Saturday, April 25, 2015

Satyajit Ray, crime writer

You may know Satyajit Ray as India's most famous movie director, but he was also a crime writer, composing a series of wildly popular novels and stories about a sleuth named Feluda. The stories, which appeared from the mid-1960s on, combined wit, liberal sprinklings of Holmes and Poirot, and a sharp eye for contemporary social problems.  I suspect one could do worse than reading these stories as an introduction to modern India. Or at least I think so based on the novella A Killer in Kailash, which first appeared in 1973

First, the story's form. Ray read and admired Sherlock Holmes, and A Killer in Kailash is full of delightful nods to Holmes and to Hercule Poirot. Feluda's cousin Tapesh narrates the stories in an amused, sometimes bemused, manner, like a Bengali Watson. Feluda, surprised by Tapesh's  failure to grasp a clue's significance, tells him that "Even the few grey cells you had seem to be disappearing, my boy. Stop worrying and go to sleep."

(Photo by your humble blogkeeper)
So Ray was a Christie-loving, Doyle-worshiping Anglophile, right?  Not so fast.  A Killer in Kailash is about the despoiling of India's cultural heritage for gain, specifically the theft of a yakshi's head for sale to an American collector. (This made rub my chin thoughtfully, for only weeks before I had ogled and taken pictures of a gorgeous example—in an American collection, above/right.)

So Ray was a Hindu nationalist, right?  Not so fast. At various times in the story, Feluda admits he can't speak Hindi, and Tapesh overhears two men arguing, but "They were probably speaking in Marathi, for I couldn't understand a word."  When Feluda and company board a plane for Bombay, Tapesh notes that none of them had visited that city before. Without anything like didactic intent, the story is a refreshing reminder of the glorious d-------y of Indian society.

A Killer in Kailash offers amused references to Hare Krishnas,  and, quite naturally, a vocabulary lesson or two. Chowkidar (from the Urdu language) is a fine word for night watchman. I'd always liked cheroot, but I never knew until looking it up that the word derives from Tamil, yet another language spoken in India (also in Sri Lanka).  How can a simple detective novella be so thought-provoking, so educational, and so much fun?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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15 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

UCSC actually houses the Satyajit Rey Film and Study Center and I've gone to a few events tied in with the Pacific Rim Film Festival here over the years. But I haven't read any mysteries. They only sound vaguely familiar. They inevitably remind me of the Inspector Ghote mysteries by H.F.R. Keating a few of which I have read and enjoyed.

April 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, my gosh. Yes, they might well remind one of Keating's Inspector Ghote, with the added biographical fact that Ray was a native, while Keating, I think, did not visit India until after he had written a number of the Ghote stories.

I first heard about the Ray's stories some time back, but it took a post by the admirable Brian Lindenmuth to finally get me reading one.

This story is a novella, about 100 pages long. (That Ray published fiction in this form may say something about Indian reading and publishing habits.) I think a collection of the Feluda short stories is available from Penguin.

April 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You'll guess from this post that I enjoy the combination of old-style narrative with contemporary concerns and settings unfamiliar to me.

April 25, 2015  
Blogger Robert (R.T.) Davis said...

I will be looking for a copy of the Ray book. I wonder, though, why there aren't more detective fiction writers from postcolonial countries; I base that wondering on a quick bit of research that fails to disclose many authors and titles from folks formerly embraced by the British Empire (with, of course, Ireland being the notable exception to my suggestion).

April 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: Click on the "Indian crime fiction" link at the bottom of this post. There apparently have been any number of flourishing pulp and crime fiction scenes in India, some small proportion of which had been translated into English.

Blaft Publications had issued a number of translated volumes of Indian pulp ficiton.

April 25, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, I was kind of staqggered when I learned that Keating had written at least the initial ones without ever having set foot in India at all. They worked for me, but I don't know what his Indian reception would have been.

As to R.T's comment, I think there are quite a lot of mysteries set in former colonies, many of which you've mentioned here over time. But whether the reading public has the same appetite for mysteries and crime fiction written by their own is a different question. I know they do read or at least see films of a lot of the American versions, but I don't know if this is really the same thing.

April 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I put up a post some time ago about a quirk of speech in one of the Ghote stories that I thought might smack of condescending stereotyping until I read books by Indian authors that included the very same quirk. I don't know whether the Keating story pre- or postdated his first visit to India.

Ray's own taste, as well as books that he has his characters read, suggest that he looked to European modals for his reading and writing pleasure; that's what was available at the time. I suspect from my nodding acquaintance with some of the writers Blaft Publications has published in English translation that Indian readers may read many Indian authors we don't know about.

One factor to consider is what "their own" means in a country as lingustically diverse as India, which had twelve official languages last time I checked. English can function not just as some colonial imposition, but rather as a bridge between people of different native languages in India.

April 25, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, by their own, I meant from within their own borders and not imported from elsewhere, whatever the language. I used to see some of the bestsellers lists from Publishers Weekly at the bookstore and it was depressing how dominated it was in most countries by American megasellers. Not that I want to deny people the pleasure of reading whatever they want, but it did seem to have a lot to do with American marketing.

April 25, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's hard to know when taste stops and marketing begins. Antipathy toward one's own country's cultural publication is a complicated issue, as Canadian crime writers might attest.

April 25, 2015  
Blogger Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Peter, an excellent review! It's a shame I have never read Ray's crime novels although I have seen many of his films. His sleuth, Feluda, is quite popular in Indian culture though I doubt the present generation would have heard of him. I'll be looking for his stories. On the other hand, Keating's Inspector Ghote series based in Bombay, at the time, is still talked about and his novels are displayed prominently in bookstores.

April 26, 2015  
Blogger Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Peter, I'd like to share this review on my Fb page. I hope you don't mind.

April 26, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Go ahead and share it. Thanks for asking.

I don't know where one generation finishes and the next one starts, but I would bet some youngish people have heard of Feluda. He appears to have been phenomenally popular in books, on radio, and in television movies, and Feluda stories were being published or at least reprinted as recently as the 1990s.

I don't know if younger people in India are as prone to retro in music, fashions, and so on as their counterparts in the U.S. are, but in a country of a billion people, with book stalls in the streets, some youngsters must know Feluda.

April 26, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Prashant: I just now noticed the part of your comment about Keating and Ghote. I find it interesting that his books would have retained their popularity while Rey's have not.

I can only speculate, or maybe I should adopt an attitude humility and not speculate on matters about which I know little.

April 26, 2015  
Blogger Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Peter, I agree, "some youngsters must know Feluda" but I have not heard him being mentioned in more than a decade. However, people still discuss Ray's films which are often shown on cable television. Many young Indians are in tune with my generation and even that of my parents, but mostly in films and music.

April 26, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ray's films surely overshadowed his writing. I heard about his movies decades before I learned he had written the Feluda stories. Of course, I became interested in movies long before I started reading crime fiction.

The real reason I find Keating's continued popularity interesting is that discussion about culture here in America, at least in the classes of which I am a part, has in recent decades prized "authenticity" and scorned colonialism. It would be terribly easy to view Ray as an example of the former and Keating of the latter. Luckily the world is not as simple as such lazy cultural shorthand would have it.

April 26, 2015  

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