Satyajit Ray was one of the most celebrated movie directors of the 20th century. His films won worldwide recognition and were regularly showcased at International Film Festivals. He even won an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in the year 1992. Ray not only scripted and directed his films, but also scored them and designed the publicity material for them. An artist, an all-rounder, a genius.
However, this post is not about Satyajit Ray, the movie director; it is about Satyajit Ray the author. I’m not going to put up any pretensions and say that I love Ray’s films. Honestly, I cannot relate much to them. Not for me the arty world cinema; I am the popcorn munching casual moviegoer, who has been brought up on a staple diet of Hollywood extravaganzas and kitschy Hindi movies. However, I am a huge fan of Satyajit Ray, the author. I love his books and I’ve read them over and over again. His stories have fascinated me, tickled me, made me cry, and regularly transported me into a world of imagination.
Writing was probably in Ray’s blood. His grandfather Upendrakishore Roychowdhury and father Sukumar Ray were prominent literary figures in Bengal. His grandfather had set up a printing press in Calcutta and the Ray family published a few Bengali magazines. It was for these magazines that Ray wrote most of his stories. I’ve read several of his short stories and novellas and have loved each one of them.
Ray’s short stories are usually about adventure, about the extraordinary, blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Stories like ‘The Hungry Septopus’, which is about a carnivorous plant, ‘Bonku Babu’s Friend’, which is about the chance encounter of a village school teacher with an alien, ‘The Two Magicians’, which is about Indian magic, and ‘Anath Babu’s Terror’, a story that ventures into the supernatural realm, are delightful. The background or setting is daily life in 20th century Bengal, but the events that take place in these familiar surroundings are out of the ordinary. This juxtaposition of reality with fantasy is what makes Ray’s stories irresistible. The other feature of Ray’s short stories is the ‘twist in the tale’. Almost invariably, towards the end of the story, there’s a surprise in store for the reader. The stories that stand out for their twists are ‘Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment’, which is about kleptomania, ‘Bipin Chowdhury’s Lapse of Memory’, about amnesia and ‘The Pterodactyl’s Egg’, about a meeting between two imaginative men. Also, one common thread running through all of Ray’s short stories is the celebration of the underdog. ‘Patol Babu – Film Star’, about a former stage artist rediscovering his passion for acting, is a case in point.
Ray also wrote a number of novellas and the one that stands out for me is ‘Phatik Chand’. This is the story of a rich man’s son who gets kidnapped. However, the kidnappers’ car meets with an accident which results in the boy losing his memory. The story is about the journey of the boy and his relationship with a juggler Harun, who helps him reach home. This heartwarming story makes you smile and yet tugs at the heartstrings. The boy returns home but does not get the same love from his family as he got from Harun. The last chapter of the novella where Harun and the boy meet at the railway station is especially moving.
However, Satyajit Ray’s most famous creation is Feluda, a private detective who takes on and solves complex cases, risking his own life in the process. Ray wrote various Feluda stories and all of them are now available in a two-volume set released by Penguin India. Feluda’s real name is Pradosh Chandra Mitter and he stays with his uncle and cousin Tapesh, whom he fondly calls Topshe. Feluda is a young man in his late twenties, physically very strong and athletic. He possesses a keen and observant mind and puts it to good use, solving puzzling cases. Ray drew inspiration for the Feluda stories from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. However, as someone who has read both Sherlock Holmes and Feluda, I have no hesitation in saying that I enjoy Feluda a lot more. It is more gripping, more colorful, and simply more fun.
Ray’s erudition is evident in his stories and novellas. His stories bear testimony to his knowledge of science, mathematics, history, and geography. He was a well-traveled man and his description of the cities, towns, and villages of India and Europe is a delight to read. The winding roads, the grassy knolls, the malls and shops, the narrow streets, and the people in them come alive in Ray’s works. It feels as if you are traveling with the characters as a silent observer and watching things unfold before your very eyes.
Satyajit Ray was probably one of the best ‘artists’ that India has ever produced. His genius shone through his films, his sketches and paintings, his music, but for me, most of all through his brilliant stories. He was in my opinion a master storyteller, with the spirit of a nomadic bard. This is my tribute to the Artist, the All-rounder, the Genius!