The Curious Case of Fulidi
By Debnita Chakravarti
On September 23, 2020, Netflix premiered the film, Enola Holmes. Based on the first book of a series by American author Nancy Springer, it is the story of Sherlock Holmes’ sixteen-year-old sister. Conan Doyle never mentions her. The escapades of this member of the detective’s family become the focus of this young adult fiction, which will no doubt provide material for further filmed sequels. To celebrate the launch of this much-discussed and anticipated film, a series of statues were installed in cities around the UK. They commemorate the forgotten sisters of famous men and were placed near their towering male siblings – a literal statement as well as a figurative one, as the male statues are much larger in size. Like the men themselves, these likenesses have been a part of their respective cityscapes just as the figures inspiring them have become the cornerstones of global consciousness. The statues are of Frances Dickens, Maria Anna Mozart, and Mary Hardy, whose last names give away the identities of their brothers. The other woman is Helena Victoria, sister of Edward VII. Frances was a pupil of Beethoven at the Royal Academy of Music, a prodigy whose education was prioritised by her parents who could afford schooling for only one child. Maria Anna received higher billing than her brother when they performed together as children. Mary Hardy became headmistress of a school at a time when this was a remarkable achievement for a woman. Helena was a founding member of The British Red Cross Society and President of the Royal British Nurses’ Association. Yet their very identities were unknown to most of us till they were chosen to be the publicity stunt of an OTT platform. Social dicta and definitions made sure that these women were neatly relegated to join the fenced-off, faceless masses crowding the flanks of the highway of history along which their male siblings strode on. And even their very belated, rather gaudy statues are, fittingly, temporary installations.
This piece of news brought back lines from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929): “Let me imagine…what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say” (39). Woolf goes on to imagine the immense turmoil that would wreck Judith inside even as she battled unrelenting antagonism in trying to break out of the conventional life designated for members of her sex. Her brother, with his “small Latin and less Greek”, faced ridicule and competition from the University Wits when he tried to make his mark in London. Her struggle does not reach that point, as she cannot even begin to pursue her artistic ambitions. She dies an untimely death, maimed and mangled by a world which fails to comprehend the basic idea of a woman with a talent, purpose, desire, or even an identity of her own.
Mid-twentieth century India was not the England of the sixteenth century. In particular, Calcutta (as it was then called) is even today a seat of culture. Bengalis are known to be the most refined of people. Surely then, if the most famous detective of Bengali fiction had a sister who possessed all his intellectual faculties along with his thirst for justice, would she live a life very different from the ill-fated and anachronically-born Judith?
I try to flesh her out, give her a local habitation and a name: let us call her Fuli, formal name Pradiptaa Mitra (she would later laugh at the Anglicised ‘Mitter’ on her brother’s calling card). The two siblings, separated by a couple of years, grow up carefree in the absence of their yet-unpronounced gender distinctions. When Dada puts in his hand into the fox’s lair to pull out cubs, she joins in to see if any got left behind. But many years later, when her uncle recalls the incident as proof to his wife of his nephew’s extraordinary spunk, he does not mention his niece. It does not receive commendable mention in her gender curriculum vitae as it does in the gallery of the masculine attributes of her brother. The young boy is thought to have inherited the daring spirit of his Jethu, a famous hunter who managed a zamindari estate in Mymensingh. Everyone knows that family lineage is continued solely through male descendants.
Fuli is probably too young to remember her days in Dhaka before they came over in 1947. She starts schooling in Kolkata from their rented residence at Tara Road before moving to the more spacious house at 21 Rajani Sen Road. She proves herself to be her academic father’s worthy offspring and excels in studies like her brother. Joykrishna Mitra taught Mathematics and Sanskrit at Dhaka Collegiate School. Fuli often solves Dada’s homework sums for fun after she has breezed through her own. Felu is preparing for a bank post, but the young girl finds the idea of a desk job too tedious. She has gone on to represent her college in badminton, like Dada does in cricket, and wants to be a sportsperson. She loves travelling, and this seems an ideal way to see the world. In particular, she wants to go to London. She has been gifted a Sherlock Holmes omnibus that she and Dada have been devouring greedily. She yearns to see Holmes’s city, and stand in reverence in front of 221 Baker Street. She is secretly delighted that even their addresses are similar.
