Satyajit Ray: Master adapter

A delightful collection of Satyajit Ray’s translation of poems and stories of his father, Sukumar Ray, the folk tales put into writing by his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, and some of his own stories.

Published : Oct 21, 2021 06:00 IST

Satyajit Ray needs no introduction as a film-maker and a writer. That he was also a gifted translator is perhaps not so well-known. The volume under review brings together his translation of a few of his own stories and of the work of his father and grandfather, Sukumar Ray and Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. Satyajit Ray took seriously to writing after he revived Sandesh (the children’s magazine that Upendrakishore started in 1913) in 1961 and became one of its two editors. The new Sandesh would go on to carry the stories that established Ray as a distinguished and distinctive writer of children’s fiction, apart from nurturing a whole new generation of children’s writers in Bengali. Feluda made his first appearance in its pages in 1965. But Ray’s debut contribution to the magazine was a translation of Edward Lear’s nonsense poem The Jumblies . More translations were to follow, of both poems and stories.

The translations in 3 Rays are in the opposite direction, from Bengali into English. A particularly delicious treat is Ray’s translation of Sukumar Ray’s nonsense poetry. All but one of the 11 translations were first compiled in Nonsense Rhymes by Sukumar Ray, published by Writers Workshop in 1970. But most of the poems in the 1970 collection were written in the 1960s for a magazine called Now , edited by the radical Samar Sen until the end of 1967.

Nonsense verse, a peculiar product of early modern literature, made its first appearance in Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense (1846) and in the twentieth century was developed into a formidable genre by Ogden Nash and Spike Milligan. Usually written for children, nonsense poetry is supposed to elude attempts to find rational or symbolic meaning in it. Inevitably, and perhaps pointlessly, there are scholarly attempts to “make sense of the nonsense”. The glorious abandoning of sense in Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol (1923), the posthumous collection of his nonsense poems generally believed to have been inspired by Edward Lear, has delighted and enthralled generations of Bengali children. “Abol Tabol” means, literally, nonsense. There is always, of course, a little sense in nonsense if it must be funny and not just a string of words; such poems evoke laughs through their clever inversions and unexpected imagery. But behind it all there is a consensus on what is supposed to be ‘normal’. Like all literature, nonsense verse also inescapably belongs to its own time. Sukumar Ray’s nonsense poetry is quite unmistakably situated within the framework of free thinking and liberalism that marked the Bengal Renaissance.

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Sukumar Ray wrote the Abol Tabol poems in the second decade of the twentieth century for Sandesh . Like Edward Lear, Sukumar Ray illustrated his own poems. The monochrome drawings (some of these are reproduced in the collection under review) give as much joy visually as the sound of the rhyming verses gives to the ear when read aloud, while the mind revels in the absurdity without being constrained to look for meaning.

Reading Ray’s translations, long out of popular circulation and perhaps never known very widely, is a bit of a shock. Sometimes, overfamiliarity breeds a kind of blindness to the true import of poems, especially poems that as a child one is taught and encouraged to read aloud. All Bengali children are familiar, thanks to school curriculum, with Rabindranath Tagore’s The Palm Tree ; yet it is only when one comes back to it as an adult that one sees it for what it truly is—a wistful <FZ,1,0,29>poem on the lure of the unknown for someone irrevocably rooted to what is both a cherished home and a prison. One’s first response to Ray’s translation of the Abol Tabol poems is to wonder whether one had failed to discern the poems’ real meaning as a child, meaning that the translator has coaxed out of the apparent absurdity and held up for the reader to see. “Each word spoken in a play is like a fruit in a tree,” says a character in Ray’s short story Patolbabu, Film Star . “Not everyone in the audience has access to it. But you, the actor, must know how to pluck it, get at its essence, and serve it up to the audience for their edification.” (Translation: Satyajit Ray) Is that what Ray the translator is doing—serving up the poems as they really should be received to a readership dazzled by their verbal brilliance?

