Another Ray, through a wife’s eyes

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So many autobiographies and biographies have been written, so many descriptions of life with great men and women of all persuasions and pursuits.

Among them Francois Gilot’s Life With Picasso remains memorable because of the honesty and directness of the man himself, warts and all, and of the stormy relationship he had with the author. Great expectations arise, then, as you pick up a new book on Satyajit Ray by his wife, despite the fact that so many have been written on him in a variety of languages. First was Marie Seton’s book in 1971 when Ray was at the height of his creativity (Portrait of a Director). Many more followed — notably by Henri Micciolo (Satyajit Ray) in 1981 and Charles Tesson (Satyajit Ray) in 1992 in French, in Spanish by Alberto Elena in 2007 and too many to name in English and Bengali. All of them analyse his creativity, his work over the years. Few talk of his personal life, of Satyajit Ray the man, the husband, the father and, for one short year before his death, the grandfather.
Manik & I by Bijoya Ray, therefore, arouses high expectations. What was he like to live with? What were his personal likes and dislikes, what sort of a man was he, this towering genius of a filmmaker renowned the world over and who won the highest awards everywhere, from the Bharat Ratna to the Oscar to the Legion of Honour in addition to top awards at the major film festivals? One expects to see how his working life and his personal life were related, some insights into relationships — with the people he worked with, the great figures from the world of cinema he met, even incidents and anecdotes that reveal his personality.
Of course, in nearly 600 pages there are a few. You learn, for instance, that he did not like alcohol being served in his home, that he loved Bengali sweets, particularly sandesh, and relished good food, that he enjoyed gambling at a casino in Kathmandu, that he loved playing word games like Scrabble and Probe, that he did not like being called an intellectual — “I am not an intellectual, I am a creative man,” he once retorted angrily when Bijoya asked him, “Being an intellectual, how can you say that?” He was deeply knowledgeable about Western classical music which he loved, particularly Mozart, and once even thought of making a film on him. He spent long hours listening to opera and classical music on records — at that time there were only records — and going to concerts as much as he could when he travelled to Europe or to America.
But his relationships with people beyond the family? That he refused to marry anyone other than Bijoya when parents on both sides did not initially approve of the alliance, and they had to wait eight years before the families relented. The clandestine marriage in Mumbai where Bijoya went to act in a few films is a romantic episode before the official marriage took place in Kolkata. In every respect, the marriage seems to have been perfect: shared interests, extended family and friends, all the travelling, the shooting of his films, the birth of their son Sandip referred to throughout as Babu, and his blossoming into a successful filmmaker himself. The incidents are faithfully recorded in the diaries Bijoya kept throughout. All the happenings and dates, and narration of events, even the sickness of friends and relatives are meticulously recorded. But there is little insight into relationships and reactions to events. No mention is made of Ray’s brief involvement with Madhabi Mukherjee even though Bijoya herself has been quoted as writing in her autobiography serialised by the Bengali weekly magazine Desh that in the mid ’60s Ray had an affair with “a very beautiful and intelligent woman”. She apparently wrote: “The years 1965 and 1966 were nightmares to me… like a man seduced, he got entangled with the lady. I caught him. I became so angry and upset that I became mad. Though the woman was very beautiful and intelligent, she was no match for Manik.” Bijoya says she threatened Ray with divorce. “When I told him that I wanted to separate, he became dumbfounded. He dropped on to the floor, clinging my waist, and said: ‘Don’t punish me so hard. I cannot think of anybody else as my wife’.”
“So”, asked Bijoya, “why this big betrayal”? Ray replied: “Give me some time. Things will be alright…” This was quoted in an article by Sabyasachi Bandopadhyay in January 2004 in the Indian Express.
Things indeed were alright in the long run, but in the English version, Manik & I, this finds no mention. It is a pity because it makes him more human, and the story is, after all, known.
The book reads more like an autobiography as it goes from Bijoya’s own childhood to her immediate family and many relatives and friends. All find a mention in the book. Great attention has been given to the gifts bought and received, descriptions of all the people around first Bijoya herself, then Bijoya and Manik together. What is not so well known is that Ray’s last years were riddled with illness through all of which the family remained strong and very close. Sandip’s marriage to the lovely Binu, the birth of their son and, shortly thereafter, the end of Ray’s own life in a hospital just after receiving the Oscar.
If one does not learn too much about Satyajit Ray the great director, writer, musician, the book makes pleasant light reading — very well translated by Indrani Mazumdar — for its detailing of life in a Bengali family.

Aruna Vasudev isa critic and author

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