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Satyajit Ray’s Bengali Holmes

‘Pro’ stands for ‘professional’, and ‘dosh’ is the Bengali word for ‘crime’. The ‘C’ is ‘to see’, that is, ‘to investigate’. So, the whole thing works out as Prodosh C. = Professional Crime Investigator!

This is how Satyajit Ray explains the apparent wordplay on our protagonist’s name. Prodosh C. Mitter was a 27-year-old detective when Ray wrote him into existence. The first account of his exploits, ‘Danger in Darjeeling’, appeared in 1965, in the children’s periodical, Sandesh. This magazine, founded by Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray, was revived by the Oscar-winning filmmaker, nearly 75 years later. Ray’s desire to experiment with a different genre coupled with a childhood love for the Sherlock Holmes series led him into the world of detective stories.

Sandesh, 1974, illustrated by Satyajit Ray

Naturally, several of Ray’s characters were inspired by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s. Mitter—popularly known as Feluda–looks up to Holmes much like a guru, as seen in ‘Feluda in London’, where he visits the famous Baker Street. Feluda resembles Ray himself, 6’2”, with a love for trivia, and an unfortunate penchant for smoking. Feluda polishes his own observation skills throughout the series, deducing the tiniest detail about a man’s life from a mere glance at him—a remarkable trait of Doyle’s Holmes.

The stories, narrated in the first person by Feluda’s 14-year-old cousin, Tapesh—Ray’s Watson—grew immensely popular among the target audience—teenaged children, and surprisingly, even their parents. Feluda lovingly calls him ‘Topshe’, often using Tapesh as a bouncing board for his theories and observations. In fact, it is because of Topshe that Feluda gets his name—‘Felu’ is his nickname, and ‘da’ is short for ‘dada’, Bengali for ‘older brother’. There is a lot of sibling banter, with Feluda teasing Topshe, something most older siblings are guilty of. Yet, both are incredibly protective of each other. Topshe learns a lot from Feluda and often has his deductive knowledge tested satisfactorily. Mirroring adolescent readers, he plays an active role in these adventures. Nicknamed ‘Feluda’s satellite’, Topshe is privy to most of the detective’s thoughts.

A significant difficulty Ray faced while writing the series, was that he had to ensure that all his villains’ motives were purely fuelled by greed, jealousy, or a sense of revenge. In his words, “To write a whodunit while keeping in mind a young readership is not an easy task, because the stories have to be kept ‘clean’. No illicit love, no crime passionnel, and only a modicum of violence.

Feluda and Topshe, as illustrated by Satyajit Ray

Every story is crammed with information, referencing books by well-known authors, events that took place throughout history, and myths from across the country and around the world. These bits of trivia are provided either by Feluda, or the elderly Sidhu Uncle, an old friend of Topshe’s father. Sidhu collects newspaper cuttings of events around the world and is often considered the Mycroft of the series. His photographic memory and extensive knowledge on a variety of topics have often aided Feluda in his investigations.

The sixth story, ‘The Golden Fortress’, introduces a character, who becomes an integral part of Feluda’s adventures—Lalmohan Ganguli, alias Jatayu—a short, bumbling writer of crime thrillers. He is a foil to Feluda’s character, a sort of comic relief. There are many instances where Feluda has had to correct facts in Ganguli’s novels—he once mistook walruses for hippos—yet, our young sleuth is extremely fond of him. Quite often, Feluda is found asking Jatayu for his opinion on cases. Although some of his theories are outlandish and bizarre, they bring humour to the dark world of human propensities. The growing recognition Feluda receives as a private detective comes with increased risks. Jatayu’s adult presence reassures Feluda of Topshe’s safety.

Just as Sherlock Holmes had a Professor James Moriarty, Feluda too has an arch-nemesis in Maganlal Meghraj, a rich moneylender of Benaras. Meghraj is the only villain who appears in three stories–‘The Mystery of the Elephant God’, ‘The Criminals of Kathmandu’, and ‘The Mystery of the Pink Pearl’. A ruthless, cold-blooded character, Meghraj finds fiendish pleasure in torturing Lalmohan Babu, thus humiliating Feluda.

Maganlal Meghraj, as illustrated by Satyajit Ray

Feluda delves into the darkest crevices of the human psyche, to get to the root of the problem—from studies in parapsychology to the musical octave—in order to solve a case. These stories expose readers to various topics, and numerous Indian cities, rich in diverse culture and custom. The beauty of Ray’s writing is that if he begins with Feluda explaining a concept to Topshe, the readers find references to it throughout the story, making it a wholesome learning experience. At the time of publication, this made the series even more popular as the only sources of such knowledge were newspapers, journals, and books. In today’s world, it gives readers an insight into the India that existed post Independence—where remnants of the Princely States coexisted alongside Bollywood stars. To an avid reader of detective fiction, these stories are also found to pay obeisance to not only Doyle’s Holmes but also Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi.

Feluda’s adventures take him from Calcutta to Bombay and Gangtok, from Kedarnath to Jaisalmer, Puri, and even London. The plots involve murder, intrigue and adventure, each narrated in an animated and humourous style that grips the reader while making for an enormously entertaining fare. Thus, it is no surprise that nearly two generations of teenagers grew up with Feluda as a role model. In today’s world, where most bookshelves for young adults are filled with tales of American and European protagonists, a middle-class hero like Feluda gives teenagers an indigenous example to emulate as they enter the terrifying adult world.