As a child one had memorised and enjoyed Ramgorurer Chhana , the poem on the sombre, unsmiling offspring of a mythical animal that have become a metaphor for lack of humour. To be called “Ramgorurer chhana” by one’s friends is to be branded as one who fails to see a joke. And yet it is a sobriquet slapped in affectionate jest, never in any real disparagement. In Ray’s translation, titled The Sons of Rangaroo , the poem acquires an unexpected depth. It is still a poem on mirthlessness, like Sukumar’s is. But in Sukumar the banishment of laughter appears funny and, paradoxically, makes one laugh. Ray’s translation makes us pause and reflect. The scowling spoilsports in Sukumar’s poem struggle to keep smiles at bay in a world where unstoppable mirth forces its way into every nook and cranny. Their resistance to joy is fragile, which is why it is hilarious. But in Ray’s treatment they appear ominous—especially now, a few decades after these translations were done, as the world grapples ineffectually with regimes informed by world views that shut out laughter and hold men and women trapped in joyless lives:

They keep a wary eye

On the autumn sky

For signs of mirth above the earth

In foaming cumuli.

The darkness of the night

Brings them no respite, …

The note of hopelessness in the last stanza is bleak, and the atmosphere of doom is almost menacing. The effect is accomplished through small verbal changes such as translating Sukumar’s “basa”, the Bengali word for “nest”, as “lair” and the introduction of the words “monastery” and “despair”, which have no parallel in the original. The misery is now too serious to be laughed at:

The Rangaroosian lair

Bereft of sun and air

Is doomed to be a monastery

Of permanent despair.

The ending in the original contains the same idea, and yet somehow the depiction of how the imaginary creatures have stuffed their nest with scoldings draws chuckles rather than sighs.

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Translation is in the end an act of reading, springing as it does from the translator’s urge to share her/his reading with readers of another language. All translations are also in some measure interpretations, unless one is translating one’s own work—and perhaps even then. Ray’s translations make no pretence of faithfulness to the originals. They stand on their own, these flawlessly executed pieces, displaying Ray’s ability to handle verse like a poet. Reading them is like taking a tour through Ray’s reading of his father’s poems and following how they speak to him. This is perhaps most apparent in The Missing Whiskers , a poem on an office boss who throws a tantrum over an imagined slight—he thinks someone has stolen his moustache and substituted a dirty one in its place. In Ray’s handling, the poem becomes a satirical exploration of how people in positions of power tend to see their subordinates, all the while unaware of the ludicrousness of their own posturing:

If you think your employees

Deserve your lovecorrection, please:

They don’t. They’re fools. No common sense.

They’re full of crass incompetence….

Sukumar’s poem dwells on the unpredictable whimsicality of human nature, which is funny if not particularly edifying. Satyajit Ray’s translation is a comment on the power to put a spin on situations that comes with privilege. Each, in its own way, is a masterpiece. Whereas Sukumar’s nonsense verses tickle and amuse, his son’s translations carry traces of the quirky humour of a Roald Dahl.

Perhaps these translations should be read as Ray’s engagement with a father he lost early in life. Ray was barely two and a half when Sukumar Ray died in September 1923. As he has said, he could get to know his father only through his writings and drawings. In his Foreword, Sandip Ray writes: “Baba took up translation of Sukumar’s and Upendrakishore’s literary works in his leisure time, usually in between shooting of films. It stemmed mainly from his desire to present them to a wider readership.” Undeniably, but perhaps the Abol Tabol translations also reflect an extraordinary son’s inspired efforts to make his superbly gifted father’s verses talk to him. In his hands, the nonsense verses acquire meaning. If they lose something of the innocent hilarity of the originals, they gain in satirical depth. They also establish an aspect of Ray that is not very well-known outside Bengal—that he was also a poet. Only a poet can translate another poet.

Translating Upendrakishore

If Ray’s translations of Sukumar Ray’s poems are primarily his own interpretations, his translations of grandfather Upendrakishore’s retelling of Bengali folk tales could not have been closer to the originals. Some of these were published in the mid 1980s, and some are transcribed from Ray’s “literary notebook” and published in this collection for the first time.

