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Sunday, 24 January 2016

#20 - Byomkesh versus Feluda

Fiction in regional languages seems to be on the decline, both in terms of quality and quantity.
As a proud Bengali who has been an avid reader and follower of Bengali literature, it seems the next generation will either switch to English for their reading kicks or must dig into the treasure trove left by Bengali authors born in the first half of the 20th century. Fortunately, there are still a few left and the trove is deep enough to last a lifetime.
Call me biased, or ill-informed even, but I strongly feel that Bengali literature has been rich and distinctive enough to take on its English counterpart, and it’s a shame that the reading population the world over couldn’t have greater access to the gems that Bengal has produced.
Coming back to what this post is about.
Detective stories have enjoyed their limelight in Bengali fiction, as a matter of fact, the debut of Sherlock Holmes coincided with the first Bengali detective series, Darogar Doptore by Priyanath Mukhopadhyay (himself a retired police official).  This was followed by Panchkori Dey’s Debendra Bijoy Mitra.
I have read neither.
From what I hear, I haven’t missed much there. Things started looking up from Dinendra Kumar Ray’s sleuth Robert Blake, a British detective, London being the setting. Robert Blake, while inspired by Sherlock Holmes, enjoyed unprecedented popularity in its time.
 I remember reading Robert Blake and liking it, unfortunately, it’s been quite a while and I don’t know for certain whether a re-reading would bring back fond memories or lead to the death of a childhood favourite.  
By then, the genre had picked up popularity and investigators of various shapes, size and age started making regular appearances over the years.
Gradually the influence of the Raj began to wane, and the stories became more Indian in nature. Apart from the fact that more stories began to be set in Bengal, the nature of the crimes too began to evolve. For instance, in the case of Bengali investigators earlier, their work at times involved helping the British administration, including facilitating the catching of freedom fighters.
The new breed of detectives stayed clear of such ‘crimes’. Started donning Bengali attire (until the turn of the twenty first century) and in general, stopped being derivative of western literature.   
Few of the new breed of Bengali investigators who merit mention are Kiriti, Byomkesh Bakshi, Feluda, Gogol, Kakababu, Arjun, Colonel Niladri Sarkar, Pandob Goyenda and Mitin Mashi.
A special mention to Pandob Goyenda here.
Written by Shasthipada Chattopadhyay, the series enjoyed a brief period of popularity.  It was based on a group of friends and a one-eyed dog (Panchu) who went around town solving crimes. Sounds ridiculous? It was. As far as I recollect, apart from remarkably similar plot points, all the stories had another thing in common, the final line being “Panchu barked woof woof”.
Amongst all these seekers of truth, two have stood out for their longevity and timelessness; I am, of course, referring to Feluda (Pradosh C. Mitter) and Byomkesh Bakshi.
 Satyajit Ray may have been a film director first and an author later, but his Feluda has arguably aged better than his films. First making an appearance in 1965 and meant to cater exclusively to children, the character found immediate acceptance amongst readers of all ages. Ray wrote 35 pieces featuring Feluda and himself directed 2 movies, both in Bengali.
 Feluda has over the years been portrayed in various mediums. It’s been translated to English, made into graphic novels, television films, animated series, etc. Even Shashi Kapoor portrayed the character in a telefilm.
Byomkesh Bakshi by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay made his debut in the pre-independence era, 1932 to be specific.
To call Sharadindu talented would be an understatement, his work was vast and varied, he also wrote screenplays for Hindi movies for a period.  
To readers of this generation, he is mostly remembered for Byomkesh Bakshi, which is unfortunate considering the quality of his short stories of other genres.
Unfair it is to draw parallels between writers, especially those writing in different languages, if I had to name an English author whose works were similar in terms of writing style and plot, it would have to be Roald Dahl, what he wrote for adults.
A separate post can (and should) be devoted to the works of Sharadindu, and Roald Dahl, but we are here to talk about detectives. So, more on Byomkesh.
What typically distinguished Byomkesh from other detectives (including Feluda) was the fact that he has a life outside of his investigations. He has a family of his own. He falls in love with one of the primary suspects in a story, although after her name is cleared. Unlike the demigod that is Feluda, he physically resembles a commoner. There’s nothing remarkable about him.
He also ages during the series, the stories often refer to the usual middle-class issues, Byomkesh’s wife nagging him to buy a car, trying to get him to quit smoking etc.
Feluda is a more one-dimensional character, that doesn’t make him any lesser though, the gold standard in fictional detectives is also one-dimensional, though Mr. Holmes’s quirks alone are fascinating enough to develop an interest in the character.
It’s taken around 900 words for me to reach the point I intended to make. So here goes. Bring out the brickbats.
In my opinion, Feluda is an overhyped, not very well written character, who takes part in a series of quite unremarkable adventures, and while a cultural icon, Feluda is probably more suited to films than literature.
Before you reach your conclusions and for your chappals, let me elaborate.
The primary element of a good detective story should be that the reader actually gets a chance to take part in the proceedings. The story and the dialogues should leave a series of clues that should at least theoretically let the reader be able to solve the crime himself. Of course, most authors would never leave all the clues for the reader to decipher, but at the end of it all the reader should smack himself for failing to see a few hints, which in hindsight seemed obvious.
I have always felt that works of Feluda never fulfilled this basic criterion, and that’s why he will never be in the same league as Byomkesh.
The end scene, where all the loose ends are meant to be tied up has Feluda usually explaining “I saw X doing Y, therefore I reached the conclusion Z”. That’s fine, but where were the readers when X was doing Y? We readers are a pervert lot, we want to see” X doing Y” (pun unintended), so that we can figure out Z for ourselves, or, at least, try to.
Sharadindu, on the other hand, laid most of his cards on the table. There are even stories where all of the clues have been revealed sufficiently in advance. Unlike being a third party witnessing a tale being told, the reader actually feels that he is in the shoes of the protagonist.
Besides this, Feluda is a bit too condescending for my taste, a tad too preachy for my liking. Add to that the fact that he is tall and blessed with movie star looks, excels in hand to hand combat, is a master of disguise (Byomkesh shares this trait) and is a fairly competent marksman. It’s fair to say that Feluda stops short of being a superhero. Of course being a larger than life character has never prevented us from liking fictional characters.
We love Batman and Chulbul Pandey, right? Even Sherlock Holmes who is in the same field? (Read my admiration for Salman Khan here.) 
Wrong! Sure, we love larger than life characters but we tend to root for them only when they are at least as flawed as we are, or are up against an equally formidable opponent. To call Sherlock Holmes, a cocaine addict, borderline psychopath with limited social skills – ‘flawed’ is only fair.
Of course, Satyajit Ray had certain limitations that Sharadindu didn’t have.
Feluda, though read by people of all ages, was primarily targeted at children, so Ray had to restrict himself to theft, robbery and murder (though some stories do refer to drugs). Sharadindu had the freedom to let Byomkesh expose drug rackets, extramarital affairs and even illegitimate children.
To make up for that Ray ensured comic relief through the semi-sidekick Lalmohan Ganguly, generous dosage of factoids imparted from Feluda, and ensuring that characters travel to locations likely alien to most middle-class Bengali children of the time.
Noble as the intent may have been on the part of Satyajit Ray to mix fiction with knowledge, Feluda remains my least favourite character of his.
Good, yes....great, no.

The reason for Feluda’s continuing popularity and fan following to this day remains a mystery to me, perhaps a mystery worthy of Byomkesh to crack.   

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