[Disclaimer: The following piece is a memoir of my experience and observation of the book Badshahi Angti by Satyajit Ray. Please note that, it includes some of the detailed plot discussions and spoilers regarding the mystery of the novel.]
Every story in life has a beginning. Sometimes it is awesome. Like Sourav Ganguly scoring a hundred on his test debut in the hallowed ground of Lords. Sometimes it’s not so good. Amitabh Bachchan starting his film career with ‘Saat Hindustani’ can be an example. And then there are times when the beginning is plain ugly. Like RCB’s IPL experience, that started with a 140 runs thrashing by KKR.
Satyajit Ray knew a few things about auspicious beginnings, his journey of life started with losing his father when he was two and half years old. He started his movie direction career at the age of 34 with one of the greatest documentation of human life and emotions, ‘Pather Panchali’, in 1955 which brought him lots of fame and let the cinema lovers of the world meet with a genius. And then, in 1966, Pheluda started his journey through novels as a detective in Badshahi Angti.
I first read Badshahi Angti at a pretty young age and absolutely loved it. Lucknow, Bhulbhulaiya in Bara Imambara, Residency, Banbiharibabu’s private zoo of ferocious animals and the climax in Lakshman Jhula, all of it actually blown me away.
I have read this book in next twenty or so years many a times. Not only had I loved it more and more, I have actually realized some very special characteristics of this book, compared to other Pheluda adventures.
Have you ever thought which kind of normal day job Pheluda would do? Well remember, according to this story he was working for last two years. I wonder whether it was a government job, or may be in some of those marwary private firms of 60s, where he might be working as a sales or marketing guy. Or should I dare assume that, he was in a bank, doing a very basic level of analytics! If you ask me, I would assume him to be in a management kind of role with his wonderful ability to read human minds and act accordingly.
Also here, Pheluda is a young man. He talks about his college days and spin bowling and more importantly people do not give him the importance which he started gaining from the very first page of the future books. But, yet his wit and sharpness was as good as ever.
He finally cracked the clue of ‘spy’ which was Piyarilal’s last words. With his detection power and great mind he did create one of the great moments of Pheluda stories when he described Topse about how he identified and memorized the entire plan of Bhulbhulaiya and hence used one of the chambers there to hide the ring of great Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.
And not only Pheluda, Topse was just a kid in this story, who does not know about Residency, tried to read Pheluda’s notes written in Greek font, did not get it why Pheluda was receiving threat letters and forgot to take his hanky at the climax. But this young Topse suddenly became a hero when accidentally finds the ring inside Pheluda’s matchbox.
Bonbihari Sarkar was the first proper villain in the Pheluda series. He was an intriguing man with a polished look (thin mustache and pointed beard), knowledge about various historical events and a collection which includes a rattle snake and a black widow spider from
Africa among others. And yes he was an intelligent man too. He used his strong man Ganesh Guha to follow Pheluda at places, instructed him to act as if Guha his leaving his job and also was smart enough to put the tape recorder below Topse’s cot in the dharamshala, anticipating a conversation between him and Pheluda regarding the ring. And that’s why I found it a little dumb for him to behave as if he does not recognize Mahabir as he should have realized that this move of his would bring suspicion on him atleast from Mahabir. But taking the duo to that jungle and left Pheluda and Topse with a rattle snake in the same room was a scary business by a smart man.
Now, one thing has happened with me pretty frequently. Whenever I have been to a new place I try to connect that place with any great book I have read. It happened in Jayasalmer when I asked a shopkeeper the time of sun rise to see the golden fortress at its best. This story did not end well though, the shopkeeper asked me the reason and then told me that, although Bengalis are coming here all the time but this place is actually hyped.
Similarly, when I and some of my other friends decided to visit
Lucknow on the 31st December of 2005, my first thought was that I am now going to visit the ’s first exploit. Ray was a keen observer and a great story-teller. And that’s why he had this ability to draw a very lively picture of any place he was describing. I went to land of Pheluda more than 35 years after this book and yes the roads were different, lots of government buses and autos along with the tangas but those historical places were exactly as I dreamt of after reading this book again and again. Lucknow
I have already said that Pheluda was a young detective in this one. Hence he did not have his Colt 32 revolver which would become one of his most trusted companies in the future adventures.
Instead his choice of weapon (except his Magajastra) was something which we mostly associate with those teen-age detectives who get into trouble while following a suspicious man with beard and sunglasses while coming back from school. Feluda called it ‘Churnikrta Bramhastra’ which was nothing but black pepper powder. But obviously it had a pretty good effect on the villains and I was happy.
Badshahi Angti is definitely not the best Pheluda work by Ray but this book was a very potent foundation of a great series. A series which was carried on for next 20 years with 18 more publications and with times which is converted into a life long legend for most of the literary minded Bengalis.