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Upendrakishore belonged to the generation of Bengali writers who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were trying to build up a body of children’s literature. Bengali as a modern literary language was not yet very old, although the genius of Rabindranath Tagore had lifted it out of its adolescence in one giant heave. The efforts of Upendrakishore and others such as Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar to create a corpus of writing for children in Bengali had Tagore’s blessings, but they were taking a trajectory very different from Tagore’s own refined creations for young readers. Dakshinaranjan is remembered best for his transcribing of Bengali fairy tales, Upendrakishore for his retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata for children and his collection of Bengali folk tales. In Tuntunir Boi (1910), Upendrakishore put into writing stories that had been in oral circulation for generations in the primarily agricultural and as yet scarcely urbanised eastern Bengal. In doing so, he tapped into Bengali women’s tradition of storytelling in the rural hinterland far from the cultural sophistication of Calcutta. (Doubtless, he would have heard many of these stories while he was growing up in Mymensingh.) The creative voice of rural Bengali women, hardly represented in the mainstream literature of the period, survives memorably in Tuntunir Boi . Upendrakishore embellished the stories with his own drawings, a practice that was to become a family tradition through three generations.

Ray’s translations, without being pedantically literal, catch the mood and flavour of these rustic narratives with an unerring instinct. Even his translations of the verses that Upendrakishore sprinkled across the stories, following the countryside tradition of often breaking into rough verse while telling a story, echo the originals. In a very basic way, these stories transcend the barrier of time to speak to a modern readership. As in all folk tales, their heroes are underlings who stand up to power and get out of impossible situations by using their wit. Children of the early twenty-first century familiar with Julia Donaldson’s books (now widely recognised as modern classics, especially Gruffalo ) will perhaps find something recognisable in the way the little goat Narahari Dass staves off a threat from a jackal. Hiding in the jackal’s hole, he stops the jackal from entering it, saying —

My long beard

Is by all feared

I’m the lion’s big brother,

Narahari Dass.

I dine on fifty tigers,

While others eat grass.

The ploy is not all that different from that of Julia Donaldson’s mouse who fends off the predatory fox by saying he’s going to meet Gruffalo for lunch and then describes the fearsome beast—“He has terrible tusks, and <FZ,3,0,29>terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws” and “his favourite food is roasted fox”. In Upendrakishore’s tale, when the jackal returns with the sceptical tiger the goat plays them off against each other— You good-for-nothing,/ See what you’ve done,/ I paid for ten tigers,/ And you’ve brought only one.

The one thing that sets apart the world of Julia Donaldson’s stories from that of the Bengali folk tales is the treatment of death. There are in fact no deaths in Julia Donaldson’s books, just as there is no actual violence, only the threat of violence which is always cleverly averted. Upendrakishore’s stories are full of death and violence. Both are very much a part of life in these narratives, just as they are in the milieu that the stories spring from. Does that mean there is no death and violence in the milieu that produces the Julia Donaldson stories? By no means. It is just that the work of modern-day Western writers reflects a certain view of children’s writing, one in which death and actual violence are sanitised out of the story. This is alien to Upendrakishore’s view of his craft as a storyteller. Death is encountered squarely in the face, and the endings are not necessarily ‘happy’. And yet somehow the human spirit (never mind that the characters are very often animals) triumphs over adversity—as in Matanjali Sarkar where the too-clever-by-half cat falls prey to his own machinations and dies, but not before he tells his last tall tale claiming that he is dying of laughing. The story of the cheeky little tailor bird ( Toony Bird ) has much blood and gore, with the seven queens and the king all getting their noses cut off, whether by design or accident. Yet the lasting image left by the story is of the Toony Bird flying “far and high away to another land” where the vengeful king cannot touch it. The Bent Old Woman ends with the protagonist’s dogs tearing apart the jackal that would have otherwise feasted on their mistress. But what one takes away from the tale is the memory of the rolling pumpkin and the witty verses that the wily old woman uses to hold off the predators, all but the jackal.

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It is this world that comes alive in Ray’s translation, aided by Upendrakishore’s drawings—a world in which hunger and violence lurk around the corner, where poverty and death are a way of life though never allowed to dominate it. A far cry from the kind of stories Ray himself wrote. The collection includes a piece on Upendrakishore by Ray, originally written in Bengali and ably translated into English by Indrani Majumdar. The drawings with this piece are by Ray, lovingly etching out his grandfather’s many-splendoured genius as a children’s writer, a pioneer in modern printing technology, a book illustrator, a painter, and a musician. Indeed, the collection showcases Satyajit Ray’s prowess as an artist and illustrator as much as his felicity as a translator.

