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Posts Tagged ‘Satyajit Ray’

I have wanted to read a Satyajit Ray book for a long time. I wanted to start with the Feluda stories. But someone mentioned the Professor Shonku stories, and because I have never heard of Professor Shonku before, I thought I will try his stories first. There are three volumes of Professor Shonku stories available in English translation, and ‘The Diary of a Space Traveller‘ is the first one.

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The Diary of a Space Traveller‘ has twelve stories. The first one is the title story. In this story, the narrator’s neighbour comes and gives a diary to him. It looks like some kind of meteorite has crashed nearby and this diary was found in that site. This diary is written by Professor Shonku, in which he writes about his attempts to build a rocket to reach Mars and what happens during that trip. It looks like the Professor hasn’t come back to Earth but his diary somehow has. The narrator then finds more diaries in Professor Shonku’s house which detail his past adventures. These comprise the rest of the stories in the book.

I loved every story in ‘The Diary of a Space Traveller‘. The title story is science fiction and most of it happens in outer space and other planets. There are other stories in the book about dinosaur bones, ghosts, Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, hypnotism, the mysteries of the human brain, robots, intelligent birds, miniature planets and miniature living beings. In these very different stories, Satyajit Ray explores many fascinating mysteries which have haunted the human imagination. The stories feel like classical science fiction / fantasy – the kind of stories which came out in the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th century, that Jules Verne, H.G.Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle used to write, the kind of stories which came out before science fiction writers moved their stories to other planets and galaxies with alien civilizations, which sounded the death knell of classical science fiction. Satyajit Ray’s stories hark back to that innocent era of classical science fiction and I felt nostalgic while reading them. Many of the stories are open ended with no clear cut resolution in the end. It adds to the beauty of the story. The prose flows smoothly, there is enough information to make the reader understand the story, there is the right amount of humour. The translation by Gopa Majumdar is beautiful – I can only imagine how much more beautiful the original Bengali version must be. I loved the main characters – Professor Shonku, our eccentric scientist, his assistant Prahlad, his cat Newton, his neighbour Avinash Babu, who is always taking potshots at the professor’s research. Then there are characters who come only in specific stories, who are all fascinating. The book has an introduction by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, in which she describes how Bengali children loved Professor Shonku’s adventures when they first came out. The book also has an afterword by the translator which makes for interesting reading.

I loved ‘The Diary of a Space Traveller and other stories‘. The stories in it were fascinating, gripping and entertaining. I loved the classical feel of the stories. I can’t wait to read more Professor Shonku adventures.

I have to say one last thing. Bengali friends, I am so jealous of you. I am so jealous that you got to read Satyajit Ray’s stories when you were young. I am so jealous that you got to read them in Bengali. I am happy I discovered them finally, but I wish I had read them when I was young.

Have you read this book or other Professor Shonku adventures? What do you think about them?

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I have wanted to watch Satyajit Ray’sPather Panchali‘ (‘Song of the Road’) for a long time now. Finally, I got to watch this classic today. I must be the last person to watch it.

The story told in ‘Pather Panchali‘ goes like this. In a small village in Bengal lives a family, a couple and their daughter. An old woman also lives with them. They are always short of money and the husband doesn’t have a steady income. But they find happiness in the small things. Then the wife becomes pregnant and the couple have a son. The story continues as we follow the adventures of the girl and her younger brother as they play in the woods nearby, go to their neighbour’s homes, talk to the old woman, get sweets from the sweet vendor, cross the fields and see a train for the first time, enjoy getting wet in the rains. Then one day the husband leaves for another town to find a job. And the family, whose everyday life is challenging, goes through tough times. You should watch the movie to find out more.

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I loved the realistic way rural life in India is depicted in the movie. How people find happiness in small things, how they inflict small cruelties on each other, how mothers expect daughters to be responsible but shower affection on their sons, how neighbours fight with each other but also show kindness towards each other, the affection kids and old people have for each other – all these are beautifully and realistically depicted. During the time when Ray’s popular Bollywood counterpart Raj Kapoor was playing the role of the charming, loveable rogue and dancing around in villages singing prescriptive songs and trying to walk like Charlie Chaplin, Ray’s first movie must have been stark with its realism. I don’t know whether it made money in the box office – probably not. I have heard oldtimers say that they went to the theatre to watch escapist movies and loved to watch the hero and the heroine dancing around a tree, and their real life was hard and they didn’t want to watch that on the screen too. So, I doubt that this  movie would have had a lot of mainstream fans when it first came out. But it takes a lot of courage to buck the trend and make a movie which showed things as they are, in contrast to Bollywood of that time which depicted people living in villas and having affairs and flying planes and having a ranch filled with horses – the kind of life most people never lived. We have to admire Satyajit Ray for that. Because Ray was a student of Renoir, I was expecting the European thing in the movie – the camera showing water dripping from the roof for a long time, or the rain falling or the wind blowing or the sound of footsteps, with nothing happening in the story. A little bit of that is there but Ray is careful not to extend it to European lengths. There is minimalism everywhere though – dialogue is there only if required, most of the movie doesn’t have music and we hear only natural sounds, but when music makes its appearance,  Pandit Ravi Shankar’s composition evokes magic. My favourite characters in the story were Durga, the daughter of the couple, Durga’s mother, and the old woman who lives in their place. Ray makes sure that this old woman looks old, instead of dressing her well and making her look like a matriarch. This old woman is beautiful, like the painting by Albrecht Dürer of his mother. The acting by all the actors and actresses is understated and realistic. The ending of the movie is sad but there is also room for future happiness and adventures.

