This one started off with the intention of covering the three Rays. After 2500 words on the last one, I have shelved his father and grandfather for a later day. Essentially feeding on my nostalgia, this behemoth of a post is best avoided if you are not a huge fan of Ray and don’t intend to become one either!
Knowledge of Bengali preferred, but not essential.
There are very few authors who have created multiple detective series, each based on a recurring character. Agatha Christie probably had the highest with two extremely (Poirot and Miss Marple) and one moderately popular (Parker Pyne – no relation with Ganesh!) characters. Though the specifics of the last name one is nowhere close to the intricate details of the first two. Arthur Conan Doyle had a Professor Challenger but he was at best an interesting diversion and did not reach anywhere close to the popularity of the Baker Street resident. All the other mystery writers I can think of created just about one major character.
Satyajit created Feluda and Professor Shonku and it is difficult to find someone in Bengal, who has not read them. He also created Tarini Khuro, who is also an extremely well formed and durable character. Also better formed than most other characters are the sidekicks of Ray’s heroes. Topshe and Abinash-babu have lives of their own and are almost as vivid as the title roles. Jatayu is a legend in his own right!
Alistair Maclean and Agatha Chritie novels have a blurb format which says ‘One novel sold every x minutes’ and is supposed to be an indication of their popularity.
I had come across a list of novels by Satyajit Ray along with their sale figures (in the Desh obituary issue) and done the same calculation. I was quite impressed to find out Ray was not far behind at about ‘one every 10 minutes’ or thereabouts.
I forget the numbers but one can easily verify it. Between 1970 and now (37 years), 19447200 minutes have elapsed. For a ‘one in 10’ claim, Ray’s sales should be about 2 million copies. With about 40 books and countless anthologies (not counting the pirated versions), he would have most likely done that.
These two facets are important to give a perspective to the non-Bengali reader on exactly how popular Ray’s works are in Bengal.
Written within the constraints of being suitable for children, none of the novels had even a whiff of ‘crimes of passion’ and actually gave that as a reason (in Nayan Rahashya) when there was an avalanche of protest over the declining standards of Feluda in his later years. But despite that, this bhadralok sleuth captured the imagination of Bengal like no other to the extent that a lot of smokers in Bengal blame their addiction on the Charminars of their role model!
Writing anything about Feluda is fraught with the huge risk of repeating oneself as volumes have been written and biographies reconstructed in meticulous detail. It is a pity that his address (21 Rajani Sen Road, Calcutta 700029) is fictitious or else a memorial on the lines of 221B Baker Street would have been created for sure!
My favourite Feluda novel is Chhinaamastar Abhishaap – which mixes circus, wordplays & riddles, family intrigue, missing heirs & heirlooms with consummate ease. Set in the town of Hazaribagh, Feluda solves a mystery by combing through the diaries of a dead man in which he had scribbled in riddles about the dark secrets of his life. There is a tiger on the prowl, having escaped from the Great Majestic Circus and the ringmaster Karandikar is a man who thinks nothing of shoving his head in the tiger’s mouth. Also, there are mysterious characters in the form of the dead man’s sons, friends and relatives.
“He became better instead of being good” is one vital clue scribbled in the diary and the solution is so elegantly simple that it stands out among a host of other brilliant puzzles in the book.
A dead man’s writings and last words have been a recurring theme in Feluda novels.
Apart from Chhinnamasta, Joy Baba Felunath had a sculptor dying with mysterious last words. In Gangtokey Gondogol, the dead man had a puzzling telegram in his pocket. In Dr Munshir Diary, the manuscript of the murdered psychiatrist’s autobiography goes missing after his death in which he had revealed secrets about his patients and family.
This turned out to be strangely prophetic as the manuscript of Ray’s autobiography – My Years With Apu – went missing from his home in the days after his death. (The book in print is a reconstructed version by his wife from his first drafts and notes.)
And word games too. Ghurghutiar Ghatana had a bilingual puzzle. Samaddar-er Chaabi had a musical one. Badshahi Angti had a puzzle in the last words of a dying man. Joy Baba Felunath had a puzzle about an African King created by a kid. Royal Bengal Rahashya had Feluda solving a treasure hunt in rhyme. Ray’s love for word play just keeps them coming.
As shown in the untranslatable example from Shonar Kella (the film):
- Matitey shobe keno? Jog byayam korbey boley?
