“The magazine is meant for children and adolescents……… I shall have to avoid sex and violence-the backbone of crime thrillers…..you do realize the difficulty don’t you?”
-Satyajit Ray to his wife on the prospect of writing detective fiction (crime-fiction) in a children’s magazine Sandesh which had been launched by his grandfather, and afterwards revived by him.
The unfiltered Charminar, the lop-sided smile, an over six-foot figure doing yoga at dawn everyday, unwavering decisions, indomitable spirit, and a sharp deductive power and intelligence, strong muscle and brain power…………a personality quite like the world famous Holmes, yet very much Indian, whom does it make you remember of?
Prodosh Chandra Mitter nicknamed Feluda is perhaps the only Indian literary private detective to successfully step out from the Bengali literary scenario and capture the heart of millions world wide. Created by Satyajit Ray in 1965-66, this charismatic agile minded detective broke all barriers of language and nation and has survived the onslaught of time and space to survive till today. Satyajit Ray was born into a family of literary giants. His grandfather, Upendrakishore, and father, Sukumar Ray, are revered even today for their contribution to children’s literature in Bengal. His interests in films and music, particularly western classical music, developed quite early in his life. After graduation he spent a year in Santinikentan (a university founded by the poet Rabindranath Tagore whose work became the source material for many of Ray’s film), studying art. Even though he began his career as a commercial artist, films became a passion, a passion that propelled him to international fame and recognition. Akira Kurosawa, Academy award winner director and the director of the critically acclaimed movie Dreams, commented that not having seen a Ray movie “means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon”. Ray also won the Academy Award for lifetime achievement. In addition to being a film maker, Ray was also a writer of eminence, and a gifted illustrator. In 1961, he revived Sandesh. It was in the pages of this magazine that two of his famous creations were born: Feluda, the detective, and Professor Shonku, the scientist and explorer. Their arrival created a major stir in Bengali literature, for no other author had ever handled detective and science fiction for the young with the competence that Ray showed. Besides these, he produced nearly 80 short stories for Sandesh, in addition to limericks, puzzles and crosswords – all in Bengali. Though Arthur Conan Doyle never uses any vulgar description about human relations, yet sometimes Sherlock Holmes ends up solving a grotesque love-affair. Agatha Christie also sometimes makes a plot revolve around a complicated illicit family relation or an elusive love-affair, or even frustrated one sided lover themes. These themes have always been the centre of attraction for the readers of crime fiction world wide. However, the above mentioned two writers never wanted to write for children so they crafted their plots in whatever way they wanted. But the unique quality of Ray lies in the fact that he aimed to write for children and he successfully made crime fiction suitable for children! Sandesh was a children’s magazine and therefore it is no surprise that the readers of Sandesh became crazy for the character of Feluda, but the surprising fact is that when one of Feluda stories (Trouble in Gangtok) was published in Desh (Bengal’s most serious and a typically adult magazine) in 1970, it still grasped a wide readership. From then on Feluda went on to capture the hearts of hundreds of adult readers. So, though written primarily for children adventures of Feluda are in no way unappealing to the adult. Also, when the Feluda stories were translated into English by Gopa Majumdar and Chitrita Banerji, and published by Penguin, even then it made into the best-seller list. Thus it is distinct that the appeal of the Feluda stories is not restricted to the Bengali readership alone.
The character of Feluda is not very complex. He is a simple person with an undaunted personality and a chain smoker of unfiltered Charminar. But he does not drink. He smokes neither to increase his work efficiency nor to make his brain work; it’s just a bad habit. He is not materialistic and likes to spend what he earns. His success in solving the mysterious earns him a great deal of reputation. He has interest in the game of cricket and a huge appetite for books. His cases often lead to researches on various topics such as musical instruments and western classical music, parapsychology, history of ancient theatres in India, drugs, monuments and sculptures, riddles, and even student records at Cambridge University! He is jolly and lively person who likes to keep his identity a secret whenever he goes on an outing. His cases lead him to meet people with the most unusual habits and character. In Feluda stories we often meet characters who have some strange obsession- a boy who remembers his earlier birth, a boy who can see numbers dancing in his head and can answer any question related to numbers within seconds, a man who maintains a private zoo having some strange animals and reptiles, a person who likes to live in the ways of the past without electric fans and bulbs, fake sadhus and astrologers, an old retired person who is interested only in the crime reports in the paper, a Bollywood actor who commits a crime, a person who fakes to be a great hunter, a judge who wants to communicate with spirits of the accused he had sentenced to death……Feluda often encounters ancient manuscripts, antique statuettes; he even encounters certain objects of historical importance like Nana Saheb’s jewels and Aurangazeb’s ring. Filling the gaps of the narration Satyajit Ray decorates his stories with a wide variety of information. All these make each and every story quite memorable.
One can say that Ray has used a similar logic in solving the mystery in more than one Feluda story. It is by using the “dual identity” of the villain. In two or three Feluda stories it is found that the main culprit fakes as another person, that is, two characters are actually the same person! Though Ray uses this technique in more than once, but never does he bore the reader. The twist at the end of every story or the impressive manner in which Feluda arrives at his conclusion is always splendid to read.
The Feluda stories have three primary characters, Feluda, his cousin Topshe and a friend of theirs Lalmohan Ganguly. All the stories have been narrated in the first person by Topshe.
