There was no mistaking Satyajit Ray. A cigarette always between his fingers and a camera always around his neck, he stood out in the crowd; a towering figure, not just for his large and diverse body of work, but quite literally too, at twice the height of an average Indian.
Ray was, in many ways, a pioneer of independent Indian cinema, and arguably belongs in the same ranks as Nehru and Tagore, men whose contributions have stood the test of time. As stories of and from a new India were told through his lens, the world learned intimate details of a society pained to define itself. A society in the midst of centuries old beliefs and the messy demands of an amorphous modernity. Ray is remembered, and celebrated, primarily as a filmmaker—a profession which now brimbles more with idiocy than thought—his art extended beyond the screen, encompassing the worlds of advertising, illustration, and literature. He wrote short stories in Bengali, mostly for children, which were published in local Bengali newspapers. In 2001, Penguin published a collection of these stories. The collection included stories that Ray had himself translated into English, while others were edited and translated by Gopa Majumdar. The anthology was titled The Best of Satyajit Ray.
This is how I first encountered Ray. In these stories, I witnessed him breathe life into precocious young boys in the hinterland of a partitioned Bengal or, more often, solitary, middle-aged, middle-class Bengali men. Men who are distinguished by curious habits that prompt an extraordinary event in their otherwise ordinary lives.
Take Barin Bhowmick, for example, a singer of repute travelling outside Bengal for the first time. During his train journey—in the first-class compartment too—Barin Babu is suddenly visited by his old kleptomania. The ensuing interaction with his co-passenger is funny and awkward. There is also Kanti Babu, of course—a botanist with a special interest in carnivorous plants until the events of one fateful day prompt him to grow vegetables instead. And while one can feel pity for Bipin Chowdhury and Jayanto, other characters incite feelings of remorse over their fates. Like Ratan Babu, Anath Babu and Mr Shasmal whose suffering, even though their own doing, leaves one with a strange sense of loss.
Ray does not, then, give us a vignette from a character’s life, as many short story writers do. Instead, we are witnesses to a story of change, a change that upends the lives of the characters who are presented to us when they are at the precipice of a life-altering event. But just how their lives change remains unknown to us. That is not relevant to Ray’s narrative: he is more concerned with how characters respond to their journey. The final destination remains unexplored, an unimportant detail. We accompany the characters, and through Ray’s intimate telling, become privy to the intricacies of their actions and thoughts such that it begins to feel like a journey of our own.
In other stories still, Ray explores human response to and interaction with fantastical elements. These stories are replete with magic and aliens. Never, though, do these fantastical events take place in the city. That is the domain of human folly. But away from the city, away from the eyes of its closely packed residents who might know better, strange circumstances befall Aniruddha Bose and Dhurjati Babu. Bonku Babu’s and Tipu’s meeting with unearthly creatures, too, takes place in the interiors of Bengal, where such events could take place without intrusion. Of course, Calcutta—the “fountainhead Indian intellectual thought”—could not be the grounds for interaction between ‘aliens’ and humans. They must occur in the countryside, where beliefs on which the hierarchies of Indian society are predicated, flourished without question. In the city outcomes are influenced by people alone but, in the villages of post-colonial Bengal, other sinister forces remain at work.
Ray was a widely celebrated filmmaker. His works have been featured at reputed film festivals across the world. It wasn’t just his filmmaking that made him an overseas name. It was his storytelling. A kind without trepidation, without hesitation. A storytelling of unabandoned ease.
Ray’s focus was the universality of human emotion. Protagonists were deeply contextualised—their language, habits and environment, an indispensable part of their character. But in their actions and thoughts they were just human. No different from you and me today. No different from each other, whether in the heat of the Calcuttan metropolis or marshy rural Bengal. Ray disrobed these complexities to reveal the universality they concealed: humanity.
Satyajit Ray was a humanist. A fact most apparent in the last story of the Penguin anthology: Pikoo’s Diary. A story of a little boy with no knowledge of death and violence, who, with childlike honesty and uncanny detail, records the events of his life in a journal he was inspired by his grandfather to maintain.
Humanism is apparent in Ray’s approach to his work. His narratives are not complicated but, at the same time they are woven around their environment; feeding off them like vines around a tree, depending on it for succour. This environment is not alluded to, not characterised; it is merely stated. A matter-of-fact, for it is not the creation of the characters themselves who are its mere subjects. Victims of conditions made and controlled by masters in palatial offices built in another time by another set of masters who did not speak the same language.
Within these parasitic compositions, where environment and person lay intertwined, Ray relays facts, practices and conditions, leaving it upon the audience to unravel their meanings or decide not to. Even so, he does not presume his audience or the reception of his work. This was perhaps why he was wholly indifferent to his success and popularity, even when high honours were laid on him. Often when he surveyed on-site locations in the city, kids who barely reached his waist swarmed him or he would visit a village whose entire community turned out to see the event, probably surprised to see a man in trousers and button-down shirt instead of a dhoti and no shirt, Ray simply went about doing what he intended to do.
But as years passed and vitality diminished, India struggled with her burgeoning democracy and Calcutta remained engulfed in a seemingly never-ending political crisis, Ray became increasingly impatient with his audience, whose criticism stemmed from their religious dogmatism and which “must not be taken seriously.” He also regretted that his work was unfairly received by a “backward society” that “despite the film society movement… [was] an unsophisticated audience exposed to the commercial Hindi cinema.” This was the same audience whose superstition, feudalism, and social hierarchies were the subject of many of Ray’s stories.
Perhaps Ray’s frustration was his inability to influence any of those grudging aspects that still held society in their grip, slowly plucking each of its feathers, disabling it from ever taking flight. Indeed, post-colonial India is marked by that change—from tradition to modern—and its absence thereof.
Ray’s work is the city of Calcutta: a British township that had experienced affluence, political primacy, bloody riots and a gripping insurgency, all within a century. He never wanted to leave Calcutta even though, as he once said, “one realises that there are too many people and too much squalor.” The city’s character—its ghats, its teeming millions, the barefooted rickshaw pullers, its avenues that never could rid themselves of pedestrians—lends itself to that of the stories’ characters. Products of and contributors to this chaos, Ray’s characters understandably seek an escape from their routine lives in the city by sequestering themselves from it, and retreating into the quiet and often fantastical country.
For it is away from the city, in the quiet of Shantiniketan, that Ray found his intellectual underpinnings. Even though he was initially reluctant to attend the school, the lure of Tagore reeled him in. At Shantiniketan, Ray came to learn more deeply about Indian art and its rural heritage. Calcutta was, however, etched in his heart and he found it difficult to remain away for too long. The movies, the music and the sounds of the city called him back. There was another reason too. His cousin Bijoya—his future wife.
Ray did not abandon the village forever. His experiences of sketching it helped him juxtapose the city and country. In this in-between, Ray produced his finest stories. Embraced by the pace of Calcutta and peace of rural Bengal, Ray recorded the essence of India’s post-colonial journey, its myriad faces and uncontrollably distinct voices. And within these divergences lay one common element: the story of humanity.
Aarushi Aggarwal is Associate Editor at ALMA MAG. On most days, she studies foreign investments and writes about India’s economy. She has recently forayed into essay writing.