Reading Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories and novels has provided me with some very enjoyable experiences. There are some stories, novelettes, and novels that rank up with the “best of the best” in mystery fiction. Take for example, Royal Bengal Rahashyo which deftly combines a unique plot with believable characters and a fantastic setting. However, it would serve no purpose to only point out the truly magnificent. It serves us well to also consider the lesser Feluda stories which scarcely bear the imprimatur of the maestro.
Apsara theaterer mamla would be a decent short story from most other Bengali writers. Because it was written by one of modern India’s greatest visionaries, it is mediocre. In my opinion, it lacks the finesse in plot, character development, and setting that we expect. But first a brief outline of the story.
In Apsara theaterer mamla, a stage actor working at the Apsara Theatre approaches Feluda because he has been getting anonymous threat-letters. A few days later, the actor vanishes without a trace. The trio investigate, but do not come across any major leads. They suspect that the actor has been murdered. Three months later while visiting the beach-resort town, Digha, the trio discover that another actor from the same theatre has been killed, only now they are dealing with the actor who played the main roles for the theatre. Feluda is injured in Digha, and consequently he requests Lalmohan babu and Topshe interview members of Apsara Theatre on his behalf. Among the interviewed is the new bearded actor who has come to replace the dead lead actor. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking). In the final act, Feluda reveals the whole “mystery”. The first actor had disappeared only to return and murder the lead so that he could take the latter’s role. The only character in the story with a clear motive commits the crime.
Why would the criminal come to Feluda? Obviously to set the stage for his disappearance.
The plot disappointed me. Because there are very few suspects, the reader’s suspicion immediately falls on the obvious one and suspicion is slowly verified as the story progresses.
But that is not my main gripe with the story. Does every major detective have to come face to face with a character who is considered dead, but who leads a double-life? I mean Sherlock Holmes came across a variation of this sort of ordeal in The Case of the Man With the Twisted Lip. Byomkesh Bakshi proved his mettle in overcoming a double-role adversary in Adwitiyo.
In my opinion, the difference is that both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay leave us with memorable sketches of the perpetrators of the double-life in their stories: in Apsara Theaterer Mamla, Ray does not. The story trudges along from drawing room to theatre to thana with very little in the way of incidental conversation or descriptive scenery. In fact, not even Feluda, Topshe and Lalmohan babu seem to be themselves in the story. Lalmohan babu does not entertain us, Feluda does not instruct us, and Topshe does not keep us engaged with his lively prose.
This is quite surprising, since most Feluda stories stand out, in part, due to the memorable characters. Ray was also a master at vividly describing places. Apsara Theaterer Mamla, however, is almost wholly unadorned narrative. Satyajit Ray wrote some true masterpieces which I will always remember. Apsara Theatrer mamla is not one of them.
So, which of the Feluda stories do you think has the weakest mystery?
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