Fuli is in her third year when she qualifies for a national championship. It is in Bangalore. Dada has just returned from a tournament in Pune, and she can’t wait to start her own adventures. She dances up to Kaka and Kakima with the news. They are now the siblings’ guardians after the death of their parents in quick succession. Kaka listens gravely, and looks at his wife. She is more prompt. Travelling unsupervised is not something girls from the Mitra family do. As it is, next week is when Kaka’s colleague Ramen babu and his family will be coming to see her. Her college days are at an end, and this will be an excellent alliance. Her Kaka adds how they expect her to make them proud in her new role at her new household. They will fulfil their duty to their deceased Dada and Boudi by ensuring their daughter’s secure future. Fuli has never read Woolf. If she had, her surprise at this turn of events would have been less. Judith’s parents “knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter.” Her father “ceased to scold her” when she protested at the idea of being wedded off. “He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage.” He bribed her with trinkets, “Tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart?” (40) Fuli’s detective heroes fight criminals. But how does one fight family, especially when they have only her best interests at heart?
The wedding takes place barely a week after her final exams. The day she travels to Jamshedpur – her husband is an engineer there – is the one when she would have left for her tournament. She does not pack her racquet. Her aunt has given her the grinding stone that belonged to her mother, along with her recipe notebook. For the last few weeks, she has been tutored on the correct seasonings of various dishes. Her head is crammed full of new information even as her suitcase is weighed down with the baggage of expectations.
Dada writes to her regularly. After his success with solving Rajen babu’s problem in Darjeeling, Feluda has been getting several cases. They take him to places like Lucknow, Benaras, Bombay, Rajasthan, Shimla, Gangtok, even Nepal and Bhutan. Fuli reads his letters over and over again, visualising the places he describes in detail. She particularly likes it when he writes in the middle of a mystery, because then she can solve it in her mind, and wait to see the outcome in the next post. She is very often right. Her surmises about Dinanath Lahiri’s swapped suitcase, Jiban Mallick’s murder, Sultan the escaped tiger, the Pragya Paramita manuscript, the rare pink pearl, and many other puzzles match those of Dada. She is particularly pleased to have solved the Ghurghutiya parrot’s cryptic riddle. She follows leads and deciphers clues as her hands wash utensils, chop vegetables, dust a house which is already clean. Her husband is away all day, and sometimes on weekends too for office tours. But she has her two children to occupy her, not to mention the many relatives who keep dropping in for business or pleasure.
Initially she felt like a huge misfit, unable to join in the conversations about the shenanigans of the domestic help, the private lives of celebrities, the many catastrophes in the soap operas or the neighbourhood gossip. Her peers found her weird, the older female in-laws downright disrespectful. Now she has perfected the art of nodding along and making suitable interjections at appropriate times, all the while yearning for the quiet comfort of her books. Somewhere along the line, she has stopped thinking about what she wants. It is an amalgam of what her family needs and demands. Increasingly she is split among two parallel existences. In her own universe, she can unlock her restive mind and allow it to stretch out its cramps gingerly, inhaling life in large gulps vicariously through fiction and correspondence. In the other, she is just a body going through its ordered motions day and night, vertically and horizontally. At times she worries about whether her ability to feel, to react, even to love has started slipping through that gap which is widening between her two worlds slowly but surely. When her children play badminton during the winter evenings, she sometimes looks out dully, the darning or the polishing paralysed mid-air. Her ambitions and dreams now seem to belong to the pages of one of her books, the details of which she cannot quite remember.
Fuli certainly doesn’t cry anymore. The last time she did was when Dada wrote about travelling to London. He described his visit to Baker Street and the thrill of viewing that mecca of detection first-hand. That was the letter she read the most number of times before filing it away with the others. Of his ever-growing list of travelled places, the only two Fuli has visited are Hazaribag and Puri. She walked along the beach wondering why the world never let half of its population live a proper human life that could strive fully to realise its full potential. Would this planet not be stronger, healthier, and happier if all its men and women joined forces for its sake?
