"Dada, ekta Lalbazar hobe? (Dada, can I get a copy of Lalbazar?)" asked a keen book lover, only to be disappointed and return empty-handed after Murder in the City (Goyendapith Lalbazar in Bengali) was sold out for the nth time at the International Kolkata Book Fair this year, right after its release. But the noteworthy aspect of this book is not just its evident popularity; it is the fact that it is written by Supratim Sarkar, additional commissioner of Police, Kolkata.
Supratim Sarkar is an IPS officer of the 1997 batch who made his literary debut with this book that features 12 spine-chilling crimes that took place in Kolkata's past. They are accounts of real incidents turned into thrillers. A former journalist, Sarkar's love for this style of writing remains unshaken, even though he stopped being part of the media 20 years ago. Apart from being a bestseller at the Kolkata Book Fair, it also found a place in Amazon's list of thrillers at rank 35.
"When my book is featured alongside the works of Agatha Christie, Sidney Sheldon, and Dan Brown, how am I supposed to feel? I was blown away. I never imagined that a cop could get mobbed for autographs! I never expected such a reaction on the part of fans, and my busy schedule has hardly given me the time to absorb what is happening," says Sarkar, who is known by the media as a man who keeps a low profile, always. He says that he has had an inclination towards reading and writing since childhood. "I quit journalism after cracking the UPSC exam, and would feel a vacuum inside me. I felt the need to write. You'll still find me writing one or two pieces on sport for Bengali dailies," he says.
How difficult was it to transition from being a police officer to becoming an author? "Each case took me a week's time to write and transform into a crime thriller. Each time a sensitive issue cropped up in the city, I would be extra cautious to deal with things properly. I did not want anyone to say I neglected my work, so I worked for an extra hour to strike a balance between my duty and passion. I owe it all to my boss Rajiv Kumar, who constantly encouraged me," says Sarkar.
In fact, his job gives him an edge over other crime writers. "I am fortunate in that I have access to certain things that only an insider can have. And I don’t mean this only in terms of objects, such as documents, materials or evidence. As an investigation progresses, the team spends hours and hours simply talking about the case, and the outcome of those conversations cannot always be documented. I get to see the twists and turns so closely that it actually reflects when I am penning down articles. Not every author gets to see things this closely before he writes down a novel!" While other writers rely heavily on research, Sarkar's preparation begins with actually being involved in solving crime!
He does not perceive the process of writing thrillers based on real-life incidents as being a grey area in terms of ethics. "Real life can often be far more thrilling than anything we can imagine, and the incidents I write about are so riveting that all I need to do is report them faithfully. The occasional inputs in terms of the speech of a certain character, for instance, come from my experience of real life, too. Certain reactions, certain speech pattterns, are universal," he explains.
Goyendapith Lalbazar/Murder in the City, which brought Sarkar into the spotlight, started out as a weekly blog titled Rohoshyo Robibar, which was posted by him every Sunday on Facebook. His writing style earned the Kolkata Police's page two thousand followers every time a story was published. The top cop sitting at the Lalbazar headquarters says, "When we launched Rohoshyo Robibar, we were apprehensive. In the language of Bengal's media, we were not sure 'loke khabe ki khabe na' (will people accept it or not?). Rohoshyo Robibar is akin to mutton biryani, served once a week. We wondered whether people would accept us on the remaining six days. But their response left us flattered," he said.
This is not the first time Sarkar's storytelling abilities attained success on social media. He served in the police for 21 years, but his intellect and very presence were first recognised by his colleagues through the work he did for the Kolkata Police's Facebook page. He closely overlooks the content and is responsible for filtering and posting on both Facebook and Twitter. This has given him the opportunity to put his wit and sharp words to use, whether it is his fitting reply to The Telegraph's report on traffic mayhem, which he calls 'venomous', or the regular posts applauding cops across the city for the work they have been doing lately. People seem to be enjoying these posts and reactions. In less than a year, Kolkata Police's Facebook page amassed 1.5 lakh followers organically.
"We thought that the Kolkata Police had been a punching bag for the media for quite some time. It was now our time to showcase our work to the citizens and ask them to use their conscience to judge us. The media should not conduct trials on their behalf, because we have lost cases without even having a chance to defend ourselves most times. The Kolkata Police adopted social media because we wanted the people to give their verdict," says Sarkar.
He and and his team are optimistic about their new social media stint thus far, especially when it comes to battling 'police bashing'. But critics have pointed that the Kolkata Police may be using Facebook and Twitter as an effective damage-control strategy during times of disaster and failure. Sarkar says that the decision to use social media was because a medium to communicate with people was needed, especially after incidents when critics would freely and frequently pass judgment. "Our efforts were easily overlooked. We did not want to accept what was happening and found a way out. We do accept out shortcomings. Our response rate on Facebook is very high. We receive many abusive messages, but we still reply, address people and their grievances. Our rating has reached 4.6. We never omit comments criticising us," he says.
Apart from communicating with people, these social media initiatives have also had a positive effect on the officers within the force. Fame on social media is like a reward for doing better than others. Daily updates about achievements are ensuring that the ground staff is more competent. Sarkar observed that the junior task force is getting competitive and putting more effort into their daily work.
Their success is worth rejoining about, but one can sense that the road ahead is long and challenging, when compared to their Mumbai or Delhi counterparts. "We've started last and played to our strengths. A few days ago, a national newspaper wrote about the police forces of these three cities and compared their social media presence. It correctly mentioned that the Mumbai Police uses more memes and puts out tongue-in-cheek tweets, while the Kolkata Police is focusing on its people's intellectual inclination. And that is where we won: we did what we were good at," Sarkar says.
Juggling between the roles of a police officer and author is not easy, but the support of his readers eases the process. "Once, we received a message on Facebook from an elderly couple living in California. The message read, 'When you post the story at 10 am, we are about to go to bed. Can you please post it an hour before, so that we can read and then go to sleep?' This message was moving. We began posting stories an hour earlier. A famous oncologist from the city talked about how he reads the stories before entering the operation theatre every Sunday at 10. It makes him stress-free. Without such loyal readers, neither Rohoshyo Robibar nor Murder in the City would have been possible," says Sarkar.
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Updated Date: May 02, 2018 14:47:40 IST