A letter from Satyajit Ray

Print edition : November 05, 2021
Despite his astonishing success, Ray did not forget the little reader.

I could hardly believe my eyes when I found in our mailbox a letter addressed to me in the second most famous Bengali script handwriting (the best-known is Rabindranath Tagore’s). I must have had goosebumps as I read: “Shriman Arkadev …”

Satyajit Ray was a prolific writer of novellas and stories in Bengali for young adults. He created two memorable characters—the suave sleuth Feluda and the middle-aged inventor and scientist Professor Shonku. Like his movies, Ray’s stories were marked by creativity and high quality. And a touch of perfection. Countless boys and girls used to wait in eager anticipation for the next Ray story. They usually appeared in the children's magazine Sandesh that he co-edited, and in the literary magazine Desh. We used to brag among friends as to who had first read the latest story. The competition was fierce with siblings who also kept a keen eye for the volume. If they possessed the magazine first, I would get lucked out for hours.

As young people are ready to go where adults might fear to tread, I wrote a fan mail to Satyajit Ray. I was a second-year student in St Xavier’s College in Calcutta. I watched his movies with enthusiasm, and I eagerly read his writings. I noted how Professor Shonku and Feluda had long resided in my mental world. I stated that his Feluda film Sonar Kella (1974) was my favourite movie. What I could see in my mind’s eye was given form in this motion picture. The maestro must have been amused at my attempts to explain why. (The film failed to gain wide acclaim outside Bengal. But when Sir Salman Rushdie mentioned to Ray that it was one of his favourite movies, Ray “leapt from his breakfast and made huge gesticulations of delight”—“Homage to Satyajit Ray” by Rushdie in London Review of Books, March 1990.) I ended the letter with a humble request that he create a movie with Professor Shonku. I did not really expect a reply.

Later I learned that Ray personally replied to his fan mails. Rushdie (1990) described Ray as “the poet par excellence of the human-scale, life-sized comedy and tragedy of ordinary men and women”. But many people go by the dictum: “Do as I say and not as I do.” Ray was no hypocrite; despite his astonishing success, he did not forget the little reader. His reply records the challenges in making science-fiction movies in India during the early 1980s. A fairly literal translation from Bengali:

Shriman Arkadev Chattopadhyay

Kalyaniyeshu (Dear)

I was very pleased to receive your letter.

I also want to bring Shonku to the film, but with our country’s machines and equipment, it’s probably not possible to make science fiction [movies]. Let’s see what happens.

Best wishes to you

Satyajit Ray



(Dr Arkadev Chatterjea is Visiting Professor at the SC Johnson Graduate School of Management at his alma mater, Cornell University.)