Ray and I

Indrani Majumdar | Updated on May 02, 2021

Crisp tales: The beauty of Satyajit Ray’s prose lay in its lucidity

On his 100th birth anniversary, a diehard fan and translator of Satyajit Ray’s stories recalls the man and his work

* So, I grew up worshipping Satyajit Ray; my friends teased me mercilessly about what they called my Rayomania

* We arrived at his doorstep one morning without an appointment, shaking like leaves in autumn

* In 2008 I received a call from the then editor-in-chief of Penguin India office, suggesting that I translate Ray’s wife Bijoya’s memoirs Amader kotha (Manik & I)

* There are enough stories left for another volume


“If you had different parents, you would have been different, too,” the author Lila Majumdar told her nephew, Satyajit Ray, while dedicating to him the biography she had written about his father — a much-loved author of humorous verse and books for children. These words, penned almost 50 years ago, are telling. Because, for me at least, it all started with Ray’s father and grandfather.

My family had settled in the Capital over a century ago, and made diligent efforts to stay in touch with its Bengali roots, chiefly through books, music and films. Growing up in Delhi, we grew up on a diet of Bengali children’s literature and subscribed to many journals. Among them was Sandesh, a magazine in Bengali for children started by Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. It came by post from Kolkata, and by the time I began reading it, Sandesh was in the child-friendly hands of Satyajit Ray, who wrote for it, illustrated and designed it.

So, growing up, I essentially connected Ray with the print world. Did he also make films? I was to discover that much later about the great auteur born on this day a hundred years ago.

Writing for children

Ray’s father and grandfather apart, grand uncles, uncles, and aunts were all illustrious writers for children. Yet, the sheer range which Ray himself produced as a writer remains unmatched in Bengal even today.

One of the fondest memories of my childhood is staring in awe at the top shelf of our bookrack teeming with bound volumes of Sandesh. The strangest thing is that Ray didn’t start writing fiction until he was 40. It was only after he revived Sandesh that his writings for children were published for the first time. This magazine was founded by Ray Chowdhury in 1913. After his death in 1915, he left his legacy to his son — Ray’s father, Sukumar, who breathed life into Sandesh till his untimely death at the age of 36 in 1923. After a couple of years the publication of Sandesh ceased, and was then revived in 1961 by Ray. I, for one, waited for it eagerly — and pounced on everything that he produced. There was no real urge to turn to any other writer. It was years later that I finally read some of the standard Bengali classics.

First meeting

So, I grew up worshipping Satyajit Ray; my friends teased me mercilessly about what they called my Rayomania (OR RAYMANIA?), but, with the release of every film and publication of every story he wrote, my reverence grew. And never — not even in my wildest dream — did I ever imagine that one day I would come close to the figure I idolised.

Once, in an instance of mad impulse in 1986, my late sister, Gopa Majumdar, and I went to Calcutta with a grand plan of meeting him in person. It was his father’s birth centenary and I had designed a calendar on him to mark the occasion. I wanted to give him my handmade copy personally.

As we feared, Calcutta telephones weren’t working. Left with no choice, we arrived at his doorstep one morning without an appointment, shaking like leaves in autumn. We were ushered in. There sat Satyajit Ray in that familiar room, in that familiar posture, knees drawn up, signing a paper. “What is it,” he asked with a slight frown. We summoned up courage and explained why we were there. His frown immediately disappeared and he smiled warmly. He asked us to sit down.

Ten days later, I received an envelope containing a letter from him and a press clipping. He was so overwhelmed by the handmade calendar that he showed it to sections of the media, and a newspaper came out with a laudatory review of it!

Till 1992, we corresponded regularly and met him occasionally, always to show him my latest graphic work based on his own creations. Each time I was generously showered with encouragement and inspiration. While my elder sister began translating many of his Bengali short stories into English — Ray had given Gopadi the go-ahead — I carried on documenting and working on his illustrations and visuals.