- Shokaley jog byayam. Aar rattirey jodi kaukey biyog kortey hoi…
- Jog! Biyog! Apnar to moshai onek gun!
The Bengali’s love for the underdog comes across in Feluda novels through the character of Sidhu Jyatha.
Siddheswar Bose stays near Feluda’s house (Sardar Shankar Road, to be precise) and is an encyclopaedia. Period. He knows everything and is more intelligent than Feluda himself. His character is somewhat similar to Mycroft in the Holmes series. He does nothing (or did nothing of consequence in his younger days) and spends his time reading or collecting interesting news from the papers.
In a defining conversation (from the film Shonar Kella), he is complimented by Feluda – “If you had been a detective, I would’ve been out of a job!” He responds by saying, “A lot of people would’ve been out of their jobs if I did theirs. So I do nothing…”
The unfulfilled promise of an extremely talented person is a notion we find extremely romantic and we root for the person passionately. If I may extend the fictional character to a real-life analogy, then Feluda is Ray himself and Sidhu Jyatha is probably Ritwik Ghatak! (Forgive my over-simplifications!)
Professor Shonku has been described by Andrew Robinson as a ‘mild-mannered Professor Challenger’ but if you ask me, Shonku is nothing like Challenger, who is more of an adventurer.
Shonku is an inventor and his stories are primarily cerebral in nature – most of them ending with a twist and a lot involving plain and simple problem solving.
What – I think – completely sets them apart is the range of the discoveries that the inventor has come up with. By Shonku’s own admission, he has been hailed as being an inventor second only to Edison. Frankly, if you go through his roster, Edison’s inventions just pale into insignificance.
Shonku’s stories (though coming under the broad head of science fiction) never delved into the scientific possibilities of his inventions and this is where we have an amazing range of scientifically impossible but deliciously useful gadgets!
Shonku’s adventures also have a massive geographical range, usually not seen in children’s literature. In fact, if you read any of Shonku’s anthologies, the locations are more out of a Ludlum or Sheldon thriller criss-crossing continents in a jiffy! When I had read through the list of Ray’s major awards and the film festivals attended, I saw an almost perfect correlation between the places the creator went to and the character followed soon after! Needless to say, the research was impeccable and the trivia bang on!
To give a comic angle to the series, the peripheral character of Abinash-babu (Shonku’s neighbour in Giridih) was developed and made a regular feature in the later stories. His non-scientific approach to life and ultra-simple worldview became an interesting counterpoint to Shonku, whose overpowering intelligence extends even to the names of his pets. His cat’s name is Newton!
My favourite Shonku novel is Compu – which is a miniature supercomputer built by the collaboration of some major scientists of the world. Behind the fantastic notion of having a crystal ball (literally) knowing the answers to ALL the questions in the world, there is an engaging philosophical question on where the edge of human learning is and where one goes from there. In the story, the gadget – Compu – develops a mind of its own and decides to answer for itself one of the enduring questions that have puzzled mankind. The ending is quite brilliant as it raises a signpost to the limits human intelligence can go to.
Another favourite is Swarnaparni (The Plant of Golden Leaves) – which was probably the last written novel but actually predates all the other stories as it chronicles the story behind Shonku’s first and most momentous invention – Miracure-all. I liked it for the blend of fiction and history, the treasure trove of trivia on Shonku’s life and Shonku’s brand of ideology in which he penetrates Nazi Germany to save the life of a Jewish scholar. And of course, the small error in continuity, which the Shonku buffs pounced on!
One recurring theme of these novels is the professional jealousy of other scientists that Shonku has to endure. An overwhelming majority of the novels are centred on the machinations of scientists, frustrated by Shonku’s success. Scientists upstaged by Shonku’s superior intellect – who have been beaten to an invention, whose theories have been improved upon, whose works have been less publicized – are the villains of the piece.
This leads one to wonder if Ray faced (or perceived) the brunt of similar professional rivalries with other filmmakers. Because the settings – of a science conference and a film festival – are extremely similar as in both, creators come to showcase their works. Maybe, the undercurrent of envy in those festivals formed the basis of Shonku’s run-ins with his scientific rivals.