After watching ‘Pather Panchali‘, I wondered why it is regarded as a great work and why it established Satyajit Ray’s reputation. The reason I thought of this was because I have seen many Tamil movies, which came out in the ’70s and ’80s which had a similar theme. Bharathiraja made movies exploring rural themes for more than a decade. They were wonderful movies. Others Tamil directors like Mahendran, Balumahendra, Bhagyaraj and Sridhar made some beautiful rural movies too. (I am sure this is true of directors in most Indian languages.) Why isn’t their work as acclaimed as Ray’s? Why didn’t they win the Golden Lion, for example? When I think about it, the explanation I can come up with, is this one. Ray, probably, was the first to make a realistic rural movie. He was the first off the block. Even the Bollywood blockbuster ‘Mother India’ came later. Many of these rural movies had the Indian / Bollywood formula – there were songs whenever the main characters were feeling happy or sad, there was a comedy track to provide distraction from the main plot etc. Most of these movies also had prescriptive endings, with one of the characters speaking a long monologue in the end, describing what is right and what is wrong. Ray’s movie, in contrast, had none of these. There were no songs, of course. There were no Bollywood-ish formulaic elements. And there was no prescription. Ray’s movie depicted life as it was. I read somewhere that Anton Chekhov once said that his stories didn’t tell people how to live their lives. It depicted how people lived their lives. He said that it was not the artist’s job to prescribe, to advice. It was his job to depict reality as it is. Ray’s movie does that.

I loved ‘Pather Panchali‘. I can’t wait to see the second part of the series ‘Aparajito‘ now.

Have you seen ‘Pather Panchali‘? What do you think about it?

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I have been eagerly looking forward to October, because it is Diverse Detectives Month hosted by Bina from If You Can Read This and Silicon from Silicon of the Internet. The phrase ‘Diverse Detectives’ is used in the sense that the detective in question is not a regular detective like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, but someone who is a person of colour (African, African-American, Chinese, Japanese, East Asian, Latin American, Persian, Arab, Native American, Indian etc.) or / and someone who is gay or who has a fluid sexual orientation, or LGBTQIA+ as the current acronym for that goes. I think it is easier to find the first kind of detective. It is hard to find the second kind. I will look forward to finding out what books other participants read especially with respect to the second kind of detective. I remember Pierce Brosnan saying sometime back that it was time for a black Bond, it was time for a gay Bond. I don’t know whether Bond will ever become black and / or gay, but I can definitely say that diverse detectives have arrived, if you look at the suggested reading list for the event.

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One of the fun parts of participating in a reading event is making reading plans. I always love making reading plans. Whether I stick to the plan or not is another matter 😂 I had a lot of fun making plans for this event. When my constantly evolving reading list finally took shape, I was so excited. Here it is. I am hoping to read some of these books over the next month. I divided the list into three parts as you can see.

In English

(1) The Walter Mosley Omnibus, comprising, Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death and White Butterfly

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I got this book years back at an Indian version of the Parisian bouqiniste, or a platform bookshop, as we affectionately call it here. I had heard of Walter Mosley a few days back and as such things happen, a few days later the book leapt at me when I was browsing. The blue, red and white in the titles makes me think of the French national flag and its meaning and the Colours trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I don’t know whether Walter Mosley was trying to say something there. I loved the fact that these three colours are featured in the cover – I am sure that was intentional. I read the first few lines of the book and I am thinking that Walter Mosley might be the African-American Raymond Chandler and his detective Easy Rawlings might be the African-American Philip Marlowe. I will know when I finish reading the book.

(2) The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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I have wanted to read this book for years. Can you believe that I haven’t read a single Alexander McCall Smith book? Time to remedy that. Can’t wait to read about the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest detective.

(3) The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

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One of my favourite friends gifted this book to me a while back and I have wanted to read it since. It features the seventy two year old coroner Dr.Siri Paiboun and is set in Laos. It promises to be a lot of fun.

(4) Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

I first discovered this book through Eva from The Charm of It. And before I knew it, I started spotting it everywhere, like in the Diverse Detectives reading recommendations and Bina’s TBR list. It features the detective adventures of Blanche, who is a plump, fiesty, African-American housekeeper – how can one resist that.

In Translation

(5) Four Short Stories by Jorge Luis BorgesDeath and the Compass, Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quaint

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I have read just one story of Borges before. I have read that he was a master at taking a traditional detective story and turning it on its head. ‘Death and the Compass‘ is supposed to be the most famous of his ‘detective’ stories. I can’t wait to read that one and the others.

(6) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

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I have had this book for years, since my Chinese days. I have never read a detective mystery set in China and so am very excited.

