In the 1989 annual issue of the Bengali periodical Desh, Prodosh Chandra Mitter, aka Feluda, aka ABCD (Asia’s Brightest Crime Detector), goes to London. He takes a pilgrimage to Baker Street, and standing in front of 221B, pays the following tribute: “Guru, we would not have been here without you.” Almost two decades later, the compliment is returned. London comes calling on the man from Rajni Sen Road. BBC is all set to air a series of radio plays with Rahul Bose in the lead and Anupam Kher as sidekick Lalmohan Ganguly, purveyor of pulp fiction under the nom de plume, Jatayu.
Feluda first appeared in 1969 in a short story in Sandesh (the children’s magazine started by Satyajit Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore, in 1913 and revived by the Master in 1961) and instantly catapulted Ray to the top of the best-seller lists. He remains there even today, well over a decade after his death. In many ways, this is as much a commentary on the popularity of Feluda as on the poverty of Bengali crime fiction post-Ray.
It was not always like this. The earliest Bengali crime story dates back to the 1890s when a retired officer of Calcutta Police, Priyanath Mukhopadhyay, started his Darogar Daptar series. Another real-life police officer story, Bankaullah, followed soon after, with his exploits written up by Kaliprasanna Chattopadhyay. But it was not long before the figure of the private eye—who typically assists a bumbling constabulary—came to occupy centre stage.
The decades after World War II were the most fecund for Bengali crime fiction, with the reader utterly spoilt for choice: Kiriti Roy, Byomkesh Bakshi, Hukakashi, Bimol-Kumar, Joyonto-Manik and more. But all of these heroes, with the exception of the dhoti-kurta clad Byomkesh, more properly belonged to the genre of pulp fiction than to crime. It was Sharadindu Bandopadhyay who made Byomkesh throw away the rakish fedora and brier, and instead clothed him in the more down-to-earth canonicals of the Bengali bhadralok.
Feluda was pretty much in the Byomkesh mould, but with a higher cool quotient. Like his creator, he stood over six feet in his chappals, but it is doubtful whether Ray smoked as many Charminars. Feluda was into yoga and martial arts, had played cricket for Calcutta University, knew about a hundred indoor games and was able to write with both hands. All in all, quite a dude.
Yet, Ray resolutely refused to let any women into the charmed male circle of the Feluda stories. Not even a mother, aunt or elder relative, leave alone young women. Later, Ray would defend this by saying that he had to write for the young as well as the old and letting women in would have made his stories more ‘adult’. Strange words, coming from the man who made Charulata and Aranyer Dinratri (Days and Nights in the Forest).
So it was all boys—first his trusty sidekick and cousin Topshe, utterly lacking in any kind of sex appeal. Ray probably realized this and brought in the laugh-a-minute Jatayu from the third novel onwards. The first encounter between Jatayu and Feluda in Ray’s 1974 film, Sonar Kella (The Golden Fort), is one of the most unforgettable scenes in Bengali cinema, with Jatayu speaking in atrocious Hindi and brandishing his latest potboiler: “Mera sampratiktam upanyas, Durdharsh Dushman.”
Like failed SF writer Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut’s stories, Jatayu’s titles are in the finest tradition of pulp: A Vampire in Vancouver, Horror in Honduras, The Gluttony of Gorillas and so on. Invariably, they contain some botanical or zoological blooper, which Feluda exasperatedly corrects. From Sonar Kella onwards, the three comrades are inseparable, traversing the length and breadth of the country. One reason why these stories were so popular was that they tickled the travelling genes of the middle-class Bengali, taking our heroes to Lucknow, Gangtok, Rajasthan, Benaras, Puri, Darjeeling, Kashmir—all favourite destinations of the budget traveller.
Ray’s marvellous eye for detail is evident in almost every page of his books, whether describing the twists and turns of the Bhulbhulaiya in Lucknow or the architecture of the ghats of Benaras. But my favourite remains the one novel he set in Kolkata—Gorosthane Sabdhan (Peril at the Cemetery)—most of whose action takes place in and around the cemetery in Park Street, Kolkata.
After Hatyapuri (The House of Death), the stories began to show signs of repetition and fatigue. This, however, had no impact whatsoever on Feluda’s popularity. By now, his fame had spread outside India as well, and we find him tangling with art thieves in Hong Kong in Tintorettor Jishu (The Jesus of Tintoretto), his first foray outside the subcontinent (this leads Jatayu to confer upon him the title ABCD).
In Joto Kando Kathmandute, he fetches up against old enemy Maganlal Meghraj, the arch-villain from Benaras. Of all of Feluda’s adversaries, he is the only one who is convincing as a villain; the rest are curiously bland and break down all too easily in the face of Feluda’s dramatic denunciations.
The waning of Ray’s prowess as a crime writer also coincided with the cessation of Soumitro Chatterjee playing Feluda on screen. Of all the actors who have portrayed the sleuth, Soumitro was by far the most convincing, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the pictures of Feluda Ray drew even before making the films. I have no doubt that Feluda would not have been so popular had there not been a real-life Feluda for the imagination to refer to; for years, Soumitro filled this role to perfection before age and wrinkles took their toll.
Posterity will be kind to the Feluda stories. Not because of the plots, which were competent at best, or the detection which was workman-like rather than inspired. The stories will survive because they captured a time and a place perfectly, and created an illusion of changelessness. Feluda sleuthed at a time when the Cold War was coming to an end and an era of technological revolution about to begin. Yet, he appears untouched by these changes, utterly comfortable in the looseness of his baggy kurta-pyjama. Perhaps it is this sense of comfort that we crave—and find—in the Feluda stories.
Feluda premieres today with Sonar Kella (The Golden Fort) at 8pm on BBC Radio.
Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Email your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org