Read an excerpt from Amader Shantiniketan: Author Shivani recalls special bond with Satyajit Ray in her memoir
The memoir was written almost 50 years ago, when she was a young girl studying in Shantiniketan, the school set up by Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal.
Acclaimed Hindi author Gaura Pant Shivani's (1923-2003) memoir Amader Shantiniketan, translated into English by her daughter Ira Pande, was written nearly 50 years ago, when she was a young girl studying in Shantiniketan, the school set up by Rabindranath Tagore. It details life in the Ashram and the vivacity of its residents, many of whom went on to become icons in their respective fields.
In the following excerpt, from the chapter 'That Little Drop of Dew!' Shivani recalls her experiences with Satyajit Ray, whom she affectionately referred to as Manik da, and with whom she shared an integral bond.
This excerpt from Amader Shantiniketan by Shivani, translated by Ira Pande, has been reproduced here with permission from the publisher Penguin Random House India.
The first round of a seminar on Tagore had just ended in Dumstadt’s vast hall when someone came up to me to announce: ‘The German radio has just flashed the news that Satyajit Ray is no more.’ I had never called Satyajit Ray by his real name; to us Ashramites, he was always Manik da, although none of us knew then that one day he would shine as brightly as the ruby of that affectionate nickname.
I turned my face towards the windows to hide my tears. Grey rain clouds rolled outside, almost as if someone was drawing black drapes before arranging a condolence meeting in heaven. As I watched the trembling leaves, shivering in the rain outside the windows, a deep sadness seeped over me. And yet, I wasn’t alone in my grief—the entire assembly lapsed into a hushed silence as the news spread. Here I was, miles away from my homeland, I thought, mourning my friend along with hundreds of people I did not even know by name.
A host of memories crowded my mind and I shook my head to clear the pictures. We had all known for some time now that Manik da was living on borrowed time. His enfeebled heart was battling valiantly to keep that splendid frame alive but we knew it was just a matter of time before Yama, the God of Death, would swoop in triumphantly and take him away from us. They say that Yama is totally without compassion when he comes down to claim his prize. And yet, recently, when I heard Manik da’s familiar baritone accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Motion Pictures, I thought to myself that no one with a booming voice like that could be so seriously ill! Who knows, this time too he would recover as he did when he returned from the US after Dr Denton Cooley had dragged him back from the brink of death, I had thought. After all, he had come back then and completed an unfinished film.
He was still recovering from that bout of illness when I last met him in Calcutta. Four years before that last meeting, when I had come to Calcutta, Manik da had come to meet me. My daughter’s father-in-law, BD Pande, was then the West Bengal governor, and he had thoughtfully arranged for all my Ashram friends to come to the Raj Bhavan one evening. We fell upon each other’s necks in joy. Manik da, Suchitra Mitra, my dearest school friend Anima Sen, the daughter-in-law of our respected teacher, Acharya Kshiti Mohan Sen, Arundhati Mukherji, Tara Sarkar . . .
‘Ours must have surely been the Golden Age of Shantiniketan,’ I had declared loftily as I looked proudly at that assembly of famous personages that day.
‘Don’t ever forget,’ Manik da reminded us solemnly, ‘that whatever we are today is because of what we learnt at the Ashram.’ He always spoke in measured, reflective tones and I suddenly felt as chastened as a schoolgirl rapped on her knuckles for overlooking a basic fact.
The Calcutta I once knew had changed so irrevocably since I was a student that I had to ask one Dr Upadhyaya from the university to accompany me, unsure that I would be able to trace Satyajit Ray’s house on my own. Dr Upadhyaya was ecstatic at the prospect of meeting Calcutta’s living legend and he kept thanking me for taking him along. We rang the bell outside that famous flat on Bishop Lefroy Road and Manik da opened the door himself. The veranda was full of potted plants that he had probably been spraying with water when we arrived. I had planned this visit on a sudden impulse, without even a formal appointment, yet I found myself being greeted warmly when I reached. ‘What a pleasant surprise,’ Manik da smiled at me as he led us in. I could see several people (probably with appointments made long ago) waiting to meet him as Manik da took us into his den. A huge portrait of his father, Sukumar Ray, dominated one wall of an otherwise spartan, cell-like room, strewn with papers.
Manik da was a giant of a man, and his tall frame remained ever erect and slim. His voice, like the deep boom of a temple bell, drew attention whenever he spoke. But that day, for the first time, I felt he had aged. His face had changed so much in the last four years that he now looked terribly gaunt and tired. And his voice no longer boomed, perhaps because he had a sore throat that day. Yet, when he smiled at me, or threw back his head to laugh in a particular way, he became once more the Manik da I had always known and admired.
Manik da was never a talker; in fact, he gave the impression of weighing every word he uttered and that is what probably gave his speech its air of deep, reflective gravity. I jabbered on and he listened attentively as usual until I became aware that the crowd of admirers waiting outside kept growing. Embarrassed at having taken up so much of his time, I got up to leave. ‘Sit, sit,’ he kept saying but I excused myself. I could kick myself today for leaving that room so soon but I had no idea then that this would be our last meeting.
‘All right, at least have a rasagulla before you leave,’ he smiled. ‘I know you love them. I’ve seen you eating them at Kalu’s shop in the Ashram,’ he added wickedly.
My jaw dropped at this piece of news. We used to be in such awe of him then that the fact that he had even noticed my love of rasagullas was a revelation. In our Ashram days, Manik da would stride past a gaggle of us without lifting his eyes. Kalu’s shop was our favourite haunt; the rasagullas were so spongy that you had to squeeze the syrup out before popping one in your mouth, else you could choke.
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