The Great Bengali Detectives: Part 4

(For those interested in Felu-da, get hold of the February 2014 edition of Ekhon Satyajit, which is a Felu-da special. Some of the references in the article below are from that edition.) 

For 25 years, in spite of his demanding schedule as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Satyajit Ray penned 35 novels and short stories, depicting the adventures of Felu-da or Pradosh C. Mitter. Felu-da quickly became so popular that from 1970 onwards, Ray had to write one Felu-da novel every year for the special Durga Puja (autumn) issue of one of the leading Bengali literary magazines. Some suspect that during his sunset years, Ray’s fiction brought in more money than his films. That can be debated, but the fact remains that Felu-da became an icon and a steady best-seller. Ray created the sleuth for readers of the children’s magazine that his family ran, so understandably, Felu-da carried on Jayanta’s legacy of being kid-friendly and avoiding the fair sex like plague. This continued even when Ray took him out of the realm of children’s literature and put him into adult domain.

Felu-da’s almost-clinical attitude along with Ray’s descriptive style of writing and filmmaker’s eye for detail made Felu Mitter perhaps the most true-to-life detective of Bengali fiction. Only Byomkesh comes anywhere close to Felu-da’s tactility.  Ray created a very precise line drawing of the detective, leaving his readers with very few blanks to fill.  Even the greatest fans of Jayanta, Kiriti Ray or Parashar Barma would be at a loss to provide specifics about the detectives (not their cases). But with Feluda, it’s no trouble at all.

NAME: Pradosh Chandra Mitter.

ADDRESS: 7, Rajani Sen Road, Kolkata-700029.

HEIGHT: 6’ (Or thereabout)

FAMILY: Father used to teach mathematics and Sanskrit in a well-known school at Dhaka. (Incidentally, Byomkesh’s father was much like Felu’s.)  Both his parents died when he was a boy and Felu was brought up by his uncle.

PREFERRED DRESS CODE: At work—shirt and trousers, with a jacket in winter.  At home – kurta and pyjama with a shawl in winter.

FAVOURITE FOOD: Bengali home food. Fish fry and dalmut with tea.

WORKOUT: Yoga in the morning.

ADDICTION: Charminar cigarettes and meetha paan after meals.

FAVOURITE DETECTIVE: Sherlock Holmes

FEES: Rs.1000 as advance and another thousand after solving the mystery.

MISCELLANEOUS: Played cricket until the university level.  Proficient at about 100 indoor games and card tricks.  Ambidextrous.  A crack shot.  Extraordinary memory  and 20-20 eyesight.

Yet, despite all  these specifics, if we look carefully at Ray’s Felu-centric oeuvre, it is clear that Ray did not always apply his mind when writing these stories.  There are some baffling bits in Felu’s world and one of them is his relationship with Topse, the narrator of Felu’s adventures.  This is basically a problem that surfaces thanks to the intricacies of the Bengali language. In English, the omnibus word “cousin” covers almost every imaginable, familial relationship. But in Bengali every relationship is catalogued and labelled, so there is no chance of vagueness and confusion.  So, it becomes perplexing when we go through the following Topse-speak:

“My father’s elder brother – Feluda’s father – used to teach mathematics and Sanskrit at the Dhaka Collegiate School.”(Royal Bengal Rahasya)

“To tell you the truth, I am ready to spend my vacation with this cousin, the son of my father’s younger brother, even at Uluberia.” (Gangtok-e Gondogol)

“I must tell you, Felu-da is the son of my mother’s sister. (Badshahi Aangti)

So, dear reader, what kind of a cousin is Felu-da?  Felu-scholar Himanish Goswami suspects that Topse and Felu were only very distantly related, and Topse was only showing off.

Then there is the question of Topse’s age, which is even more baffling.  In their first adventure Feludar Goendagiri, published in 1965, Topse informs the reader that Felu-da is 27 and he is 13.  That seems perfectly acceptable, but in Baksho Rahasya, published in 1972, Topse informs the reader that he is fifteen and half.  What sort of mathematics is this?