Another theme, which has been repeated a few times, is Shonku’s refusal to part with the patents of his inventions for money. American millionaires have made offers to Shonku, only to be spurned. This somehow reminds me of Ray’s own encounter with David O. Selznick, where he refused the latter’s offer to make films for his studio because of the movie moghul’s penchant for controlling his directors.
This was the third and last recurring character created by Ray – to quench the demand of Sandesh magazine (which required at least a short story from him every alternate month).
Tarini Banerjee was a drifter. Over a long working career, he had gone all over India, working for maharajas, newspapers, artists, film production companies and what not! His areas of expertise includes (but is not restricted to) playing cricket, modeling, shooting game, writing humour columns, summoning ghosts and acting.
After retiring, he returned to Calcutta and recounted his adventures to a group of four boys over cups of tea and puffing ‘export quality beedis’. Unlike the other two characters, this one was poked fun at by his audience as the young boys dropped hints on the believability of the stories. Tarini Khuro, however, dismissed all these noises with the confidence of a man who had done it all.
One interesting feature of this series is the appearance of characters with shades from real life people. A rajah of a princely state, who played county cricket. A painter specializing in mythological themes. A scion of a rich Bengali family who wants to get into films. We seem to have seen them somewhere in public life.
My favourite Tarini Khuro story is Cricketer Tarini Khuro – in which our hero turns up for a princely state against a British planters’ side and quite obviously, saves the day. The thrill is due to the build-up, which claims the story to be a mix of ghosts and cricket. This is aptly borne out in the final revelation!
Tollywood-ey Tarini Khuro is another story with a neat twist, located in Ray’s own territory – Calcutta’s film city of Tollygunge. Tucked inside the story are some subtle observations on the deplorable quality of commercial filmmaking of the times!
Ray’s talents as a screenwriter are evident in most of his writings and most vividly in his short stories. The dialogue, the characters, the art direction and even the soundtrack are captured completely – as if it were a short film. And quite appropriately, when Sandip Ray made a television series (Satyajit Ray Presents), a large number of the episodes were based on Ray’s short stories.
Ray had written 101 stories (including the Tarini Khuro ones), all of which are available in one convenient volume now. If one goes down the contents page, the range of topics is again breathtaking. Carnivorous plants, ancient curses, time travel, vampire, kleptomania, magic, hypochondria – phew!
One theme, for which Ray has been criticized by ‘rationalists’, is that of the supernatural. Ghosts are summoned in séance sessions, atheists are proved wrong and generally spooky things happen. But then, the objective of these kinds of stories was not to be a science textbook but to provide a tingling feeling when read by candlelight on a load-shedding evening.
The most recurring character is the lonely urban male. Ray’s fiction is almost totally devoid of female characters and in most stories; the central character is a 40-something single male, working in nondescript office, staying in Calcutta with a male servant in a small flat. This person usually discovers an unusual talent or thing and that becomes the story. More often than not, an act of honesty or moral strength redeems the protagonist.
If I have to choose a favourite story, it will probably be Apadartha (The Good-for-Nothing) in which the narrator talks about one of his uncles who plays the title role. It follows the man’s life in a series of snapshots, all of which seem to conclusively prove that the uncle is indeed good for nothing. The narrator, who has a soft corner for his favourite uncle, resists this belief until the final twist comes.
If I get to choose another, it would be Ratan-babu Aar Shei Lokta (Ratan-babu and That Man), in which a man goes to an offbeat town for a holiday and discovers his alter ego. He had been a lonely man all his life and longed for companionship. However, when he did discover a ‘friend’ with whom he had everything in common, he realized that it was too much for him to handle. I liked this story because I have two people with whom I have a similar feeling. Nilendu and Shiva would do well to keep away from me on a railway overbridge!
Millions of children – before and after me – have grown up with these magnificent men, who have stood for their ideals and have forsaken material comfort for a life of their choice. Besides the obvious fun of a thrilling story, I think there is a message somewhere. And the best part is that I never figured that out when I was reading them!
Even today, when I am a little depressed, I pick up the first Ray anthology that I get on my shelf and have to read only a few pages to start feeling better again. Call it some kind of therapy but I guess one never outgrows the need for heroes.
Note on some of the words:
1. Jyatha and Khuro are both paternal uncles. The former is an elder brother of the father and the latter is a younger brother.
2. Chhinnamasta is another name for Goddess Kali. Literally, goddess of the severed heads – it refers to the form of the goddess in which she appears as wearing a garland of heads.