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Troilokya Devi: The Femme Fatale of Calcutta

The second city of the Empire was ever growing, more and more people were moving into it for opportunities not only from overseas but from
crime in colonial Kolkata serial killer Troilokya Devi
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Nothing sums up the chance-directed chance-erected city of Calcutta better than this literary cliché: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. 

In the early nineteenth century, Calcutta was expanding as far as business and commerce were concerned. It was under the rule of a mercantile company, which was headquartered in London. The East India Company had taken control of most of the important trading posts and subsequent governance, and expectedly, anarchy ruled. Opportunities in making easy money prevailed, but accompanying it, came deadly pleasures and even deadlier crimes. 

The city had its share of the femme fatale and unlike the young and poor wannabe women jazz singers of Al Capone’s Chicago, Indian women were yet to enter the entertainment industry. Their only address was the brothels where the pretty became mistresses of wealthy babus and if they could dance or sing well, their fortunes at being entertainers in the tradition of the tawaif, greatly improved.  

The second most important city of the Empire was ever growing, more and more people were moving into it for opportunities not only from overseas but from the neighbouring villages too. When nothing worked, they resorted to petty crimes, pick pocketing, pimping and conning the gullible.

In this scenario stalked a lady serial killer during the mid eighteenth century. She was not born one but circumstances compelled her to become a killer, with a neat modus operandi, to which we will come to later. To dismiss her as a ruthless killer would not be revealing the whole picture. Her foray into crime reads like a thriller, and comparing her with Jack the Ripper of impoverished late nineteenth century London, is not quite fair either. 

However, she was not a sexual pervert. She was a sex worker herself like the victims of Jack the Ripper. This is not to imply that the crime committed by her was any less spine chilling or less heinous.  

Troilokyo Devi’s story was waiting to be fictionalised and Moitrayee Bhaduri, a student of history and writer, has fleshed out the character very well in her book Trinoyoni, the Slaughterer of Sonagachi, published by Rupa.  

Bhaduri’s book, sticks to the facts available with the first ever crime fiction of Bengal – the journal of the first Indian detective of the Police Department Priyanath Mukhopadhyay. The three-volume set – Darogar Daptar – now available again – looks into various crimes, both resolved and unresolved, during that period. 

Darogar Daptar Priyanath Mukhopadhyay
‘Darogar Daptar’ by Priyanath Mukhopadhyay

With the stories of murder, we get to know a part of the city that was the underbelly and conditions of women therein. Alongside, there are glimpses of a ruthless Hindu society that treated its women abominably, especially if they were poor or widows. The so-called high caste Brahmin women had it no better. Just to save face, their parents married them off to doddering old men of the same caste, who visited from time to time only to collect their dues (usually money, gold and supplies) from the fathers of the girls, and never consummated the marriage.

If widowed early, these young women had nowhere to go. The society and family treated them as outcasts and they often ended up as sex workers.  Similarly Trinoyoni as she is named in the novel was trafficked into Sonagachi, the red-light district of Calcutta. She found a lover who acted as her agent but realised that she could earn a handsome income if she projected a lavish lifestyle and managed to look the part. 

The women earned less cash and more in kind, gold especially, which was always sold off to meet any exigency, the banking system not trusted by them. They supported families too.  

Trinoyoni’s love for gold jewellery was her weakness. Whenever she was in need of money, which was often, she sold off her jewels reluctantly. She resorted to rob young men by conning them into marriage and was indicted of a huge jewellery heist as well. Earlier to this, she robbed young men who visited her and dumped them on the streets after spiking their drinks.  

But her profile as a serial killer came much later. Fallen in bad times, and alone with a foster son to support, she sought out prostitutes who had also fallen into hard times, but holding on to their jewels. She lured them into an open area near Phoolbagan by telling them a baba would bless them after a bath in the nearby pond. And once bathing after depositing their jewellery with her, she strangled them midstream. She murdered a bunch of women this way, before she was apprehended. 

Alongside, there are glimpses of a ruthless Hindu society that treated its women abominably, especially if they were poor or widows. The so-called high caste Brahmin women had it no better. Just to save face, their parents married them off to doddering old men of the same caste, who visited from time to time only to collect their dues (usually money, gold and supplies) from the fathers of the girls, and never consummated the marriage.

The law of the land, the judiciary and the police department were still in a flux. When a series of dead bodies identified as sex workers began to surface, the first detective in the Police Department under Sir Stuart Hogg, an Indian – Priyanath Mukhopadhyay – sat up and took notice.    

He and his men discovered a pattern in the killings and earlier crimes.  Trinoyoni had given the slip to the police earlier by frequenting changing houses and women were still not believed to commit such gruesome crimes. 

It is interesting to note that the rulers had one set of standards for them – innocent till proven guilty. Guilty till proven innocent applied to the natives. Women, however, irrespective of their colour were given the benefit of  doubt. References of all this can be found in the crime fiction of the Raj era by the best-selling author, the UK based, Abir Mukherjee (The Rising Man etc).  

Troilokyo Devi could not save herself and going by the journal’s records,   was finally hanged. 

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This story has been dramatised into radio plays and perhaps we shall see a celluloid version soon. But it happened even as reforms in Hindu practices were taking place. The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act 1856, passed on 16 July 1856, had legalised the remarriage of widows in all jurisdictions of India under East India Company rule.

But it was a while before people implemented it in their lives much like the Anti Dowry Bill. The Bengal Sati Regulation of 1829 in Bengal, passed by Lord Bentinck earlier than some other parts where it prevailed, perhaps saved Trilokya Tarini Debi from the fire. 

But not from the frying pan.  

Notes:

Tawaif- Urdu for prostitute 

Babu- Upper class Bengali gentleman known for an extravagant lifestyle

Bengal Sati Regulation 1829- A social reform act also known as Regulation XVII  by Governor-General Lord William Bentinck

A masters’ in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Manjira Majumdar has dabbled in journalism, teaching and gender activism. She shares her love for cinema, books, art and four-legged creatures with her family consisting of a husband and two daughters.

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