Lalmohan Ganguly is a writer of pot-boilers who writes under the pseudonym Jatayu. This happy-go-lucky fellow though incapable of keeping pace with the roller-coaster pattern of the Feluda mysteries, is still an indispensable part of the story. Jatayu is introduced in the story The Golden Fortress, and from then on he becomes an integral part of every Feluda story. Feluda’s Professor Moriarty is Maganlal Meghraj, a smuggler of invaluable Indian sculptures and also a drug dealer and supplier. Most of the Feluda stories are short novels which were published either in Sandesh, Desh or Anadamela (three top Bengali magazines) and then went on to be published individually in book form. They are-Gangtokey Gandagol (Trouble in Gangtok); Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress); Bakso Rahashya (The Mysterious suitcase); Kailashey Kelenkari (A Killer in Kailash); Royal Bengal Rahashya (The Royal Bengal Mystery); Joi Baba Felunath (The Mystery of the Elephant God); Gorosthaney Sabdhan (The Secret of the Cemetery); Chhinnamastar Abhishap (The Curse of the Goddess); Hatyapuri (The House of Death); Bombaiyer Bombete (The Buccaneers of Bombay); Gosainpur Sargaram (The Mystery of the Walking Dead); Jato Kando Kathmandutey (The Criminals of Kathmandu); Ebar Kando Kedarnathey (Crime in Kedarnath); Napoleon er Chithhi (Napoleon‘s Letter); Tintorettor Jishu (Tintoretto‘s Jesus); Darjeeling Jamjamat (Danger in Darjeeling); Apsara Theatre er Mamla (The Case of the Apsara Theatre); Bhuswarga Bhayankar (Peril in Paradise); Nayan Rahashya (The Mystery of Nayan); Golapi Mukta Rahashya (The Mystery of the Pink Pearl); London ey Feluda (Feluda in London); Robertson er Ruby (Robertson’s Ruby).Robertson’s Ruby was left unedited by Ray because of his sudden death.
The short-stories of Feluda are-Feludar Goendagiri (Danger In Darjeeling, 1965-66); Kailash Choudharyr Pathar (Kailash Chowdhury’s Jewel, 1967); Ghurghutiyar Ghatana (The Locked Chest, 1975); Samaddarer Chabi (The Key, 1973); Sheyal Debota Rahasya (The Anubis Mystery, 1970); Ambar Sen Antardhyan Rahasya(The Disappearance Of Ambar Sen, 1983); Jahangirer Swarnamudra(The Golden Coins Of Jehangir, 1983); Golokdham Rahasya (The Mysterious Tenant, 1980); Bosepukurey Khunkharapi (The Acharya Murder Case, 1985); Shakuntalar Kanthahar (Shakuntala’s Necklace, 1988); Indrajal Rahasya (The Magical Mystery, 1995-96); Dr Munshir Diary (Dr Munshi’s Diary). After being published in the magazines some of them were reprinted as collected Feluda short stories. Satyajit Ray himself made films on two Feluda novels- Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) and Joi Baba Felunath (The Mystery of the Elephant God). His son, Sandip Ray, has churned out some superb Feluda adventure television-series. He even made a major Feluda movie-Bombaiyer Bombete (The Buccaneers of Bombay) which became a great hit in West Bengal.
The stories have their base in Calcutta and from there some of them sprawl to as far as Kathmandu (The Criminals of Kathmandu), Hong Kong (Tintoretto’s Jesus) or even London (Feluda in London). Feluda leaves a trail of his adventures in each and every corner of the country; from the small rural villages of Bengal to the monasteries in Sikkim, from Kedarnath to Puri, from Gangtok to Allahabad, from Mumbai to Kashmir. The most spine-chilling adventures of Feluda are The Royal Bengal Mystery; The Buccaneers of Bombay; The House of Death; Tintoretto‘s Jesus; Napoleon‘s Letter; The Secret of the Cemetery; A Killer in Kailash; Trouble in Gangtok. In Feluda in London and Robertson’s Ruby Feluda deals with crimes relating to racialism and British supremacy.
The underlying cause of Feluda’s appeal to children as well as their parents, uncles and aunts, is the brilliancy of plots and the simplicity of the backdrop. People who read the Feluda stories are at once acquainted with the fact that the events which occur around the plot have a link with their lives; that is the readers can relate very nicely to the plot. Satyajit Ray is one the few writers who have very diligently and systematically woven a picture of the society, without showcasing openly the extremes of violence. He does not use a plot of illicit love, neither sex nor extreme violence always keeping in mind his limits. He did it because his aim was to write for children, entertain them, and teach them about the worldly affairs, but only up to the point a child should get to know. He thereby, prevented the child from knowing some pervert things the children should be prevented against. Moreover, Feluda stories are highly relevant because the crimes which Feluda tackles are all the more on the rise in today’s world. Ray’s fiction including Feluda, Shonku, horror fiction and several other short stories, rise up as healthy entertainment for children at stage when each and every child is exposed to unhealthy and demoralizing forms of nuisance in the name of entertainment. Ray did not exploit the quest for imagination in a child to sell his writings but guided the inquisitiveness in a child to a bright direction.
Satyajit Ray uses the day-to-day events of Kolkata and the world at large to depict a sense of realism in his fiction. Having under his belt a wide series of fiction and non-fiction tittles, Ray’s literary genius never lets the reader down, and as a result Feluda rises as a larger than life character, whom every reader wants to follow. Had Ray not been struck by his illness we would have got more Feluda stories to enjoy. He was even awarded a D.Litt degree by the Oxford University for his contribution to literature.
On thinking light heartedly you will find that Feluda actually wins over Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot. Reason? Can Mr. Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or even Father Brown, let alone the classical Dupin, solve a crime in the ghats of Puri and at the same time in Jammu and Kashmir? But, no matter where you drop Feluda, whether it is the ghats of Puri or the university campus of Cambridge or the dark and lowly lit streets of Calcutta, Feluda is always in triumph! If you have not yet started this splendid series of adventures by the desi Sherlock Holmes, make it fast.
published in THE ASSAM TRIBUNE, HORIZON, DATED JUNE 30, 2007