, but it helps sharpening the intellect. Now, Watson, please take a quick look at Mr. Monty Gang’s face and tell me what impression you get.”

“Well, it’s a round face, evidently his eyes are weak, his thick glasses give that away. He is bald as a pumpkin, it’s likely that baldness runs in his family. Also, he frowns from time to time. That implies impatience. Besides, he likes to hear his own voice more than that of others’. Well, that’s about all.  I hope you haven’t taken any offense, Mr. Gang?”

“Of course not,” I said.

“Excellent, Watson,” said Holmes. “That was a very good exposition. But didn’t you notice that the colour of the skin above his brow is slightly lighter than that of the rest of his face? Then, watch his eyes. Did you notice that when Mr. Gang was looking at the marble-topped table to his left, his head had turned completely to the left. Had his left eye been functioning, he wouldn’t have done that. But his left eye is not completely sightless. Watch him closely, Watson. Well, Mr. Gang, what did you think of my deductions?”

I was startled. “You were simply marvelous, Mr. Holmes. Yes, I was involved in an air-crash, which left burns on my scalp and my left eye is severely damaged but not sightless.”

Holmes now looked at Jhun Jhun, who was sitting quietly, puffing away at his cigar. “Now, Mr. Jhun Jhun, you’re a diamond merchant, aren’t you? And you have close connections with South Africa — Johannesburg, to be precise. Would I be correct in saying that the cigar you are smoking is a gift from your South African principals?”

Jhun Jhun was visibly surprised. “Well, Mr. Holmes, how did you know that I am a diamond merchant, or that this cigar was a gift to me from the diamond merchants of Johannesburg?”

“Quite elementary, Mr. Jhun Jhun. If you smell your cigar smoke, you will find there is a very slight rose scent in it. This unique variety of tobacco was produced by a Spanish planter in Cuba about two hundred years ago by crossbreeding tobacco and rose plants. His African slave killed him in a fit of temper, destroyed his plantation and ran away with a few specimens. Ultimately, he found shelter in Johannesburg and sold the secret plants to a diamond merchant. From then on, this variety of tobacco has been grown by that diamond family and used exclusively for business promotion.”

Jhun Jhun did not know what to say. His first reaction was that Holmes must have learnt of it from some of his friends. Then he realized that was absurd, as no friend of his, not even I, knew about the origin of that cigar. “Well, Mr. Holmes,” he mumbled, “you are a genius.” Holmes puffed his pipe and looked at Watson. Then he smiled and said, “Well, now let us get down to business.” Jhun Jhun repeated what he had said to me. Holmes asked him, “On which day did you get the diamond?”

“Wednesday night or Thursday morning, whatever you choose to say.”

“And it disappeared yesterday, that is on Saturday.” He closed his eyes and puffed away for some time, then dialed on his telephone.

“Inspector Wilson?” Holmes said. “This is Sherlock Holmes. I read in the papers about the theft of Baroness Rothschild’s Nefertiti diamond. I also know that the French diamond thief Charles Dupin came to London a few days ago. Have you thought about the obvious link between the two events?”

The reply from the other side was quite audible. Wilson was saying, “Look here, Holmes, it seems you are as pompous as your so-called famous grandfather. Do you think we are so dim-witted we wouldn’t turn the heat on Dupin? In fact, my men have been tailing him constantly since the disappearance of the Nefertiti diamond. Let me tell you, Holmes, Dupin seems to be a reformed man. He said he had come here as a tourist. We found he basked in the sun in Hyde Park, fed the pigeons at Marble Arch, even watched the Change of Guards at Buckingham Palace. He is a well-read man and can be quite witty. Despite all this, we made a thorough search of his hotel room and even brought him to the Yard for a further personal search. Well Holmes, there was nothing—absolutely nothing—incriminating on him.”

“Look, Wilson, I have no time to argue with you. Right now, I have enough evidence that proves his complicity. He must be on his way to France, but you may yet be able to catch him if you make an all-out effort straightaway. I would also suggest that when you get him, do not leave anything — pen, wrist-watch or cigarette lighter — out of a minute scrutiny. In particular, a cigarette lighter would provide ample scope for hiding a diamond in a special compartment. Well, I leave you to your job now. Don’t forget to inform me when you have retrieved the diamond.” All of us were watching Holmes, who quietly put down the receiver and said, “Gentlemen, we are all very hungry. Let us walk down the Strand and find a good restaurant.”

