The sleuth and the cinematic genius

November 21, 1997

THE FELUDA STORIES. By Satyajit Ray. Penguin, 868pp 500 Rupees. ISBN 0 670 87098 6.

THE HOUSE OF DEATH AND OTHER FELUDA STORIES. By Satyajit Ray. Penguin, 339pp200 Rupees. ISBN 0 14 026803 0.

Satyajit Ray is generally considered to be not only India's greatest film director but also one of world cinema's immortals, who was personally responsible for every aspect of his films, from screenplay to music. Less well known, especially outside India, is that Ray is a best-selling fiction writer; indeed his books, rather than his films, were his chief source of income in later life.

All his fiction was written in Bengali and published in Calcutta, usually first in magazines, afterwards in book form. He was already internationally famous when he began writing stories in 1961, at the age of 40, having decided to revive the children's magazine started by his grandfather that had folded in the 1920s after the premature death of his writer-father. From 1961 until his own death in 1992, Ray produced a stream of stories, novellas, translations from English and other writings in order to feed the magazine's voracious appetite.

Although all this writing was aimed at young people, he soon found that adults were enjoying it too, and his stories were in great demand among Calcutta's magazine publishers. As his biographer, I once asked Ray whether while writing he thought of what would interest children. "Yes I suppose subconsciously one does. But also what interests me," he said with a chuckle.

His most celebrated creation in print is undoubtedly the detective Pradosh Mitter, aka Feluda. Loosely inspired, as Ray freely confessed, by Sherlock Holmes, the Feluda stories are told by an adoring younger cousin, "Feluda's Watson" (though Ray soon added a third, very Bengali character, a writer of cheap thrillers, as a comic foil). From his first appearance in 1965, Feluda was a hit. Ray went on to write 34 Feluda stories and novellas, two of which he filmed himself, and many others of which have been adapted for cinema and television by Ray's son, Sandip, who is also a director. Since the son's versions have been shot in Hindi, India's most widely spoken language, not in the stories' original Bengali, they have enabled Feluda to step out of Bengal and become an all-India figure, like his creator Ray.

The same has happened for the (much smaller) Indian public who read in English. The first English translations of Feluda appeared in 1988, while Ray was alive, in a slightly stilted translation by Chitrita Banerji. This,and three subsequent translations by Gopa Majumdar, more fluent and polished than the first, were collected as an omnibus edition of 16 stories, The Feluda Stories, and published last year. A further six stories (also translated by Majumdar) appeared this year as The House of Death. This means that now well over half of all the Feluda stories are available in English, including the best ones. It is therefore a good moment to consider Ray's achievement.

He himself described his fiction to a foreign friend as "essentially 'entertainment' (in the Graham Greene sense) with no pretensions to profundity". Compared with his films or, say, the stories and novels of Rabindranath Tagore, his self-assessment is apt. Page-turners though the best Feluda stories certainly are, with well-constructed plots, convincing villains and acts of ruthless violence (not a feature of Ray's films), diverse and dramatic locales, strong atmosphere, and some amusing jokes, they do not rate very high as literature. The style is generally stripped for action, often not far from the brevity of a screenplay. One has only to compare Ray's film Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), a desert adventure set in Rajasthan ("the kind of film that points out the glaring weaknesses in films being turned out... by some major studios", Hollywood's Variety said in 1975), with his 1971 novella of the same name, to see how director took over from writer to enrich the original story in every way -visually and aurally of course (with gorgeous colours and plangent folk music), and also psychologically and philosophically, putting this film on a par with a Ray masterpiece such as Kanchenjungha.

That said, the Feluda stories seem to me of exceptional interest for two, disparate, reasons. First, for the non-Bengali reader, they offer a unique window on to the life of post-independence Bengal - almost as valuable as Ray's films. Second, they shed penetrating light on the thinking and personality of Satyajit Ray, and the nature of his awesome creativity. Whereas we study Conan Doyle's life for clues to the character of Sherlock Holmes, with Ray it is the other way around: Feluda's character is often remarkably revealing about his real-life creator. As Ray once told me: "I'm sure there's a lot of me in Feluda but I can't tell you to what extent."

La dolce vita does not interest Feluda; nor does he drink (though he smokes plenty) or seek out the company of women - in fact, he is unmarried - and he has a natural ability to communicate with children. We learn that his upbringing, like Ray's, was somewhat out of the ordinary, because he lost both parents at an early age, and was raised by his cousin's mother and father, a fairly conventional, decent, middle-class Bengali couple. He has grown into a reserved, thoughtful man of inexhaustible curiosity and encyclopaedic knowledge, which he now puts to use fighting criminals for the sake of adventure with a worthwhile goal: not money. Although he has strong feelings, they are restrained; he rarely loses his temper, however irrational or ill-judged the behaviour of those around him, preferring irony as his method of rebuke. His entire outlook is modern and scientific,but he preserves a healthy open-mindedness about the supernatural. He is a sceptic but certainly not a cynic.

There are differences too: some major - for instance, Feluda is willing to lie in order to further a case, and knows little of western classical music; some minor - Feluda is fastidious about tea, he does yoga exercises for fitness. But the essential outlooks of Ray and his creation are very similar - which gave Ray the freedom to criticise through Feluda many things that he was reluctant to criticise in real life. A constant target is the shoddiness of contemporary Bengali, indeed Indian culture, which exasperates Feluda. In a story about antiques smuggling and murder in the Bombay film industry, Feluda gives the following sardonic advice about writing the ideal Hindi movie to the third member of the trio, who hopes to make a financial killing with a film script. "Listen, you must have smuggling - gold, diamonds, marijuana, hashish, whatever; five songs, one of which should be devotional; two dance numbers; two or three chase sequences - in at least one of which an expensive car should be seen rolling downhill; there must be one fire scene; the girlfriend of the hero must be the heroine, and the girlfriend of the villain has to be the vamp; you need a conscientious police officer; some flashback scenes for the hero; comic relief; fast action and change of scene so that the plot does not sag; if you can, shift the scene to the mountains or to the beach, so that the stars don't have to keep on shooting in the cramped atmosphere of a studio - Have you got it all down?" Not a few of these ingredients are to be found in Ray's stories too, but handled with a deft originality and lack of vulgarity and sentimentality that is a world away from Bollywood bilge. There are, however, no women characters - not one female of any note in all 22 stories under review.

The omission of sex is not surprising, given the intended younger readership, but the absence of girls and women is truly astonishing, from a man who admired women and an artist who by general agreement created some of the most sensitive female characters in all cinema; and, in a final puzzling irony, both of Ray's devoted translators are women. But on this intriguing point, Feluda, alas, maintains one of his famous thoughtful silences.

Andrew Robinson is the author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye.

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