(7) Three Byomkesh Bakshi books (Picture Imperfect, The Menagerie, The Rhythm of Riddles) by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

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These stories featuring the Indian detective Byomkesh Bakshi first appeared in the 1930s, and were originally written in Bengali. They are quite famous in India  and have been adapted for TV. My Bengali friends rave about them and I can’t wait to read them.

(8) The Complete Adventures of Feluda by Satyajit Ray

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Satyajit Ray is one of India’s greatest filmmakers. But like many other artists, he was a man of many talents, and one of them was writing mysteries featuring the detective Feluda. The original stories were written in Bengali and first appeared in the 1960s and have delighted generations of Bengali readers, young and old alike. The collected Feluda stories come to around 1600 pages and I wouldn’t be able to read them all in one go. Hopefully I will be able to read some of them.

Not Available in Translation

Time to look at some of the books in my language, Tamil 🙂

(9) Manimozhi, Forget Me by Tamilvanan

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I read my first Tamilvanan book when I was in my preteens and promptly fell in love with his works. Tamilvanan was probably the greatest detective mystery / crime fiction writer in Tamil in the twentieth century. He wrote from the ’50s to the late ’70s. He started his career writing literary fiction, but after a not-very-impressive start he shifted to crime fiction. (I don’t know why he didn’t hit it off as a literary fiction writer, because I have read his literary fiction and it is pretty good.) One of the fascinating things about Tamilvanan was his prose. He wrote Tamil which didn’t have the slant of any regional dialect. It didn’t have any English words. It wasn’t the way anyone spoke. It was the ideal version of Tamil, somewhat like the ideal version of the Queen’s English or the Parisian French. It was an absolute pleasure to read. I remember spending many an hour of my teen years taking in the delightful pleasures of Tamilvanan’s prose. Tamilvanan wrote books which spanned the complete range of crime fiction – detective mysteries, noir crime and every other genre in between. Half of his stories featured two detectives and the other half were standalone crime novels. His main detective was called Shankarlal. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and James Bond – sometimes he would go to the crime scene and collect evidence and look for clues like Holmes did, at other times he would call everyone and sit inside a house and run thought experiments and solve the mystery like Poirot did and at other times he would be travelling to exotic locales and would be speeding away on boats with a damsel-in-distress in tow with the villains chasing them. When I think about it now, it all seems illogical and unbelievable, but when I read these books, I loved all the different facets of this detective hero. Tamilvanan was the inspiration for all the detective mystery / crime writers in Tamil who followed him. I don’t know how many books he wrote, but I think I have around a hundred of his books, all stocked up for a rainy day. Most of his books went out of print, and I got some of the last copies available. These days, his publishers are trying to bring some of his famous works back into print, which is great. ‘Manimozhi, Forget Me‘ is a crime novel. A father one day calls his twenty-something daughter and tells her that he is not the good guy she thinks he is, and bad guys are going to kill him, and he asks her to leave town. What he is, really, and what happens to the daughter forms the rest of the story. I read it the first time years back and it was gripping and page-turning like the best detective/ crime fiction is and I loved it. I can’t wait to read it again.

(10) The Sea Mystery by Tamilvanan

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My english translation of the title doesn’t really say anything about the story. I still remember the first scene – a man hires a boat in the night to take him to a ship, which is at the outer anchorage. While the boat is waiting quietly this man boards the ship. Ten minutes later he comes running across the ship’s deck being chased by gunmen, jumps from the ship onto the waiting boat and the boat speeds off to safety. It was a scene straight from a Bond movie. I loved it when I first read it. I can’t remember much of the story now except for that first scene. I hope to read it again and rediscover it.

(11) Detective Sambu by Devan

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Devan was the Tamil Dickens. He wrote books about everyday middle class people, his descriptions of life were realistic and authentic and his stories were told with lots of humour. This is one of his famous works. Sambu is a clerk in a bank. He is forty years old. His boss calls him an idiot – in the sense, when his boss wants to speak to him, he tells his secretary – ‘Call that idiot.’ Sambu is frustrated with his life and his career, when one day surprising things happen. How this clerk becomes a detective – I can’t wait to find that.

(12) The Murderous Autumn by Sujatha

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Sujatha was one of the great Tamil literary masters. His fans called him ‘Vaathiyaar‘ – an affectionate way of saying ‘Teacher‘. Detective mystery was one of the genres he wrote in. He also wrote literary fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, short stories, plays, nonfiction books on science for the general reader, literary essays, translation of ancient Tamil epics into modern Tamil and all kinds of things in between. He even wrote screenplays for movies. He was a true allrounder. His detective mysteries mostly featured the lawyer duo of Ganesh and Vasanth. They were probably modelled after Perry Mason. This is their most famous story. My translation of the title is not perfect – the original title ‘Kolaiyudhir Kaalam‘ can be more accurately translated to ‘The season in which people are murdered and drop dead like leaves during Autumn‘. I don’t know how to shorten that into a few words. I read this book years back and I remember it being a combination of murder mystery, paranormal, science and an unexpected ending. I can’t wait to read it again.

So, this is my reading list for Diverse Detectives Month. Are you participating? Which books are you planning to read?

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