Translating himself

The penultimate section offers Ray’s translation of some of his own stories, all illustrated by the writer himself. Some of these translations were done in 1984, when he was recovering from a bypass surgery. (This was also when he translated stories by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Arthur Conan Doyle into Bengali.) The stories in this collection form a varied bunch, without any of the widely popular Feluda whodunnits, but including quite a few other favourites including some Professor Shonku stories and a Tarini Khuro tale.

Many of these stories show Ray’s unabashed fascination for the supernatural, which is one of the things for which his writing is criticised. It is a commonplace to point out, for instance, that the plot of Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, not in this collection) turns on a piece of unscientific claptrap—a boy’s memories of a previous life. (Marie Seton records in her biography that Ray had casually mentioned in a conversation that he borrowed the idea from a case recounted to him by a psychiatrist friend.) Perhaps the best answer to such criticism is provided by one of Ray’s own stories in this collection— Tipu, the Maths Teacher and the Pink Man . The 10-year-old Tipu is miserable when his math teacher puts an end to his devouring of fairy tales, saying he should read more serious stuff suitable to his age. He is rescued from the predicament by Pink Man, a creature from another planet, who plays a trick on the unimaginative teacher to make him understand the power of fairy tales in human life. The teacher had failed to see the joy that the stories give the child, the immersion in fantasy and make-believe that makes childhood magical.

Ray is not very bothered about ‘realism’ in his stories. His concern is with the life of the imagination. He is out to tell stories to children, and he knows how to use the supernatural to get their attention and build up atmo<FZ,4,1,29>sphere. His use of the supernatural is varied and can be quite startling at times. Ratanbabu and That Man borders on being a psychological thriller. The protagonist, Ratanbabu, is a lonely man who enjoys his own company and is not keen to share his life with anyone. (Such characters keep cropping up in Satyajit Ray’s stories.) He is shocked and, at first, pleased to meet a man who appears to be his doppelganger. But the pleasure quickly turns to frustration as he realises that he does not enjoy the company of someone who is his own copy in every way, and he does not flinch from committing a crime in order to get rid of him. The supernatural ending to the story is not really unexpected, and yet it baffles and intrigues the reader. The character of the protagonist is uninteresting to the extreme—the quintessential Everyman, except for his commitment to a solitary life. It is the ending that gives the story its romance and makes it linger in the reader’s mind.

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The boundary between fantasy and realism is often blurred in Ray’s stories, but there is a penetrating moral realism underlying it all. As in Bonkubabu’s Friend , an early science fantasy, where the mild-mannered protagonist’s meeting with a creature from another planet gives him the confidence to stand up to village bullies. Or in Ashamanjababu’s Dog , where the dog ‘smiles’ at the suggestion that money can make Ashamanjababu part with it. The Small World of Sadananda questions the common-sense approach to realism in a different way. The young protagonist’s preoccupation with the lives and activities of ants makes him appear to his friends and family as someone who is fast losing his grip on reality. It is a powerful and disturbing comment on city dwellers’ inability to empathise with the processes of nature. (It bears recall that under Ray’s watch Sandesh in 1962 set up a department for nurturing awareness about the environment.) The use of the supernatural is quite spine-chilling in the short story Khagam , but the subtext is that pointless violence against animals is morally unacceptable and can have disastrous consequences.

Sometimes, as in The Duel , the supernatural is a prop, a device that allows the writer to tell a historical tale without having to flesh out the characters or build up to the climax. The ‘spirit’ that visits the narrator invites him, and thereby the reader, to take a peek at a duel that supposedly took place in nineteenth century Lucknow. This makes it possible for Ray to focus on the story’s climactic scene with only a skeletal introduction to back it up. The plot of a novel is thereby squeezed into a short story, enabling the writer to leave out details that might have been unsuitable for young readers. What remains unsaid is left to the imagination to fill in.

The other prop in this story is the figure of the storyteller, Tarini Khuro (Uncle Tarini), who like his several well-known counterparts in Bengali literature is single and male and has a fixed group of eager young listeners, but unlike them does not cling on to everlasting youth. Uncle Tarini’s stories keep transgressing into the realm of fantasy, and his young audience cannot make up their minds on whether he is telling the truth or just making it all up. True to type, he has never held a steady job and has spent his life doing odd jobs that have taken him around the country and provided varied settings for his tales. Yet this ageing, insightful, and morally sound character has a certain air of respectability. Somewhat like Sidhu Jyatha in the Feluda stories, he is also widely read. Is there a little of Ray in him?

