Contemporary Critical Theory (MEL 232)
Prof Anil J Pinto/ Prof Vijayaganesh
16th February 2014
Western mystery and crime fiction has a prominent influence on the Bengali narratives and character portraitures. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictive creation, the character of London based ‘Consultant Detective’ Sherlock Holmes, has not only managed to withstand all the criticisms and adaptations, but also remains to be one of the greatest detective characters sketched and the most acclaimed literary piece of all time. If we look into some of the regional Indian detectives, a remarkable similarity can be noticed in Bengali detective fiction, in the character coined by Satyajit Ray – Prodosh C. Mitter, better known as Feluda. Therefore, a structuralist study of both the similar yet diverse fictional characters will highlight the prominent influence of the occidental on the oriental narratives.
Structuralism is a theoretical paradigm which discusses that things cannot be understood in isolation. They have to be seen in the larger structure they are part of. In Literary theory , structuralist criticism , relates literary texts to a larger structure which may be a particular genre , a range of inter- textual connections , a model of universal narrative structure or recurrent pattern or motif. Therefore,a structuralist study aims to find out the fundamental units on which these texts are constituted and the rules that govern these units. Vladimir Propp’s analysis, Morphology of Folktales, analyzes the structure of folk or fairy tales as a literary form. He points out that they have thirty -one common functions, regardless of language. According to him borrowings can be both structural as well as cultural. Therefore one can notice a similarity in the structure of Cinderella and Snow White.
Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of the celebrated detective character of all times, Sherlock Holmes. He had hardly expected his work to be this highly appreciated by the masses in the 19th century. Though he first introduced the character in the novel A Study in Scarlet in the year 1887, Doyle also tried to end the series by killing Holmes in The Final Problem (1893) to free himself from the character’s shadow and concentrate on something else but he was compelled to revive the character due to the pressure from his readers. He brought him back in The Hound of Baskervilles and declared that his death was pretence. Similarly, Satyajit Ray, who had written 35 novels centred around Feluda, had mentioned:
“When I wrote my first Feluda story, I had scarcely imagined he would prove so popular that I would be forced to write a Feluda novel every year.” (Ray)
Ray, being an avid reader of Jule Verne, H.G.Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, incorporated many of their concepts in his presentation of mystery and detective fiction. Satyajit Ray left an ineradicable impression in the fields of literature and cinema. He was not only the finest Indian film director but also an admirable writer, publisher, illustrator, graphic designer and also a film critic. His science fiction and detective narratives are considered to be one of the greatest in Indian literary creations.
Though the two different characters belong to different time frames and geographical vicinity but identical genre, a comparative study of both will shed light on how they are structured in the same manner. Holmes’ addiction, his ways of deduction, the dramatic way of revealing the mystery, Watson as the narrator, lack of women characters, similarity in the simplistic language, the villainous Moriarty and other such characteristics have their parallel in Ray’s post modern creation, Feluda. Though they both reside in two different areas-one in London and another in Calcutta, their street names are similar and have managed to retain the significance over the ages. Holmes resides in 221B Baker Street, London whereas Feluda’s residence is on 23 Rajani Sen Street, Kolkata.
The occidental characters developed by Doyle have their parallel in Ray’s fiction. Though critics often mention Topshe to be the replica of Sherlock’s Dr. Watson, if we notice closely, we will notice that Watson’s character has been divided into two different characters in the Feluda series- one being Topshe who like Watson was the narrator and the other one being Jatayu, the comic relief throughout the narrative and therefore proving to be an important essence in the stories. Jatayu’s character, though not of much importance in the actual solution of crime, helps lighten the mood, drawing a comfort zone between an intricate plot and perplexed, excited readers. Though he fails to keep pace with the rollercoaster ride of Feluda’s mysteries, Jatayu has managed to become an almost indispensible part of Feluda’s adventures. Watson offers a magnanimous portrayal of Sherlock’s intellect. He exclaims at how the genius detective draws appropriate analysis only by taking a single glance. Similarly, Topshe, Feluda’s quintessential assistant gives an accurate record of the extraordinary events that occur around the detective. As each of the sidekicks has lesser aptitude than the protagonists, they successfully glorify their superior counterparts. Just as Watson acts as Sherlock’s foil, so does Jatayu, being blown away by the investigator’s grey matter. Although in The Blanched Soldier and The Lion’s Mane, we see first person narrative, it is soon changed to the usual Watsonian narrative.
When we shift from the principle characters, we notice remarkable similarity in the characters of Sidhu Jyatha and Holme’s elder brother, Mycroft. Both of them are endowed with vast knowledge, current and historic, gathered through extensive reading, but are incapable of detective work due to their lazyness or ‘lack of legwork’ as pointed out by Holmes. Doyle’s creation, Mycroft possesses deductive skills exceeding even those of his younger brother. However, due to the urge or incapability of putting in the necessary physical effort, he rather prefers to stick to his high Government position than chasing criminals. Mycroft however remains a sedentary problem solver for Holmes, providing solution based on seemingly no evidence. Similarly, even Sidhu Jyatha has been portrayed of having a photographic memory and encyclopaedia of information which proves to be useful whenever Feluda needs it. With modernization of Feluda’s world minor characters such as Sidhu Jyatha are becoming redundant gradually due to the advent of other advanced search engines. But Mycroft still holds an important role because of his lofty position in the government which helps Sherlock in his cases.