First translation

But then nothing lasts forever. Gopadi fell ill and could never go back to her career as a translator. I was not prepared for what followed. The Ray Estate’s decision for Ray’s translations to be carried out by the Majumdar family gave a new turn to my life. It was in 2008 that I received a call from the then editor-in-chief of Penguin India office, suggesting that I translate Ray’s wife Bijoya’s memoirs Amader Kotha (Manik & I). He thought I’d do justice to it as I was familiar with both the subject of the book and the writer. My nervousness and inhibitions knew no bounds. But it helped that back in the ’70s, I had attended translation classes in school. This experience, coupled with Gopadi’s own guidelines about translations, gave me the confidence to take up the assignment. Though the book was a big fat one, the language in which it was written was simple, and I ended up enjoying the entire process of translation. Manik and I was finally published in 2013.

That very year Puffin asked me to translate some stories featuring Ray’s scientist-protagonist Professor Shonku. Most of the Shonku adventures had been translated by Gopadi, but a few were still to be put into English. The third volume of Shonku exploits The Mystery of Munroe Island and Other Stories came out in 2015, followed by the publication of The Final Adventures of Professor Shonku in 2020. The same year I began work on 12 of his short stories which had not been translated by Gopadi.

It was interesting how Ray adopted different styles for different genres: He had given his Shonku stories a formal and somewhat serious, even scientific, touch. But what was incredible was the fact that the language was still beautifully lucid. That was Ray’s magic. I do not remember even as a child ever having felt the need to consult a Bengali dictionary when I read his stories in the original. Yes, it’s also true that something apparently written so simply can’t always be translated with similar ease. That was a huge challenge for me — which Gopadi helped me meet. Her translations were every editor’s delight. They needed no surgery — whereas mine certainly did!

Tips from home

I try to follow some of the advice my sister passed on to me on the art of translation. Foremost, never translate word for word; always try to capture the spirit. Do not sound academic; never add footnotes for further explanations as these often compromise readability.

My latest translation, Another Dozen Stories, contains 12 stories, each one different from the other in style and flavour. This batch was culled out from the stories that had not been translated. Ray had described the opening story in this volume, The Life and Death of Aryasekhar, written back in 1968, as “the only story written with adults in mind”. The theme was a complete departure from his usual subjects, but equally different was the language: It was written in a strict and formal Bengali style. This story once again revealed Ray’s strong hold over Bangla. I had to put in real effort and labour over this translation.

Translating the other stories meant for young adults proved less daunting, but it still meant reworking on the structure of certain sentences quite a few times. In Bengali, Ray, on occasion, wrote a sentence that was long enough to be a paragraph. In the original it works rather well. But this is not necessarily so when it has be adapted into another language. To ease the flow of reading, I had to cut down the sentence to three or four to retain the essence of his words. Translating his humour was no less a challenge. A twist in the last sentence of a story often did not retain the same charm in translation. I felt translating a language often meant translating a culture, too. For instance, a story ends with a mere sentence stating that the protagonist chose to die in the early hours of the day of his niece’s wedding. It denotes tragedy — and says, without putting it in words, that the wedding will get postponed, as in a Bengali family auspicious activities cannot be observed for a year after a death. This custom may not be clear to readers elsewhere.

As an aside, apart from translating the stories what I enjoy most is writing the translator’s note. It’s a wonderful exercise that allows me to delve deep into the writer’s mind and connect certain things within the present context of the book; go back to history, do a bit of research of that time and link it to the present collection. Also it gives me a chance to call up Ray’s director son Sandip, and get nuggets of information about his father’s writings.

What next

Ray’s output as a writer was enormous. Apart from his own translations and non-fiction writings, he wrote 91 short stories, 48 Shonku adventures and 34 Feluda mysteries. The Shonku and Feluda series have all been translated. But there are enough stories left for the possibility of another volume. A set of stories features the avuncular character, Uncle Tarini, written in a ‘story within a story’ format. Last, but not the least, I know I’ll once more face a huge challenge translating a book of his writings involving four contemporary folk tales/fairy tales.

With the latest translation, I pay homage to Ray in his centenary year. The Ray legacy, we know, will carry on.

Indrani Majumdar is a Delhi-based translator

Published on May 02, 2021

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