There are other information googlies that the cousins deliver. Let us go back to their first novel Badshahi Aangti. They visited Banbihari Sarkar, who true to his name, owns a private zoo and handles wild animals. Felu-da looks at his pet dog and comments, “Labrador hound. A kin of the hound of Baskervilles.” For Felu-da, whose bible is the Sherlock Holmes omnibus, this is a surprising mistake because the hound of Baskervilles was a mixed breed of bloodhound and mastiff. In the same story, the duo also meet Topse’s father’s lawyer friend and the nameplate  at his gate says, ”D.K. Sanyal, M.A, BLB.”  A lawyer is either B.L or LL.B. There is no legal degree called BLB.

Such mistakes can be spotted in some of the later stories too and this Jatayu-esque sloppiness is something we do not expect from Feluda. The worst happens in Bhuswargo Bhayankar, when Felu-da asks, while enquiring about a judge, “Why did he retire? A judge has no retirement age.”  Like any other employee, a judge and even the Chief Justice of India, must remit their office after a particular age.

Yet those glitches did not diminish this detective’s appeal.  Felu-da remains one of the worthy successors of Sherlock Holmes in Bengali literature.

Unlike Holmes, who rarely travelled outside London to solve crimes, Felu-da is a globetrotter. Hercule Poirot was more outgoing, but he too left London only occasionally, like when he took a ride on the Orient Express.  Felu-da is a more dashing and enthusiastic traveller, a bit like James Bond (minus the bikini-clad beauties and the spy ring).  His assignments have taken him not only to villages and suburbs of West Bengal, but to all major Indian cities, tourist spots as well as sea-side resorts and hill stations.  He opened his innings and signed off around Shantiniketan, where the young Ray was groomed as an artist.  It was like completing a cycle.

But Felu-da’s wanderlust took him out of India as well. He visited Sikkim when it was a separate country, followed by Nepal, Hong Kong and United Kingdom, where he dutifully visited 221B, Baker Street as a pilgrim. Topse generally packs his accounts with so many details of the places visited that Felu once reprimanded him, saying crime detection stories should not read like tourist guidebooks.  This might be one of the few instances where Topse was right and Felu-da wrong, because it’s Topse’s writing that made Felu-da connect so quickly with the readers. I visited Shimla for the first time just after Baksho Rahasya had come out.  I had carried a copy of it with me and I still remember it was so helpful because of the authenticity of the details given in the book.

If we look for other striking features in Felu-da stories, the first thing that comes to mind was Ray’s decision to introduce some elements of comic relief into the grim crime fiction, a trend none of his predecessors encouraged barring the occasional antics of Sundarbabu in Jayanta’s adventures.  In Gangtok-e Gondogol, Ray had the character of Nishikanta Sarkar bringing in the laughs, but once Lalmohan Ganguly, alias Jatayu, entered Felu’s orbit in Sonar Kella, it was veni, vidi, vici. Over the next two decades, Jatayu’s comic touches would regale readers and make him one of Ray’s most beloved characters.

Another trait that Felu scholars have spotted is that the detective seems to be attracted to talented but peevish and eccentric old men who are often the lynchpins in the mysteries. Naresh Pakrashi (Baksho Rahasya), Marcus Godwin (Gorosthane Sabdhan), Mahesh Choudhury (Chhinnomastar Abhisaap), Ambika Ghosal (Jai Baba Felunath), Nihar Datta (Bosepukure Khunkharapi), Birupaksha Majumdar (Darjeeling Jomjomat) — the list of those golden oldies seems endless.  Perhaps Ray was channelling his longing for a father figure into these stories.  Ray lost his father when he was an infant and he grew up mostly in adult company, so perhaps this made him a keen observer of the older people that surrounded him in his childhood.  If you think about it, there are some memorable old men in Ray’s films too.

Curiously, most of these old men appoint ambitious and frustrated young men as secretaries.  When the crime occurs, the young secretaries are always the first suspects.  No point in compiling another long list, but it is intriguing to notice those mischief-mongering parasites of dubious loyalty since Ray never had a secretary in his entire life.  He would always pick up the phone and type his own scripts and letters.

Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee as Felu-da
Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee as Felu-da

As Ray is one of the few legendary filmmakers to write and make films based on his own stories, it makes sense to look at his Felu stories and movies he made of them. Many readers feel that Felu is so relatable because of his regular appearances on screen, both big and small. Feluda has been played by matinee idols like Saumitra Chatterjee, Shashi Kapoor and Sabyasachi Chakraborty.  (Incidentally, Kapoor as the Bengali detective was roundly rejected by the audience.) Ray made films of two Feluda movies and his son, Sandip has made five for the big screen (the sixth is in progress) and nine for television. As far as Ray junior is concerned, he is faithful to the originals, but the maestro himself never hesitated to make subtle and meaningful changes from his original stories.  Sandip Ray once commented, “Interestingly, my father’s Felu-da stores are mostly film-linked. Gangtok-e Gondogol followed the documentary on Sikkim, Sonar Kella was triggered by Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’s shooting in Rajasthan.  The memories of shooting Kanchenjungha led to Darjeeling Jomjomat.

Ray first tried his hand at mystery movies in 1967 with Chiriakhana, a Byomkesh thriller. The experiment left both him and his audience dissatisfied. Ray said he did not like the whodunit format because the long explanation by the detective slows down the climax. So, when he shot Sonar Kella a few years later, he told the audience the whole story including the identity of the criminals, while the detective had to find out the bad guys.  The audience loved this new style and Sonar Kella’s DVD is still a best seller. Ray’s little twist involved Mandar Bose, one of the villains. In the original story, he escaped Felu’s bullet because of Topse’s clumsiness, but in the film, this was conveniently shifted to Jatayu (probably because it matched with his bumbling personality).

The format changed again in Jai Baba Felunath. What was possible in the wild open desert-scape of Rajasthan, with the hunter and the hunted chasing each other, could not be achieved in the congested confines of Varanasi and its famous bylanes.  Again, Ray came up with subtle changes. In the book, the old potter was killed by Ambikababu’s young secretary, but in the film the crime was committed by the evil incarnate, Maganlal Meghraj, played by the inimitable Utpal Dutt.

What is evident from Ray’s Felu-oeuvre is how much he enjoyed the Bengali detective’s exploits. The thrill of solving crimes, of the process of detection and the matching wits with villains who were worthy adversaries – it is not surprising that Bengalis, with their pride of being intellectuals, find this genre so attractive.  No wonder so many notable writers have tried their hand in crime fiction with varying degrees of success. We may have discovered the detective thanks to popular British fiction, but in Bengal, they got a makeover. From the man who mingles with the unsavoury set, he became a genteel, aristocratic, crime-fighting weapon.

Unfortunately, after Felu-da, there has been a vacuum. In the golden era of detective fiction, a bunch of great Bengali detectives co-existed peacefully and showed their excellence.  After the last Felu-da story came out in 1996, four years after his creator’s death, we are still waiting for the coming of the next Bengali detective. In this era of internet and mobile phone, the patterns of crime have changed and so must the style of deduction.  The time is ripe for a new, great Bengali detective to be invented.

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5 thoughts on “The Great Bengali Detectives: Part 4

  1. Nice one. Me a fan of Phelu-da too.

    Interestingly, Ray once commented that while he was a world renowned film maker, but he earned his daily bread by writing children’s stories.

    By the way, when did Phelu-da become part of the adult domain?

    1. Not pandab goyenda…simply NO !! Famous five..secret seven lajja peye jabe…I liked kakababu at the beginning.. but samaresh majumdar’s arjun always appealed to me.Especially with major..amol shome..and bishtu basu..onek dupur kete geche arjun er sange.

  2. As a foreigner learning to read Bengali, Feluda has been a real treat ! Detective stories can be very boring, especially the noir ones, but the human details in Feluda are very engaging. I have also been struck by how many of the guilty parties have a background in acting. And the side characters are wonderfully varied. I find Feluda right up there with Maigret.
    Most of the English translations are too likely to revert to English detective cliches. They often leave out the odd little descriptions which are unique.
    You are rather exacting, however, in expecting Ray to rival Feluda in precision of details. Feluda is the detective, Ray is a writer! And just because one mystery was published two years or so after another, doesn’t mean that the time described in the book is precisely two years later.

    Thank you for a very enjoyable review.

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