No detective work is complete without a remarkable villainous character, characters that are common in both the literary works. Moriarty, the malevolent classic evil genius who is often considered to be Holmes’ alter-ego, has influenced the modern representation of villain in Feluda’s works, Maganlal Meghraj. Maganlal’s appearance makes the novels such as Joto Kando Kathmandute (The Criminals of Kathmandu), Joy Baba Felunath (The Mystery of the Elephant God), and Golapi Mukter Baksho (The Mystery of the Pink Pearl) all the more appealing.
Another remarkable similarity worth noting in both the works is the silence of women characters. Nowhere in either of the series are women given much prominence. In the story The Valley of Fear Holmes’ idea of the fairer sex can be well comprehended from his dialogues where he condemns womankind in general. It was only the character of Irene Adler who managed to earn Holmes’s unbound admiration. To Sherlock Holmes she was always ‘the Woman’. Even Ray has adopted a similar take on women in the Feluda series. Being predominantly male oriented it has very less scope for female characters. Nowhere in the thirty odd novels has Ray mentioned the influence of any female characters, not even a mother figure. However, there are few women characters of negligible importance such as an actress who adds to the plot by discovering a dead body in the novel Kailashey Kelenkari (A Killer in Kailash) or the host’s octogenarian aunt with the senile idiosyncrasies in the Jahangirer Swarnamudra (The Gold Coins of Jahangir).
Arthur Conan Doyle used language which was comprehendible by the common people unlike other mystery fiction and therefore it was well accepted by the masses. Even Satyajit Ray uses uncomplicated narrative for the easy understanding of the stories. Therefore, the simplistic and accessible approach in both form and language has ensured their general success. Even the process of deduction in crime solving and its use within the framework of narrative helps the readers to participate in the course of action.
Both Sherlock Holmes and Feluda display their expertise in martial arts in most of the stories. In The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes explains to Watson how he fought off his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty by using his knowledge of baritsu, a Victorian form of jujitsu. Feluda, like Holmes, was a man of stony built and extremely adept in martial arts, namely judo and karate. He was a great appreciator of Bruce Lee as mentioned in the novel Tintorettor Jishu (Tintoretto’s Jesus). Though Feluda was in possession of a .32 colt revolver, he used very infrequently. Even Holmes and Watson carried guns. Watson had an old army service revolver and Holmes had a Webley Bulldog revolver.
There are some other vague similarities that can be noticed if we look into the intricacies of the character and plot construction. Such as none of the characters are seen taking payments for the services provided, inspite of the hefty offers, double remuneration for instances, by rich clients. Ray also used Holmes’ practice of smoking a pipe with a modern touch. Smoking pipe was primarily Victorian which was used in the Indian adaptation in the form of cigarette. While Holmes was an ardent smoker of pipe Feluda was also a chain-smoker of unfiltered Charminar. Holmes’ fondness for disguises, a trait incorporated by Satyajit Ray but with a slight difference. Feluda also adopted impenetrable disguises only to save himself or gather necessary information but never with the purpose of deception. In most of the stories both the writers use a dramatic way of revealing the mystery. None of the two characters give away the information, even to their counterparts, right away. They withhold information keeping everyone in the dark to enhance the impact on the readers. Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia told that it was simplicity that helps him deduce, to avoid answering Watson’s question. None of the stories give us any description of the characters’ families. In Doyle’s creation we find the mention of Mycroft Holmes character alone and no record of their parents or even their background. Similarly, in Ray’s stories one finds very less mention of Feluda’s family. Only once in Badshahi Angati (The Emperor’s Ring) there is a mention of Feluda’s father. Like Holmes Feluda’s character was initially presented to be slightly comical but it gradually developed into a more sharp, tall and handsome figure. Both the creations have an astounding similarity with their respective creators. Feluda, in most of his stories travelled to various provinces within India and Ray sent him to places that he had been to and liked a lot. The influence of Holmes on Feluda can be more prominently understood in Ray’s novel Feluda in London. In this novel he visits Baker Street and says, addressing to Holmes: “Guru, You showed us the way. If I am an investigator today, it is only because of you.” (Ray 554)
As structuralism aims to find out the building blocks of a narrative, it can be applied to study how the detective fictions over the ages have similar structures irrespective of their language differences. While content varies both across culture as well as time, their structure remains the same. If we try to explore other Bengali novels belonging to the same genre we’ll notice a similar resemblance in their structures. For instance, Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s Bomkesh Bakshi, another detective series in Bengali and Sherlock Holmes. Therefore, inspite of the difference in places or origins, genres and time frames the characters, setting, language reflect an astounding amount of similarity with the Victorian classic which has influenced several Bengali detective narratives. Even the titles of both Holmes and Feluda series- The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Complete Adventures of Feluda, are identical to each other, illustrating how and till what extent has the Sherlock series inspired Satyajit Ray to frame a complete series following the guidelines set by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle years back.
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