It was lunchtime. Most of the restaurants were crowded, but we found a quiet corner in a small place. Holmes asked Watson to place the order for all of us. I noticed he was somewhat edgy. And then his cellphone rang. “Holmes? This is Wilson. Thanks for the tip. We were able to catch Dupin just when he was about to leave the hotel. Well, your guess was right. The diamond was concealed in his cigarette lighter. You know, Holmes, he had cupped the lighter and was pretending to light a cigarette. Looked very natural. But I remembered your warning and grabbed the lighter. Indeed, there was a compartment at the lower end of the lighter and inside it lay the diamond.”

After lunch, we exchanged pleasantries and returned to our respective places. Next morning, we again went to meet Holmes to find out whether there was any suspicion on Jhun Jhun. Holmes was very pleasant. He asked us to join him at breakfast and then said that Jhun Jhun was absolutely in the clear, as there was no evidence against him, nor had Dupin mentioned his name. Just then, the doorbell rang, and the old maid went to answer it. She came back shortly, accompanied by a liveried chauffeur. “Baroness Rothschild’s compliments, Sir,” said the man and handed Holmes a small packet. Holmes unwrapped it slowly, and inside was a velvet case containing an exquisite diamond ring for all of us to see.

“Well, well! Wilson is not a bad fellow after all! He must have mentioned my name to the Baroness, instead of taking the credit himself.”

Holmes was standing with the gift. It was clearly time for us to leave. We stood up. “Mr. Holmes, we are grateful to you for all the help and courtesies extended to us. Jhun Jhun is now a relieved man, and as his friend, I also share his relief. I have read so much about the exploits of your legendary grandfather, but I think the grandson’s brilliance is not a bit less.”

Holmes looked a bit embarrassed. “Your compliments flatter me, Mr. Gang. I see you are ready to leave now, but I have a feeling you would like to hear the whole story, as the snatches you have heard so far leave many gaps.” Holmes then led us to the sitting room. “Please sit down, gentlemen”, he said, and then sat down on the rocking chair. He took some time to take out his pipe, fill it carefully with tobacco and light it. “Well, gentlemen, here is the full story. But let me caution you beforehand. In the absence of hard facts, I had to depend equally on conjecture and logic. The whole truth will no doubt come out after the police have finally interrogated Charles Dupin, but I am sure it will not substantially alter my story. Here it is then.”

“As I told you before, the Rothschild clan is spread over several continents and countries. They started about two hundred years ago as bankers but over the last century, they moved into shipping, industry, mining, real estate, etc. and acquired immense wealth. It is said that the Nefertiti diamond also came into the family a little over a hundred years ago. The clan members — at least the majority of them — believe they owe their sharp rise to prosperity to this diamond and therefore look upon it with reverence. Traditionally, Baron Rothschild is regarded as the head of the clan, and therefore is the custodian of the diamond, which is kept in a special vault in Lloyd’s Bank. However, the clan holds an annual banquet in Baron Rothschild’s mansion, which is attended by representatives of all its branches. Evidently, a banquet was held last Saturday. It is customary for the Nefertiti Diamond to be kept in the Rothschild mansion hall for two days, prior to the banquet for viewing by the clan members. The diamond should therefore have been on view from Thursday last week and brought to the mansion from the bank on the previous day, that is, Wednesday. As per Mr. Jhun Jhun’s statement, it was handed to him at around 3 a.m. on Thursday morning. Assuming the diamond was taken out of the bank at about 4 p.m. on Wednesday, the theft should have occurred within the next ten hours or so. But who could have stolen it? Obviously, Dupin could not have had access to the mansion, or known precisely where it was kept. There would also be family members and domestic staff all over the place and a stranger would be easily spotted. No, I don’t think it was Dupin, it must have been an inside job. But the person was Dupin’s accomplice, for he took the diamond to Jhun Jhun’s place as per Dupin’s plan. The insider could be a family member or a domestic help.

“Baron Rothschild’s second son is known to have a dubious reputation. He seems always to be involved in one scandal or the other and his name appears on the gossip columns of the newspapers more than once a month. However, I can’t imagine him as an accomplice of Dupin, because the risk would be too high for him, and also, one or two credit him with some loyalty to the family.

“Then come the domestic staff. Since the diamond would be removed to the hall the next morning, I would presume the Baron would keep it in his personal suite on Wednesday. Normally, only senior staff members like the valet or the senior maid would have access to the Baron’s suite, and I wouldn’t expect any of them to be foolish enough to indulge in such a job and risk their careers and reputation. It is more likely that Dupin’s accomplice joined the staff as a junior member — there would always be a need for an extra man or a substitute, for instance, when the valet wants a day off for temporary relief or they need a replacement. I’m sure Dupin would have found a man, pleasant-looking and well-behaved, with a few forged references. A place in the mansion would not be difficult to find.” Sherlock Holmes stopped for a while to re-light his pipe. I wanted to know a little more about the diamond ritual. “Did you ever attend any of these banquets, Mr. Holmes?” I asked him.

