A familiar figure in Santiniketan of the 1950s and 1960s was a fair-haired foreigner in a red-bordered khadi sari, often seen hurriedly bicycling along the dusty lanes under the blazing mid-day sun, a woven palm-leaf hat on her head. This was Lila Ray, writer, poet and translator, musician and art lover, a grass roots social worker, and a wife and mother. Highly energetic and always on the go, she was an independent-minded person, with a secure sense of values and a deep sense of humanism; a true internationalist who believed in the harmony of multiple cultures. Lila was my mother. Her name was pronounced “Leela”.
My parents came to live in Santiniketan in 1951, when my father Annada Sankar retired from the Indian Civil Service to devote his time to writing. They spent the next two decades there, and even after moving away my mother returned to Santiniketan frequently to see friends, tend to her garden, and work on her books in peace. My parents chose to live in Santiniketan because they believed in Rabindranath Tagore’s philosophy and wanted the Tagore-style of education for their children. Rabindranath had personally urged them to settle there when he had met them during the 1930s.
My mother’s journey to India reads like fiction. She was born as Alice Virginia Orndorff in El Paso, Texas, in 1910, a daughter of American pioneers, descending from German immigrants in the 18th century and from English immigrants a century earlier. Her father Lee Orndorff Jr. was a well-off businessman and real estate investor in El Paso. My mother spent most of her teen years in Los Angeles, where she attended school and college, and then went to New York to study piano. While on a tour of Europe, she became interested in Indian music and was encouraged to explore it for herself by a friend of my father in London. She arrived in Calcutta in the summer of 1930 and met Annada Sankar for the first time in the provincial town of Berhampore where he had just begun his career. Lila and Annada Sankar were married in October of that year in Ranchi, and Alice Virginia began life in India as “Lila” (at that time, Annada Sankar sometimes wrote under the pen name of “Lilamoy”). Of interest to Santiniketan buffs, the writer Pramatha Chaudhuri and his wife Indira Devi Chaudhurani were present at the wedding.
Lila and Annada Sankar had many common interests and held similar views. Lila had an insatiable curiosity about Indian culture and history, and Annada Sankar was the perfect guide. His book on his travels in England and Europe (Pathe Probashe) had just been published when they met. He whole-heartedly supported Gandhi’s non-violent approach to India’s independence and was an ardent admirer of Tagore.
Curiously, the adventuresome Lila’s story has parallels in the life of one of her forbears: her grandmother, Alzina Carolina Singleton, born in 1859, an intrepid, pioneering woman, who from modest beginnings became wealthy. With her first husband, Levi H. Orndorff, a postmaster in Missouri, and her three sons, Alzina set off in a covered wagon to Tucson, Arizona, where she opened a boarding house. After her husband’s death, she married Charles de Groff. The family prospered in that frontier town, and Alzina acquired considerable property in nearby El Paso, Texas, including the Shelton Hotel, where Mexican nobility took refuge during the war of revolution in Mexico, and the Orndorff Hotel, now known as the Cortez office building. Alzina soon became a celebrity in Texas. The Governor of Texas appointed her to the first board of the first technical institute in El Paso, and she was elected to the El Paso Hall of Fame. She was also the first president of the organization in El Paso fighting for equal voting rights for women. When news of Lila’s marriage in far-off India stirred up controversy in her conservative family, the person most sympathetic to Lila was her step-grandfather, Charles de Groff, who no doubt recalled the adventuresome Alzina he had married some forty years earlier.
A New Life in India
Lila quickly adapted to life in the small towns of rural Bengal, wherever Annada Sankar got posted. With her warm smile and generous heart, she made friends easily. She fully accepted the Indian perspective, having observed the inequities of British rule from close quarters. She wore saris made of khadi, spun the charka, and avoided the affectations of being a “memsahib.” My parents adopted an unostentatious, simple life-style, free of alcohol or tobacco. They did not practice any religious rituals, and the Upanishads and the Bible were both read at prayers. Their circle of friends grew—mostly writers, poets, artists, intellectuals. Besides managing her household, Lila concentrated on bringing up her children (my older brother Punya Sloka and my two sisters, Joya and Tripty; another brother Chitrakam died at a very young age). She studied Bengali in earnest, which was difficult at first, but she became completely fluent (the soft Bengali “d” and “t”, however, were difficult for her).
