An exceptional but now-forgotten murder case from 1930s Calcutta

Published : Feb 14, 2024 11:22 IST - 4 MINS READ

Calcutta old-timers still remember the case with awe because the method of murder was startling even by today’s standards.

Calcutta old-timers still remember the case with awe because the method of murder was startling even by today’s standards. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Dan Morrison’s The Poisoner of Bengal, which reconstructs the Pakur murder case, is timely and engaging.

Although the history of murder is as old as that of humanity, it can be said that the death-obsessed Victorian Age finetuned it into an art form not only by inventing ingenious methods to kill but also by peering deeply into the psyche of the killer in order to understand their motivations. The result can be seen most remarkably in the pioneering works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, provided such fascinating insights into the means and workings of the criminal mind that his casebooks probably came in handy for aspiring murderers. And not just in England but also in its colonies, especially India.

The Poisoner of Bengal: The 1930s Murder That Shocked the World
By Dan Morrison
Pages: 242
Price: Rs.499

One of the likely fans of Conan Doyle was Benoyendra Chandra Pandey, raja of Pakur, a sprawling estate in the erstwhile Bengal presidency that is now a part of Jharkhand. Benoyendra would probably have been forgotten as one of the many flamboyant zamindars from the Raj era who fell on hard times with the coming of Independence had he not entered the rogues’ hall of flame by concocting a murder most ingenious—of his younger half-brother, Amarendra Pandey, with the aim to grab Amarendra’s share of the property. The Pakur murder case, as the notorious trial came to be called, made headlines worldwide when it came to light in 1934.

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Calcutta old-timers still remember the case with awe because the method was startling even by today’s standards—Benoy allegedly arranged a henchman to prick Amarendra with the plague bacteria in the middle of a crowded railway station. Amar died about seven days later—his death certificate mentioned septic pneumonia as the cause of death. Nobody could have cried foul (the dying Amarendra did though, being aware of his half-brother’s deep animosity towards him) had not a posthumous blood culture report revealed the presence of the plague bacteria in Amar’s body. In December 1933, when Amarendra died, no plague epidemic was raging in Calcutta or India.

Rich in detail

Dan Morrison has combed the archives to piece together this sensational murder case, once described as “one of the first cases of individual bioterrorism in modern world history”. The task must have been difficult, given our casual attitude towards record-keeping—a senior journalist friend, who had been on the same trail a few years ago, had given up ultimately in frustration. Morrison’s book is exciting because this story of the (almost) perfectly crafted murder was waiting to be told in detail.

Cover of The Poisoner of Bengal.

Cover of The Poisoner of Bengal.

It is much more than a murder mystery—it shows, among other things, how the moneyed few of colonial India lived at a time when common people were dying of starvation; the way cinema, even in its nascent stage, ruled the head and heart of viewers (Benoyendra, an aspiring film producer, was an avid movie-goer and had the cultivated charisma of an anti-hero); the glory days of Calcutta, quite difficult to imagine today, when it shone almost as much as London and could boast of a police force second only to Scotland Yard in competence. The Poisoner of Bengal is timely too—most from the younger generations would probably be clueless about the Pakur case but they would know the fear associated with pandemic causing diseases.

Benoyendra’s life did not end with the trial: he was judged guilty, served his time in prison (Jawaharlal Nehru, accused of sedition, was in solitary confinement in Alipore jail in the same period when Benoy was there, but they never met), and walked out free on August 28, 1947. Incredible as it seems, he bested his own act in his post-imprisonment days—but one must read the book to find out how.

Legal minutiae drags narrative down

While The Poisoner of Bengal is quite engaging, the presentation of the case in all its legal minutiae tends to drag down the narrative. I wish Morrison had a chapter profiling Benoyendra instead. There is a dark hint that Benoyendra poisoned not only Amarendra but also their sister and father. What drove him? Merely the lust for wealth? Or was he a psychopath perfecting his game? More biographical details, or interviews with his surviving descendants, might have fleshed him out better. To begin with, what did he look like? In Morrison’s account, Benoyendra’s face remains a blank, giving a vagueness to this otherwise detailed case.

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The other world-renowned, and better known, case from pre-Independence Bengal is that of the zamindar of Bhawal: it has been written about repeatedly, most recently by Aruna Chakravarti in her book, The Mendicant Prince (2022). Morrison never mentions the case, which, incidentally, was taken up by the courts in the same month and year in which Amarendra was fatally jabbed—November 1933. Given the effort Morrison makes to locate Benoy in his time and place, the elision of the Bhawal raja chronicle, which was as, if not more, dramatic, is a bit baffling.

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