“I’m afraid not, but my grandfather did. And there’s a lovely bit recorded by him about this ritual. Wait, I’ll read it out to you,” Holmes said, and went to one of the bookshelves lining the wall. He pulled out a leather-bound volume and thumbed through the leaves. Then he found the right page and returned to us with the book in his hand. “Now, listen to this –

‘Sherlock was sitting quietly in his rocking chair smoking his pipe, seemingly lost in thought when Watson walked in. “Good morning, Holmes,” he said. “You seem to be in a pensive frame of mind. Did anything go wrong at yesterday’s banquet? Or perhaps the food didn’t agree with you!”

 ‘“Oh, no, no! The arrangements were excellent, the party was exhilarating, and the food was indeed very good. It was really the spectacle of the Nefertiti diamond ritual that moved me. As you know, the annual banquet at the Rothschild mansion is meant for the members of the Rothschild clan. But many distinguished people like writers and artists, eminent in their own field, are invited. I had the good fortune to attend the banquet a few years ago. Before the start of the banquet, the guests were taken to a large hall, at one end of which there was a glass case on a heavy rosewood table fixed to the floor. The glass case had a wooden frame which was screwed to the table. Inside the case lay the famous Nefertiti diamond on a velvet cushion.

‘“When I looked at the diamond, my whole being was filled with awe. It was a brilliant diamond sparkling from all angles. It was something like a brilliant star. Well, the sun is also a star, but when you look at the sun, it not only dazzles you, but also burns your eyes, so to say. But imagine a star shining with as much luster as the sun, but its sparkling rays as soothing as the spouting waters of a fountain. Then, I watched a strange spectacle: a row of clan members passing by the glass case mutely and reverently as if it were some holy object. I don’t know Watson, whether you will believe it. Suddenly it seemed to me that I was standing in front of the glass coffin of the magnificent Queen Nefertiti in ancient Egypt and rows of noblemen were passing by it in deep veneration. You know, Watson, it left in me a feeling of awe. Somehow, I’ve not been able to overcome it. You might say, I’m still in a trance,” he laughed.’

“I hope you will now be able to understand the value of this diamond to the Rothschilds, and the deep shock they must have gone through after its disappearance.”

I said, “Mr. Holmes, I have a complete set of Sherlock Holmes stories which I read and re-read in my childhood and also when I grew up. Strangely, I don’t recall having come across the passage you read out to us just now. I always thought the original Sherlock Holmes was a pragmatist, and that his driving force was logic and reason. But now I know there was also a romantic trait in him. But now, let’s go back to the rest of the diamond case. One thing that intrigues me is how you guessed that Dupin would have kept the diamond concealed in his cigarette lighter.’

“Oh, that’s quite a simple guess, isn’t it! You see, practically everybody carries a pen and a watch. A smoker also carries a cigarette case and a lighter. Normally these are used openly, and one wouldn’t suspect them to be hiding places. A cigarette case is in any case quite inappropriate, because it doesn’t have any place to hide anything. A watch or a pen would be quite inconvenient for hiding a diamond. So, I thought the lighter would be the most likely object. It was only an inference after all, but it clicked. Any more questions, gentlemen?”

I looked at Jhun Jhun. He nodded his head as if to signify he had none. I said to Holmes, “I think our curiosity has been satisfied. No, we have nothing further to ask you. You have given us a lot of your time and your patience is limitless.”

Holmes stood up. “It has been my pleasure,” he said and shook our hands warmly.

When we came out of the house, Jhun Jhun said, “The old man Sherlock Holmes was an amazing man, wasn’t he? I wish we had someone like him in our diamond business. There is such a lot of cheating and forgery in the business and there is none to protect an honest man!”


Mr. K.N. Ganguly was born in 1924, did his schooling in many of the smaller towns of undivided Bengal, and then Calcutta. He graduated with Honours in History, from Presidency College. He then joined Law college but did not attain the degree as he joined the Calcutta Port Commissioners (today’s Kolkata Port Trust) in 1945. He retired from the Port in 1982, after a long career which witnessed many changes in his city and country. An avid reader, his interests covered many genres, ranging from fiction and crime fiction to biographies, travelogues and political essays. He is not a published writer but has always been fond of writing.