Exposure to the richness of Bengali literature and culture led to Lila’s life-long interest in translation. She and Annada Sankar became members of PEN, an international organization of poets, essayists, and novelists. The Indian chapter was set up in 1933 by Sophia Wadia, with Tagore presiding over its initiation in Bombay. Her first publication, was an article on the Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, which appeared in PEN magazine in 1938. PEN also published Bengali Literature: A Historical Survey (P.E.N., Bombay,1942), with Lila and Annada Sankar as co-authors. Lila translated the Bengali passages quoted in that volume. She also wrote on Rabindranath Tagore, the literary contributions of Abanindranath Tagore (until then known outside Bengal only as an artist), several promising young writers and poets of Bengal, the different strands of literary criticism in Bengali literature, and the local cultures of Birbhum and Mymensingh.
Move to Santiniketan
Soon after their marriage, Annada Sankar took Lila to Santiniketan to meet Tagore, who greeted Lila warmly and asked her to think of Santiniketan as her home. Tagore repeated that invitation when he met her again in 1939, adding that she would be free to join any department she liked and could decide on her own program. Finally, in 1951, Lila and Annada Sankar were able to move to Santiniketan, enroll the children in school and college, and set up their home on the edge of the lalbandh lake.
Lila’s joy knew no bounds. She had found the “home” to which Tagore had invited her. Annada Sankar no longer had to work for the government, and Lila was free to spread herself in all areas of interest to her. Her first task was to take care of her family without the help of the retinue of servants to which she had become accustomed as an ICS wife. This she did with great gusto, using her bicycle to run daily errands, including bringing home the mail from the post office rain or shine--“the family peon,” as she called herself. She was probably the first “older woman” to ride the bicycle in conservative Santiniketan.
Lila fully immersed herself in Santiniketan life, and “Lila-di” or “Lila-mashi” became a much-loved figure. Her social network included scholars and students from abroad, for whom Lila’s residence was a hub, a home away from home. There were books and magazines from Europe, records of classical Western music, and occasionally, Lila’s home-baked chocolate brownies (they were hard and brittle and tastier than anything I have had since).
Social Work and the Land Distribution Movement
My mother was compassionate and caring towards others. She had first done charity work in New York, and continued with it in the villages and towns where she lived in Bengal, including around Santiniketan. She knew how to treat victims of snake bites and kept the necessary antidotes with her. She was regularly called to help women during childbirth. She organized small groups of women to teach them general hygiene, pre-natal and post-natal care, as well as the benefits of khadi and the charka.
Lila had become a follower of Gandhi and his eminent disciple Acharya Vinobha Bhave.
She enthusiastically joined Bhave’s program for voluntary land distributions, and travelled to the villages with Bhave’s supporters. In one of Bangla Akademi’s annual Lila Ray Memorial events honoring my mother, the well-known Gandhian Sailesh Banerjee discussed Lila's social work and described her as a true believer in the Gandhi-Vinobha approach. She continued to spin the charka even after independence and actively helped create the Khadi center in Bolpur. She translated Bhave’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, which was published as The Steadfast Wisdom by the Sarva Seva Sangh Prakasan, Varanasi,1966. To help villagers, she translated from English into simple Bengali the paragraphs in the Indian Constitution dealing with fundamental rights (Sarva Seva Sangh, 1957).
Ananda Pathshala—A School for Young Children
Lila was passionate about early childhood learning and loved to devise special games to amuse children and teach at the same time. She joined Alapini, a womens group in Santiniketan started by Pratima Devi, Tagore’s daughter-in-law, and Indira Devi Chaudhurani. Pratima and Indira urged Lila, who had become the secretary of Alapini, to help establish Ananda Pathshala, a school for children between the ages of four and six. The school started in 1954, and in 1961, it was shifted to its present location, Deholi, and regular financing from the university was arranged. Of all her activities in Santiniketan, she most cherished her contributions to the school. After her death in 1992, her family built a playroom in her memory at Ananda Pathshala.
