Sleuthing Through Feluda’s Kolkata

With a notebook and pencil in her pocket, a writer traces Calcutta’s golden past in the footsteps of Satyajit Ray's young detective.  
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Pradosh Chandra Mitter aka Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s bhadrolok detective with sparkling wit, and an appetite for Nizam’s rolls and Charminar cigarettes, is every Bengali kid’s superhero. Illustration By: Rajib Das; Photo By: Noriokanisawa/iStock /Getty Images Plus/Getty Images (background)

The obelisk on the grave of William Wordsworth—an officer in the British army, not the Romantic—in Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery, would have worn a lighter cloak of moss on the June morning of 1977 when Feluda, Topshe and their funny writer friend Lalmohan Babu walked past it to check out a crime scene. That’s my first thought as I enter the cemetery, fresh out of a reread of Satyajit Ray’s “Gorosthaney Sabdhan” (“The Secret of the Cemetery”).

Pradosh Chandra Mitter aka Feluda, Ray’s bhadrolok detective with sparkling wit, and an appetite for Nizam’s rolls and Charminar cigarettes, is every Bengali kid’s superhero. Feluda and his cousin-cohort Topshe can be called the travelling detectives. Their adventures span from the deserts of Rajasthan to the mountains of Nepal, and even London and Hong Kong. Yet the Mitters and Lalmohan Babu, who goes by the pen name Jatayu, are quintessential Calcutta folk.

Feluda’s Kolkata

First manufactured in 1957 by Hindustan Motors in Kolkata, the Ambassador taxis of the city are just as iconic as its British-era buildings. Photo By: Dinodia Photo/Corbis/Getty images

In Ray’s world, the Mitters lived at an imaginary address on the very real Rajani Sen Road in the Jodhpur Park area. Today, its gulmohar and peepul-lined lanes slumber wrapped in elderly art deco bungalows. Their strange cases: car chases through Lansdowne in “Golokdham Rahashya” (“The Mysterious Tenant”); meeting dodgy doppelgängers at Hogg Market in “Joto Kando Kathmandute” (“The Kathmandu Caper”); looking for old family portraits in the now-closed, almost 200-year-old Bourne & Shepherd photo studio; or following suspects to Park Street auction houses in “Indrajal Rahashya” (“Magical Mystery”), offer an interesting glimpse of Calcutta of the 1960s and ’70s.

My Feluda adventure begins at the gates of the over 250-year-old South Park Street Cemetery, entering which feels like crossing over to another era. Standing by the white marble tombstone of poet and reformer Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, I know what Topshe meant by the “sound of traffic going down Park Street” blotting out here. Instead, the tree-covered burial grounds rustle with sounds of scampering squirrels, hooting birds, and truant college students swapping ghost stories.

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The historical St. John’s Church, which houses Warren Hasting’s first office, is as colourful as its stained glass windows. Photo By: M Amirtham/Dinodia Photo/Dinodia photo library

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At the Feluda-themed Abar Baithak café in Jodhpur Park, you can relish hot chocolate along with Ray’s works. Photo By: Rumela Basu

 

While every Kolkata mystery unravels a different chapter of the city, “Gorosthaney Sabdhan” is a unique journey. In this story, “Feluda’s latest passion was Calcutta.” It starts with Fancy Lane, an L-shaped street right by St. John’s Church in what is today’s “office para.” Where now I find old offices and shops, there once stood a podium for public hangings or phashi in Bengali. Like many other words—even surnames—in Bengal, the street’s name changed to echo the Englishmen’s pronunciation. The story debuting Lalmohan Babu’s second-hand Mark 2 Ambassador took me on a ride through a city in transition. In Feluda’s Calcutta, street names are changing—the British-appointed Dalhousie Square declared B.B.D. Bagh after freedom fighters—and what was a glorious capital city is now fraught with Naxal tension and socio-political unrest. But at no point can the history of his city be undermined, Feluda tells Topshe leading him to the cloudy white tomb of Job Charnock (considered a founder of the city) in St. John’s Church.

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The 250-year-old South Park Street Cemetery (top) chronicles many stories of Calcutta’s Englishmen. Photo By: Rumela Basu

The sprawling gardened grounds of the 18th-century church, one of the first public buildings of the British capital, houses the tombstone of Lord Brabourne, Governor of Bengal and Bombay and Viceroy of India, alongside war memorials of events seldom spoken of, such as the tragedy of Calcutta’s Black Hole Prison, where over 100 British and Anglo-Indian soldiers and Indian civilians imprisoned by Siraj ud-Daulah died. I also spot a monument for British soldiers lost to the Second Rohilla War. Feluda had helped Topshe read the Latin inscription on Job Charnock’s tomb, but I stay for the music of the church’s 19th-century pipe organ.

Tangled in a delicious time warp, I arrive at a little shop called Ananda in Gariahat to buy my first copy of a Feluda graphic novel (“Golapi Mukta Rahashya” or “The Mystery of the Pink Pearl”) published by store’s press in the 2000s. The bold watercolour illustrations, a refreshing spin on Ray’s own sketches, alerts me to the city’s perennial chaos. Easy to hate, easy to love. Soon, I am looking at a wall art of Feluda’s nemesis Maganlal Meghraj at Abar Baithak café sipping on Tinkori Babur Hot Chocolate in the detective’s backyard, Jodhpur Park. I know I’ll be out again, sleuthing for stories. May be I’ll run into more dazzling tales from the past, or even better, an adventure-in-waiting.

  • Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.

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