Topshe writes down Feluda’s cases as they happen. Fuli is glad her young cousin is a boy. Otherwise, he would have fetched the warm clothes from the laundry and packed suitcases in preparation of exciting journeys, but would have had to return from the station with protective parents. When her own daughter chirps on about her future, Fuli hears but a tale of science fiction, fully awareness of its impossibility. For with the passing years, the mother in her knows that nothing will change for her fast-growing daughter. On the rare occasion when she finds the odd couple of days to visit Kolkata without inconveniencing anyone, the now matronly Fuli is laden with homemade pickles and local honey to compensate for her smiling silences. She has only one request every time: “Dada, please write.”
I break off here, thinking about other unfulfilled promises. I shared this planet with the creator of Feluda for eighteen and a half years. For about ten of those I had planned to visit him, or at least write to him once. Afternoons of school summer vacations were spent doing the mandatory twenty mathematical problems everyday or a reluctant page of cursive writing, and across the balcony our neighbour’s grandson would be occupied likewise. Both of us were avid Ray fans and we used to have long animated chats about Feluda’s many escapades. We resolved to meet the great man in person to explain all our theories of possible alternative developments and endings of his narratives. Those were years when the fact that I was forcing myself into identification with male protagonists like Feluda, Tintin and so many others never occurred to me. That my meyebyala (girlhood) was different than my neighbour’s chhelebyala (boyhood) was still an alien concept.
We never made that short trip to Bishop Lefroy Road. We saw the emaciated figure on his death bed receiving the Oscar. And then soon after he left us, nursed a lifelong regret. It is not the disappointment of his iconic detective series never accommodating women. As Chandrabindoo-man Chandril correctly points out in an interview, this is a futile exercise – retrospectively accusing a genre of not accomplishing what was never in its original roadmap. The Feluda series, as part of the rich treasury of Bangla kishore sahitya, could not make space for the complications that women would bring into it. For the married detective, the Bengali readers had Byomkesh, whose cases often dealt with ‘adult affairs’. For a Bengali woman to take up the sleuth’s mantle they would have to wait for Mitin Mashi books, and Rangapishi on screen in Shubho Mahurat. Like the apparently-innocuous spinster Miss Marple, the latter had the safety cover of age and a marginal meta-marital status to render her socially unthreatening. And why blame only Third-World regressive gender equations? Even an American woman needed a male boss to front her sleuthing activities in the popular series Remington Steele. Detection was a decidedly unfeminine affair, combining as it did physical hardiness, the need to travel, interaction with unsavoury sorts, along with the rigours of intellectual application.
No, the regret lies elsewhere. In not being able to ask the creator of Feluda that had he a few more years, would he have thought of writing us a female detective? If so, what would she be like? How would she be different from his male sleuth? What kind of cases would interest her? The temptation is great, for this is the man who gave us fascinatingly complex female studies like Arati (Mahanagar 1963), Charu (Charulata, 1964), and Bimala (Ghare Baire, 1984), among others. On Satyajit Ray’s birth centenary, I find myself often asking him about these matters regarding Fulidi. I do so want him to “measure the heat and violence” of the detective’s “heart, when caught and tangled in a woman’s body” (40). For what else is reading, but conversing continuously with other lives, other selves? And how else do we pay tribute to our favourite authors, those special few who shape our minds to ask these endless questions?
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Feedbooks. 1929. http://gutenberg.org
Dr Debnita Chakravarti is Associate Professor and Coordinator (PG English) at Shri Shikshayatan College and has taught courses at Calcutta University and Jadavpur University. Her doctoral degree from the University of Reading was followed by a University of Southampton post-doctoral fellowship. Besides Romanticism, she has published widely on gender and popular culture. She balances her conference sessions with conversations at literary festivals. Students learning to read rather than merely reading to learn is her classroom resolve, and she is currently teaching Tintin in Tibet and Sholay to bemused students who thought they were enrolling in a ‘serious’ literature programme.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.