A Feluda Mystery: How Satyajit Ray created Bengal's most loved detective of all time
Bengal produced two great detectives — Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi. And yet, if you were to ask the average Bengali reader to name his or her favourite detective, chances are, Feluda’s name will be taken first.
In 1965, at the age of 44, soon after the release of his landmark film Charulata, Satyajit Ray wrote the first draft of a short story, which featured a young boy, barely into his teens, describing the superlative analytical and detection powers of his older cousin brother. Although intended to be a light-hearted detective story, it had several comic elements, and there was very little of ‘crime’ in it. But the fond relationship between the narrator and the protagonist was beautifully captured. That young boy was Tapesh Ranjan Mitra, or Topshe, and his 27-year-old cousin was none other than Prodosh Chandra Mitra, also known as Feluda, who was to go on to rule the heart and mind of every single reader of Bengali literature for the next several decades.
Even after 52 years since the first story was written, outside the state of West Bengal, from where he originated, Feluda hasn’t had any national adaptations in popular media like cinema or the television (barring a forgettable one in which a pot-bellied Shashi Kapoor embarrassed everyone by playing the strapping young Feluda). In fact, the other great detective from Bengal — Byomkesh Bakshi — has seen at least two mainstream commercial adaptations in both these media. And yet, if you were to ask the average Bengali reader to name his or her favourite detective, chances are, Feluda’s name will be taken first. Why did this happen? What are the traits that Feluda has that a dozen other detectives don’t?
Anyone who has read a Feluda novel, novella or story will tell you that the adventures are also mini-travelogues by themselves. And most people like the very idea of travelling. An adventure set in the verdant slopes of Pahalgam, or in the barren deserts of Jaisalmer, or the windy beaches of Puri, or in the dark, damp and serpentine lanes of Benaras is a far more attractive proposition than one set in a bungalow in urban Kolkata. Add to this the immaculate and artistic, yet terse description of the locales by Ray, and you already have the setting taken care of.
Then comes the sleuth himself. A quintessential Bengali young man — tall, smart, reserved, with an excellent sense of humour, upright, honest to the core, extremely well read, possessing photographic memory, interested in all things under the sun, foodie, excellent with wordplays and card tricks, physically fit, possessing certain extraordinary physical capabilities like being able to see clearly in almost pitch-dark, extremely logical and yet with a mind completely open to the paranormal and pseudoscience – Ray has given his creation certain qualities that set him apart from the stereotype that an average Bengali man in his early thirties tends to portray. That’s not all. Feluda fights the smugglers of Bombay, unmasks a racket manufacturing and distributing counterfeit medicine in Kathmandu and goes on a cross-country pursuit of a criminal trying to vandalise ancient temples of India, finally nabbing him red-handed in Ellora. He is, in that sense, a national hero — not just a private investigator.
At the same time, inspired (self-admittedly) by Conan Doyle’s immortal creation Sherlock Holmes, Ray has given Feluda certain grey traits which make it just about possible for the average reader to connect with him, to make him something less than a superhero. So, Feluda is not above bribing a chowkidar to get his job done, or losing a fistfight with a group of thugs, or suspending his job temporarily to sink into a lazy afternoon siesta, or stealing something from someone (only if the situation demands it!) Nor does he let go of a chance to make a sarcastic — but not snide — remark to make fun of his good friend and long-time companion — the riotously comic Lalmohan Babu, more popularly known as Jatayu. Despite all the admiration readers have for him, Ray made sure that Feluda is within everyone’s reach. Add to these Topshe’s innocent admiration of his cousin brother and his blind faith in Feluda’s capabilities, and we have the three musketeers going on some of the most memorable adventures readers have come across.
Another important reason for Feluda being so popular is the reader base. Most detectives who work in the realm of crime are written only for the adult readers. But perhaps as a continuation of his father’s and grandfather’s contribution to children’s literature, or perhaps as a clever commercial masterstroke, Ray wrote Feluda for young adults, keeping in mind at the same time that all well-written children’s literature in the world are also read with equal enthusiasm and enjoyment by adults. In doing so, he immediately opened up his reader base to more than one demographic segment, so that when one generation of readers have passed on, there’s the next to talk about his creation, thus making it virtually immortal. Of course, this has later been tried by several other writers, but no one has been able to match the sharp, visual and intelligent writing of Satyajit Ray.
But every journey has its own hardships. No matter which crime series you are reading in any part of the world, you will always find a creative arc in them, one with its own rise and fall. Feluda was no different. Serious readers and fans of the series will note the somewhat rocky terrain the stories hit somewhere around 1983-84. Perhaps owing to his failing health, or due to the tragic fact that his doctors had strictly forbidden him from doing what he loved to do the most — shoot outdoors — Ray seemed to have lost the magic touch which made Feluda so popular. In one of his own novels titled Nayan Rahashya (The Nayan Mystery), Feluda admits having received as many as fifty-six letters saying the same thing over and over again — “Felu Mitra’s cases are not as interesting as they used to be, Jatayu is not being able to make us laugh anymore, Topshe’s descriptions have become dull and dreary…” — to which, of course, Jatayu flares up and takes furious exception, asking categorically if such readers think of him as a clown! Although Feluda immediately tries to calm him down, Jatayu continues to grumble and asks him why he hasn’t thrown such stupid letters into the waste paper basket already. Feluda’s reply gives us an excellent and heart-warming peek into the mind of his creator, who was writing most of these stories from a hospital bed — “No, Lalmohan Babu, I haven’t. Because over all these years, these very readers have supported me and liked my stories. One fine day, if they say that they are not liking me anymore, I can’t simply dismiss their complaints just like that.”
Thankfully, Feluda redeemed himself to some extent in that very novel. Although the descriptions were still rushed, and the humour was forced in places, the core puzzle in the mystery was still quite baffling and vintage Feluda. However, it was too late, because the very next year, Ray wrote his final Feluda novel, before he passed away after a few months, in 1992.
But these small blemishes could hardly tarnish an epic body of work that Ray had left behind. As a reader and a fan, of course, one ought to look at some of the absolutely mind-boggling Feluda stories that Satyajit Ray has given us. Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) — an epic adventure like no other — in which Feluda travels all the way to Jaisalmer to save a ten-year-old boy who claims to remember facts from his past life. Joy Baba Felunath (The Mystery of the Elephant God) — in which Feluda meets his arch-enemy, a man whose sheer cunning almost surpasses Feluda’s genius. Chinnomostar Obhishap (The Curse of the Goddess) — a story with puzzle after puzzle after puzzle, all of which Feluda solves with his razor-sharp intellect. Tintorrettor Jishu (Tintoretto’s Christ) — in which Feluda has to go all the way to Hong Kong to save a Renaissance age painting that has been stolen from an aristocratic family in rural Bengal. One could go on and on. Feluda epitomizes everything that an average reader wants to be. He is their ‘hero’ in the truest sense of the term. And yet, he is a man of flesh and blood, not unlike one among them. Which is why, to fans of mystery novels, Feluda will remain, by far, the most endearing, the most popular detective Bengali literature has ever seen.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include ‘14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray’, and his original works include the mystery novels ‘Patang’, ‘Penumbra’ and ‘Here Falls The Shadow’.