The stories of Feluda – the pet name and the more recognized name of Pradosh Chandra Mitter – are a literary staple for every child growing up in Bengal as well as grown-up Bengalis. A legendary creation from the legendary Satyajit Ray, the sleuth’s appeal lies in his traits of intelligence, dexterity and wit amalgamated with a no-nonsense attitude. This makes him an inspirational figure for the Bengali men. R.W. Connell’s ‘Gender Theory’ conceptualizes and expounds on “hegemonic masculinity” which lies at the peak of the hierarchical order of masculinities. The characterization of Feluda perfectly resonates with the attributes of “hegemonic masculinity” which thrives on the notion of ideal characteristics of a man and their innate superiority in relation to women.
The Feluda stories are generally woven around wealthy families, illustrious characters and anecdotes concomitant to historical heritage that makes for an engrossing treat for the readers. As any other Bengali child I have hero-worshipped Feluda as well as participated in the discussions pertaining to Feluda. However, as a feminist when I revisited my childhood literary treasure I was crestfallen to discover that the Feluda series could not evade itself from plummeting into the trap of a patriarchal crime-fiction.
Now the question lies is what constitutes to be a patriarchal work?
It is where I would examine the facets of overarching patriarchal elements in the Feluda series and willfully accept the criticisms of millions of Feluda fans. A feminist reading of a fictional literature would look at the role, scope of performance and personal autonomy and the overall character sketch of women characters. There are around 34 finished Feluda stories among which in seven stories (The Curse of the Goddess, Napoleon’s Letter, The Disappearance of Amber Sen, The Acharya Murder Case, The Gold Coins of Jahangir, Shakuntala’s Necklace, and Dr. Munshi’s Diary) there was visibility of female characters. In all the other stories either the victim is a widower or a bachelor.
Let me take you through the characterization of the salient female characters in these seven stories and novels. In The Curse of the Goddess, there is a little girl who is close to his grandfather and takes a deep interest in wordplay and riders. In Napoleon’s Letter, the victim’s daughter-in-law is a voracious reader of Feluda, in The Disappearance of Amber Sen, the victim’s niece is a Feluda fan, in The Acharya Murder Case, the victim’s niece is once again a Feluda fan and was trained to play the piano, and in case of The Gold Coins of Jahangir, the victim’s aunt is a lady crippled by the blight of aging.
In Shakuntala’s Necklace and Dr. Munshi’s Diary, there is greater female participation – the former one depicts the eponymous character’s granddaughter as an aspiring journalist and exercises her agency to keep the necklace safe, whereas in the latter Dr. Munshi’s wife is the mastermind behind her husband’s murder.
With the exception of these two crime-fictions from the Feluda series, the character design of the women are domestic, fragile, dainty and easily perturbed by crisis. They are in need of chivalrous men to be protected and confined within the ambit of safe house (pun intended). They are merely reduced to fans rather than entailing in active participation. The presence and portrayal of the female characters have been engineered in such a fashion that their absence won’t rouse the rhythm and texture of the plot.
These insignificant female characters might not be an issue for the Feluda fans (comprising of all ages) but it is certainly disturbing for a Feluda fan with a strong grounding in feminism.
When I brought out this issue of invisibilization of female characters to my fellow Feluda fans, they defended the decision of Satyajit Ray arguing that the target readers are children. This imminently springs up the question: does the idea of children concoct up the image of only boys? What about girls why they are not in the picture?
Why there was a discomfort in the Feluda series to allow girls and women to be autonomous characters or rebels who did not embrace gendered roles? Was the Feluda series a status-quoist narration that reinforced the stereotypes of the knight in the shining armour and the damsel in distress?
When we look at the Feluda series through the prism of feminist deconstruction, there emerges more questions and the realisation of a sad home truth!
[Image attribute: Abhijit Bhaduri]