Research on Bauls
Another strong interest of Lila was the culture of Baul singers of Bengal, who are itinerant troubadours outside of Hindu and Muslim communities. Lila first came in contact with them in 1935, while living in Kushtia, where she learned about the music and philosophy of Lalan. Her exposure to Bauls was renewed in Santiniketan. This is where she befriended Nabani Das, the leading Baul at that time, and his young son, Purnachandra Das. Purnachandra, a life-long friend, became internationally well known in later years. Lila also used to visit nearby Baul camps beside the Ajoy river, travelling by bullock-cart with a few friends or with her younger daughter.
One of her neighbors was Kshitimohan Sen who was an authority on Indian philosophy and religions, and probably contributed substantially to the development of Tagore’s own ideas in this area. Kshitimohan asked Lila to translate his book on the Bauls, which appeared in the Visva-Bharati Quarterly under the title The Bauls of Bengal (1954).She also wrote on Bauls herself.
Although my mother became fully integrated into Bengali society, she never forgot her Western roots. She read voraciously, and kept herself fully informed about literary developments in English, Spanish, German and other languages: some jokingly referred to her as the “walking encyclopedia of world literature.” She had brought her Steinway grand piano with her from El Paso, and the piano had traveled with her from town to town during the family’s many moves in Bengal. She mainly played Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart and was admired by those who appreciated Western music, particularly Indira Devi Choudhurani. Once, invited by students to give a lecture demonstration, she chose Beethoven’s ninth symphony; her old gramophone and the set of records were taken to Cheena Bhavan where the event was held.
Many foreign scholars and students at Santiniketan in the 1950s and 1960s became close to Lila. Among the younger crowd were Cynthia Bowles (US), Thomas Okelo (Kenya) Lili Mi (China) and Aryavansa (Sri Lanka), and among the post-graduate group were Roy North (UK), John Berry (UK), Bill Small (US), Lillian Burke (US), and David McCutcheon (UK). There were also the foreign-born wives of several residents, in particular Eta Ghosh (Hungary), Milada Ganguly (Czechoslovakia), and Haimanti Chakravarty (Norway). Together with her friends, Lila organized the Christmas celebrations at the Santiniketan Mandir in 1956. Their efforts helped revive Christmas celebrations in Santiniketan which were initiated by Tagore himself in 1910.
Lila’s participation in the Christmas celebrations were particularly meaningful to her as she had remained true to her Christian roots. This is evident from a letter she wrote to her mother about the event in February 1957:
“Here I took the service on Christmas day. There was, as always, a huge crowd. We sang old Christmas carols, two in German, one from the 14th century and one from the 16th. The service opened with one of Tagore’s songs in Bengali. That was followed by two carols. Next came my reading from the Bible. Two more carols and another Tagore song completed the program.”
Essays and Poems
The literary interests that Lila had developed before coming to Santiniketan became reinforced during her stay in Santiniketan. A boost came when Annada Sankar initiated a Sahitya Mela (a series of seminars) in 1953, reuniting writers from West Bengal and Bangladesh. Lila had an organizing role, and translated and published the proceedings.
Lila liked to write poetry, and had published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1956, which cited her in its list of emerging poets. Her first book of poems was Entrance (1961), published by Writers Workshop. Subsequently she published The Days Between (1976), Alive and Dying (1976), Songs of Mourning (1976), The Valley of Vision (1978), Once There Was (1985, poems for children written with Chandrahas Ray, one of her grandsons), and A Visit to the Zoo (1986, also for children). All these books were written in English, and her book of poems in Bengali, Ekoda, was published posthumously in 1993 (Sahitya Tirtha). She read her own poems in a cassette recording in 1978.
Her prose writings include many essays, the first set of which was published as A Challenging Decade: Bengali Literature in the Forties (D.M. Library, Kolkata, 1953), and a second set was published as Equities (Indian Institute of World Culture, Bangalore, 1956). She was invited to give the Tagore Memorial Lecture at Poona University in 1969, which published it as The Formative Influences in the Life of Tagore (1969).
