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Feluda and Byomkesh still rule
You'd think Calcutta would be cleansed of crime with all the detectives, both amateur and professional, taking residence there and sniffing out rahasyas (mysteries). It is here, after all, that Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi still hog the limelight, inspiring new films and television projects everyday. But they belong to a tradition of crime writing that actually began in the late 19th century.
Bengalis have goyenda (detective) of every stripe - police and army officials, anglicised and bhadralok private investigators, women and children. But none has come close to Byomkesh's standards, and after the 1980s there are fewer contributors to the genre;Samaresh Majumdar's Arjun and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Fatik are two relatively new ones. Feluda and Byomkesh rule with even blogs and channels on video-sharing networks dedicated to them.
Banomali Daser Hatya (The Murder of Banomali Das;1892), the first in the Darogar Daptar (inspector's office) series is considered the first Bengali detective story, authored by former policeman Priyanath Mukhopadhyay (1855-1947 ). Academician Pinaki Roy in The Manichean Investigators argues that early pre-Independence Bengali detective fiction, a lot of it daroga (police) tales favouring the colonisers, had inherited from European detective fiction.
In an essay in a Byomkesh omnibus, writer Pratulchandra Gupta notes that Panchkori Dey (1873-1945 ), another first-generation Bengali crime fiction writer, routinely presented bideshi goyenda, or foreign detectives, in desi garb and, according to linguist Sukumar Sen, borrowed freely from Wilkie Collins and Emile Gaboriau. Dey's detectives rode hansom cabs. Wildly popular Dinendrakumar Ray (1869-1943 ) actually created a Londoner sleuth, Robert Blake.
The 1910s and '20s saw a spurt in detective fiction writing. A crime fiction journal Nandan Kanon was started in 1902 and Calcutta-based industrialist Hemendra Mohan Basu started the Kuntalin Literary Award in 1896 for writing in the genre. Newer writers would dispense with the daroga model and adopted the private-detective-plus-assistant /confidant one. Hemendra Kumar Roy (1888-1963 ), points out Pinaki Roy, created no less than three sets of detectives -- Jayanta-Manik, Hemanta-Rabin and Inspector Satish.
"Aami detective boyier poka chhilam (I am severely addicted to crime fiction), " says eminent Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay. But, barring Saradindu Bandopadhyay's Byomkesh, Gangopadhyay doesn't think very highly of Bengali crime fiction. "Thik hoyeni (didn't turn out well), " he says.
Post-independence, there were dozens of writers and their detectives. Premendra Mitra created Ghanada;Nihar Ranjan Gupta, Kiriti Roy;Syed Mustafa Shiraj, Colonel Niladri Sarkar;Samaresh Basu, Gogol. In the '70s, a couple of women detectives came into the picture with Prodiptyo Roy's Jaga pishi (aunt) and Monoj Sen's Damayanti.
But of the dozens, only two won cult status that crossed the borders of Bengal - Byomkesh and Satyajit Ray's Feluda. Saradindu Bandopadhyay (1899-1970 ) was the one to raise the standard of what originated as pulp fiction to the level of art. First introduced in Pother Kanta in 1932, Byomkesh has enjoyed several afterlives with translations, television serials and movies including Ray's Chiriyakhana (1964). Another Byomkesh film, based on Adim Ripu, released this year. Its director Anjan Dutta says, "Byomkesh is the best. It brings realism into detective fiction. He, a married man, doesn't carry a gun - the modern detectives came with him. "
Byomkesh and Feluda are still read eagerly - also consumed in other forms like graphic novels, animation, television serials and films. Subir Mitra, of Ananda Publishers, which publishes both, says they are still best-sellers. "When the movies are on, there's a hike, but even without them they're very popular, " he says.
In his first appearance in 1965, Feluda was 27 years old. He has a notebook in which he notes things, smokes Charminar, carries a gun. Ray would go on to write another 34 stories with them. The first Feluda film, Sonar Kela by Ray himself, won a National Award;Ray's son Sandip continued with a different set of actors. Last year, Puffin launched their graphic novel wing with The Feluda Mysteries.
The series, which now has five books, has done "fairly well", says Sudeshna Shome Ghosh of Penguin. But they're not considering any other detective. "We've not been able to identify another with an all-India appeal, " she says of the series' abiding appeal.
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