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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s much-loved private investigator turns 50

Feluda is 50. It has been half a century since he stepped out of the pages of Sandesh into the chill of Darjeeling.

New Delhi | Updated: March 29, 2015 1:00:23 am
Despite their age difference, Feluda and Topshe speak the same language and enjoy a camaraderie which is playful and assured Despite their age difference, Feluda and Topshe speak the same language and enjoy a camaraderie which is playful and assured

By Abhijit Gupta

Feluda is 50. It has been half a century since he stepped out of the pages of Sandesh into the chill of Darjeeling. That was 1965. The Beatles had just released Rubber Soul. India and Pakistan had just fought a war. And Dilip Sardesai and ML Jaisimha opened the batting for India.

Was it really so long ago? Revisiting the Feluda stories certainly does not give such an impression: the pace is brisk, the setting still recognisable and the dialogue as crisp as Feluda’s starched kurta. The very first line of the very first Feluda story transports the reader to a place which must be familiar to every Bengali who has ever travelled north of Sealdah station: ‘Every evening, I see Rajenbabu at the Mall’ (Feludar Goyendagiri, Feluda’s Sleuthing). According to his son, Sandip, the Rays’ two favourite travel destinations were Darjeeling and Puri.

At the time of the first story, Topshe, the narrator, is thirteen-and-a-half. Feluda, his first cousin, is exactly twice as old, 27. Despite their age difference, they speak the same language and enjoy a camaraderie which is playful and assured. In the first story, their conversation is peppered with words such as “incredible” and “horrendous” (there are four “incredibles” in the first two pages). This was a new note in Bengali fiction. Among the earlier dadas (not detectives, just neighbourhood boys), Ghanada was aloof and patrician, while Tenida with his “De la grande Mephistopheles, yuck yuck!” was the creator of an idiosyncratic north Calcutta patois. With Feluda, there is a smooth urbanity which is both local and cosmopolitan.

Both Ghanada and Tenida scrounge cigarettes and treats off their entourage. Feluda buys his own Charminars. He is not particularly interested in money, as long as he has enough for books. Presumably, he doesn’t have to pay house-rent or a mortgage. Once the thriller-writer Jatayu arrives on the scene, there is a perceptible rise in their combined incomes. Jatayu’s royalties pays for a “soothing” green Ambassador which is a great help for Feluda: more than anything else, it is Jatayu’s choice of vehicle that situates the stories firmly in pre-liberalisation India. Then, there are the running references to power cuts and the dug-up state of Calcutta’s streets in the pre-metro period, as well as the pre-eminence of The Statesman newspaper.

But, equally, there is much that remains pretty much the same, despite the passage of half-a-century. The train journeys, above all, which take the trio along the tourist trail. As Ray travelled across the country shooting for his films, Feluda followed suit. While making the long-banned documentary on Sikkim, Ray wrote Gangtok-e Gondogol (Trouble in Gangtok). The shooting of the desert sequences of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne in Rajasthan led to the writing of Sonar Kella (The Golden Fort), while the snow sequences in Shimla inspired the writing of Baksho Rohosyo (The Case of the Case). Goopy Gyne’s sequel Hirak Rajar Deshe saw shooting take place in Nepal and was followed by Feluda leaving the country for the first time in Joto Kando Kathmandute (It all Happened in Kathmandu). Ray spent a day in Hong Kong en route to the Manila Film Festival in 1982: cue Tintorettor Jishu (The Jesus of Tintoretto) which brought Feluda and Co to Hong Kong.

Unlike Holmes’s, very few of Feluda’s adventures take place in the city of Calcutta. There is a note of the school vacation in these stories, which continues to chime with young people and their parents alike. The beginning of the mystery, the buying of train tickets from Fairlie Place, the visits to the laundry, securing of permission from Topshe’s parents (which is never denied) constitute a familiar yet much-anticipated ritual, which is probably why the shorter Feluda stories, situated in Calcutta or its suburbs, simply do not have the charm of the longer adventures in which the trio must leave town. While travel has changed in the last five decades, the Bengali tourist destinations remain the same, in certain cases even influenced by the Feluda stories: Jaisalmer Fort, for instance, became part of every Bengali tourist’s itinerary after Sonar Kella.

The last Feluda story, Indrajal Rahasya (The Magical Mystery), came out in 1996, four years after the death of the master. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, who was happy to let other writers riff on Sherlock Holmes, there has been no such afterlife for Feluda. Conan Doyle’s son, Adrian, co-wrote a dozen Holmes stories with the crime novelists John Dickson Carr, which are every bit as good as the original. The list of writers of Holmes pastiches is never-ending: Nicholas Meyers, Anthony Horowitz, Vincent Starrett, Jamyang Norbu. But where are the Feluda stories, or at least fanfic? Where the novels by Jatayu, which cry out to be written with titles such as ‘A Vampire in Vancouver’, ‘Horror in Honduras’, ‘The Gluttony of Gorillas’ and so on? Other than a few underwhelming Feluda films post-Soumitra Chatterjee and some comic-book adaptations, there have been no attempts to revisit the Feluda mythos. It has been a long time since Prodosh C Mitter has appeared in the pages of pujo annuals. Perhaps it’s time for him to return?

The author is a professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata

The story appeared in print with the headline The Man from 27, Rajani Sen Road

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