In trivial pursuit of Feluda

Diptakirti Chaudhuri pens lesser known facts about everyone’s favourite Bengali detective

Updated - December 17, 2016 08:30 am IST

Published - December 17, 2016 12:49 am IST

In between the heroism and the travel and the crime solving, Feluda is a role model without being preachy.

In between the heroism and the travel and the crime solving, Feluda is a role model without being preachy.

A ten-year old boy used to stick his hands into the burrows of foxes and pull out their little ones. This boy was Joykrishna Mitter, and when he grew up, he became a teacher of Sanskrit and Maths at Dhaka Collegiate School. But he was not your typical schoolteacher. He had a built body and was good at all kinds of sports, including wrestling and swimming. He died quite young, leaving behind a son aged nine. The son inherited his father’s physical strength, mental faculties and daredevilry in equal measure, growing up to become the most popular sleuth of Bengali fiction: Prodosh C. Mitter, a.k.a. Feluda.

Feluda ‘turned fifty’ some time ago (counting from the publication of the first story in 1965) and is now an iconic character, known also outside Bengal thanks to several translations and films made by his creator (Satyajit Ray) himself. For the last five decades, Feluda has been the archetypal Bengali superhero, whose exploits finely balance the cerebral and the physical. Blessed with a photographic memory, he is ambidextrous. He represented Calcutta University in cricket as a left-arm spinner and is also a whiz at word games and puzzles. He came first in the ‘All India Rifle Competition’, though his preferred weapon is the more discreet Colt .32 (not to mention, the even more discreet grey matter). When his Colt is not available, he can match his Kung Fu skills to those of a Bollywood action director. He has translated two biographies of nineteenth-century explorers into Bengali. On the other end of the intellectual scale, he once outlined a plot for a Bollywood film (to his writer friend) that went on to become a jubilee hit. Feluda is that perfect amalgamation of traits Bengalis can’t get enough of. To paraphrase a line from an upcoming Bollywood film, he has “ Robi ka dimaag, Subhash ka daring ”.

All these details are part of the intricately woven Feluda Canon, at least partially inspired by the Holmesian one. Feluda had a very well-defined atmosphere, fictional and yet totally real. Even his address is located on a real road in South Calcutta (though the house number doesn’t exist), which now boasts of a ‘Feluda Café’ serving coffee and nostalgia to devoted fans.

Despite being a ‘hero’, Feluda is clearly the typical Bengali bhadralok or rather, the one everyone wants to be. The Bengali pursuits of a frugal middle-class life, the little joys of music and books, the sarcastic humour, the mild-mannered xenophobia (of making the most fearsome villain a Marwari) are all there in the Feluda stories.

In fact, the Bengali penchant for travelling far and wide is legendary, and Feluda exemplified this. Every major city and tourist destination in India (and a few abroad) have been the setting of crimes he has solved, and Ray’s obsessive attention to detail meant that Feluda novels can easily be used as guidebooks. Train timings, distances between locations, sightseeing and eating recommendations are neatly tucked into the narrative, egging tourists on to follow Feluda’s trails. One can also draw a near-perfect correlation between the shooting locations of Ray’s films and the settings of the Feluda novels. Kanchenjungha preceded the debut novel set in Darjeeling. The Varanasi of Aparajito became the setting for Joy Baba Felunath . Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’s Rajasthan returned in Sonar Kella , and so forth.

In between the heroism and the travel and the crime solving, Feluda stands for something immensely valuable. He is a role model without being preachy. He is a professional detective, but willing to forsake his fees for not-so-affluent clients. Good always wins over evil, good food is supplemented by yoga, scholarship and diligence are lauded, and crass display of wealth is frowned upon. Even Feluda’s smoking of his trademark Charminar cigarettes is called out as a health hazard.

What is missing — a common grouse among at least half his readers — are female characters in his adventures. Feluda’s backstory consists only of his father. His mother received just a single line in the entire canon, blandly stating that she had died even before her husband. Continuing this trend, there are fewer than ten speaking women characters in all the stories, and I am including a female bookstore attendant in one scene of one novel here. In an attempt to keep these children’s stories free of any potentially romantic situations, Ray had all but scrubbed out the women from them!

A great tribute to this 50-year old legend would probably be fan fiction about his mother: a feisty student in pre-Independence Bengal getting embroiled in a story of intrigue and mystery and meeting her future husband as they both solve a case involving, maybe, the Kohinoor and the Chittagong Armoury Raid, or both. Now that would be something!

Diptakirti Chaudhuri is a Bollywood buff and the author of Written By Salim-Javed: The Story Of Hindi Cinema’s Greatest Screenwriters

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