|Feluda, Jatayu, Topshe
Illustrations by Satyajit
(walkiing along Marine Drive in Bombay) "I am sure there is no Municipal Development Authority here, as in Calcutta." "Why, because the roads have no potholes?"And the most entertaining, where Feluda describes a typical Hindi movie:
(from The Buccaneer of Bombay)
"I discovered today that those two cuttings in his wallet were cut out with a blade from newspapers nearly two centuries old which have been carefully preserved in the National Library Reading room. In my opinion, a man should go to prison for this."
(from Trouble in the Graveyard)
It should take an hour-and-a-half to build up the story, and another hour-and-a-half to unravel it.[...]You must have smuggling, gold, diamonds, marijuana, hashish, whatever; five songs, one of which should be devotional; two dance numbers; two or three chase sequences -- in at least one of which an expensive car should be seen rolling downhill; there must be one fire scene; the girlfriend of the hero must be the heroine and the girlfriend of the villain has to be the vamp; you need a conscientious police officer; some flashback scenes for the hero; comic relief and fast action so that the plot does not sag; if you can, shift the scene to the mountains or to the beach so that your stars don't have to keep on shooting in the cramped atmosphere of a studio. [..] And finally -- this is a must -- you have to have a happy ending. And if before that you can make the tears flow, then so much the better.
The translation is generally very smooth, but has an occasional oddity; for example 'There was a gas station nearby' on p 83. Gas station? Shouldn't that be petrol? As, indeed, it is in other places in the same novella.
The Feluda stories are charmingly modern, and don't read at all dated. Some other Bengali children's stories are much more traditional in form, so that you can see the stylistic parallels with classics like the Panchatantra and Jataka Tales. But Feluda, characteristic Charminar in mouth, lives in our own times.
Childhood Days actually consists of two memoirs: Ray's reminiscences of his childhood occupy only the first half of the book. The second half, Making Movies, consists of fascinating stories of his movie-making experiences, and is, for this reader at least, by far the more interesting section.
By his own account, Ray had a happy childhood surrounded by a large extended family. He has few memories of his father, who died young, but he does not seem to have felt a gap in his life. These memories were written for children, and are the sort of stories that an elderly uncle would tell about his childhood -- of the days when there were no ice cream carts on the street, there were large English stores in Calcutta, and lucky children entertained themselves with magic lantern slideshows. Ray came from a famous family, of course, and this affected him to the extent that he had to suffer some teasing about his important relatives in school. As with any large extended family, there were a few odd characters who make for good stories, such as Chhoto Kaka, the judo enthusiast. Mostly, though, Childhood Days is a factual account of various relatives who influenced his early childhood.
The net effect is strangely bland. During his holidays, he played with his cousins Nini, Ruby, Kalyan and Lota, and they were his good friends. But he doesn't tell us anything more about them -- did they gang up on one another? climb trees? play gilli-danda? Did they remain friends as they grew older? Did they even have distinct personalities? These anecdotes as sketched in the book are not terribly meaningful to those who've never met Nini, Ruby, Kalyan and Lota.
There is some historical context, but not much personal context. The Swadeshi movement is briefly mentioned; the main effect on Ray's life was that he learnt to spin, along with everyone else in his family. He mentions that his mother took a job at a school for widows, but doesn't say if this was unusual, if it was because his father had died and they were financially strapped, or how she felt about her job.
For an author whose own plots were clever and well-planned, the anecdotes in Childhood Days often lack context and completeness. An example: one of his schoolteachers was called on jury duty for the case of a zamindar's murder, whose death by poison injection had occurred at Howrah Station. "Each time Brojen Babu returned after a hearing, we badgered him for details. He, too, seemed perfectly willing to share his experiences with us". But what about the readers, who like me must have been dying to know what happened in the case, and if the murderer had been convicted? The anecdote ends right there, and the next paragraph is about school uniforms.
The most pleasure is to be obtained from the illustrations, by Ray himself. Here, finally, you get a hint of his versatility. One in particular, of his mother and aunt buying sweets from a boxwallah, shows his ability to capture personalities in his pencil sketches Even here, however, there is a lack of information; did he draw these as a child, or from memory as an adult?
Many hands cooperated in the production of these memoirs. Ray wrote the serialized stories for Sandesh, but died before he could translate them himself, as he had wished. The childhood memoirs were then translated by his wife, Bijoya Ray, but her ill health precluded her from completing the task. The book was then extensively edited by Gopa Majumdar and Sudeshna Shome Ghosh. Perhaps the many cooks were responsible for the absence of any distinctive flavour.
It is a pleasant relief to go on to Making Movies. The chapter 'Two and a half years with Apu', will of course, interest the many lovers of the Apu trilogy. Ray was working in an advertising agency during the filming of Pather Panchali, and could only film on holidays and weekends. They also ran out of money, so the film took over two years to make. This introduced its own complications -- the actors playing Apu and Durga were now two years older, and there was concern that their changing age would become obvious in the film. The crew had to deal with work around changes in seasonal vegetation and the unhelpful village dog. Their time, money and the appropriate weather rarely coincided, so that it took months before they could shoot the rain scenes. Given all the limitations, it is truly amazing that the final film is such an unalloyed delight.
Many of the anecdotes deal with the difficulties of filming with animals -- the camels in Shonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), the dog in Pather Panchali, the tiger in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. The book ends (rather abruptly) with the successful shot of the Hirak Rajar Deshey scene in which Bagha has to steal the keys from above the tiger, while Goopy sings to keep the tiger motionless. If you want to know how it was done, read the book!
Published February 1, 2003