Lila wrote the chapter on Bengali literature in Bengali Language Handbook, by Punya Sloka Ray (Center of Applied Linguistics, 1966). She also wrote Engreji Sahaj Path, a textbook, with Punya Sloka Ray (Banishilpa, Kolkata, 1987). She also translated the papers of Punya Sloka on the valuation of a language: Bhasar Mulyayan (1991).
Lila was a prolific translator of novels, short stories, essays, and poems. Her first effort was Vigil, by Satinath Bhaduri. It was the first book from India to be included in UNESCO’s List of Important Works, 1965. This was followed by Ganadevata, by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay (1969), A House of Joy, by Sisir Sen (1970), Bhuvan Shome, by Bonophul (1971), A House Undivided (from Oriya), by Kalindi Charan Panigrahi (1973), and Phatik Chand by Satyajit Ray (1983).
She published several anthologies of her translations of short stories, the first one being Broken Bread, 1957. This was followed by Flight and Pursuit, by Annada Sankar Ray (1969), The Prisoners, by Jorasandho (1975), and Woman and Other Stories, by Annada Sankar Ray (1977). She also translated modern Bengali poetry, including the poetry of Lokenath Bhattacharya, Daud Haidar, Asokebijoy Raha, and Annada Sankar Ray.
Her translations of Vinobha Bhave and Kshitimohan Sen have already been mentioned. She translated a selection of Sanskrit slokas with Sujit Mukhopadhyay, as The Path of Universal Love (Visva-Bharati,1957), and also Confessions of a Believer by Mahbub-ul-Alam (Zamana, Bangladesh,1957). Her non-fiction translations included many essays on topics such as Gandhi, Tagore, and Indian culture, as well as the biography of Pandit Nilakanta Das, a well-known Oriya leader (from Oriya, Pandit Nilakantha Smriti Samiti, 1985).
Lila collaborated with Satyajit Ray on the subtitles of several of his films, such as Ashani Sanket and Ghare-baire. She also translated Satyajit Ray’s Bengali script of Pather Panchali at the request of Cine Central of Kolkata. Satyajit Ray and Lila remained good friends until her death.
Translators’ Society of India
Lila believed that translation is a creative discipline that requires a good rapport between the author and the translator, which can be based on direct interactions or when that is not possible, on research. Translation should not be regarded as a mechanical or clerical process. She expressed her views in several essays, including “Violets and Crucibles” (Visva-Bharati Quarterly, 1956), and On Translation (Translators’ Society of India, 1969).
Lila was the Indian delegate to a Round Table Conference on Translation in Rome, organized by the international PEN. She came back convinced that translation needed to be encouraged in India as a profession, especially because India is multilingual and diverse. The central authorities in Delhi also adopted this view, and organized a conference in Hyderabad, in 1963, to discuss the training of translators. Lila was asked to prepare a syllabus that universities could use to train translators.
Lila founded the Translators’ Society of India (TSI) in 1968, with help from Sekhar Sen, who had also created the Writers’ Guild in West Bengal. The TSI was the first initiative in India to organize and assist translators. Later, the National Book Trust convened a four-day workshop in 1973, with Lila as the technical director. As the Book Trust and other organizations entered the field, the TSI faded away. There is no doubt however that the TSI, and Lila in particular, stimulated the emergence of translation as a worthy profession in India.
Lila’s life is the story of an enterprising young American, a lover of music and literature, who came to India by chance, and fell in love with a remarkable young man. She was a most supportive wife and mother and a caring grandmother, who lived life to the fullest. She did her share in building bridges between the land of her birth and the land where she made her home. My mother loved the star-encrusted, night skies of Santiniketan and enjoyed explaining the constellations to visitors. In one of her poems, she seems to write her own epitaph:When to be asleep in the deep night Is the starlit end of a sunlit life And death is adventure to me I will seek these stars.
I have benefitted greatly from the biography of Lila Ray in Bengali, written by Surajit Dasgupta, and published by the Paschim Banga Bangla Akademi, 2010. That volume contains a list of Lila Ray’s publications, 52 in number, as well as a list of work in progress that she left behind (32). Also helpful was my correspondence with Alex Weyand, a grandson of my mother’s elder uncle. The views expressed are my own.
Photographs courtesy Daud Haider, who is based in Germany.
Published January 2016
Published January 2016