Like Ray, he is a storyteller. And through him, that is, through the device of the well-read storyteller, Ray is able to digress from the story and share bits of history with his young readers. At the end of his little lecture on the history of duels, one member of his young audience says: “That’s history. It’s time we had a story.” It is almost as if Ray is reminding himself that it is time to get on with the tale.

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Nabanita Deb Sen has pointed out in one of her essays how Ray pokes gentle fun at his own expense in the character of Lalmohanbabu, a.k.a. Jatayu, in the Feluda stories—the detective story writer with a heart of gold who habitually gets his facts wrong, who is of indifferent physique himself but imagines his hero as a tall, strapping, film star-like fellow. Ray’s stories often tend to explore his own craft as writer/film-maker/magazine editor, from the point of a view of an ‘other’. In at least two stories not included in this collection, he looks at the role of the editor of a children’s magazine from the point of view of amateur writers. In Akshaybabur Shiksha (“Akshaybabu learns a lesson”), the editor gently guides an aspiring writer not quite in step with the spirit of the times. In Shishu Sahityik (“Children’s writer”), Ray explores one of the prejudices that an editor can hold against writers—that only the work of writers with elegant and urbane names is worth considering.

In Patolbabu, Film Star , Ray looks at film-making from the point of view of an “extra”, a nonentity who is paid a pittance to appear in one fleeting scene. The film-maker is the insensitive philistine in this story, unable, in his haste to get on with the day, to adequately appreciate the effort and the artistry that Patolbabu puts into the paltry role.

Professor Shonku

And then there is Professor Shonku. He is of older vintage than Feluda, having first appeared in Sandesh in 1961. The inspiration for that first Shonku story was Sukumar Ray’s Heshoram Hoshiarer Diary , which Ray translated as The Diary of Professor Heshoram Hoshiar (included in this volume). Ray went on to write a whole series of Shonku stories. The ones in this collection are Magic Box of Baghdad , The Sahara Mystery , Corvus , Tellus and The Unicorn Expedition, set respectively in Iraq, the Sahara desert in Africa, Chile, Japan and Tibet. The Shonku stories are global in scope and feel as their polyglot protagonist whizzes around the globe attending seminars and getting into hair-raising escapades in spectacular landscapes in the company of other scientists from across the world. In this respect they differ radically from all other stories by Ray, which are set in India, quite often in Bengal. There is a sense of expanse in the Shonku adventures, and of travel as widening the horizons of the mind.

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Ray has said that there was something “tongue-in-cheek” about the first Shonku story but that later the stories became more serious (according to an extract from an interview quoted in Satyajit Ray: A Definitive Biography, produced by Satyajit Ray Archive in 2005). There is a striking parallel between the fate of Heshoram Hoshiar’s literary successor Shonku and Ray’s rendering of the Abol Tabol poems. In both, the trajectory is from light-hearted laughter to thoughtfulness and a degree of moral complexity. In Sukumar Ray’s story, structured like a diary (a format followed in many Shonku stories), Heshoram talks about fantastic beasts that he and his gluttonous nephew supposedly met on their zoological expedition in the Karakoram. The bumbling uncle and nephew are comical enough in their confused exploits, even the creatures they supposedly meet are hysterically funny. Ray’s translation brings this out beautifully. But if The Diary of Professor Heshoram Hoshiar was initially the “source” for the character of Professor Shonku, Ray’s scientist hero grew in stature as the series took shape and evolved into a character that had nothing in common with Heshoram.

At the heart of every Professor Shonku story, always enlivened by Ray’s quiet humour, is a moral conflict. If Professor Shonku is a hero, it is not so much because of his science but his moral integrity, humility, graciousness, and respect for other cultures. The character also embodies Ray’s own refusal to dismiss as baseless things that may not have an apparent scientific explanation. In Sonar Kella , perhaps the only time that Ray comes out in his own voice is when Feluda tells his young cousin: “What I believe is this, that it is foolish to either believe or disbelieve anything without proof. There is enough evidence in history to show there is a price to pay if people keep their minds shuttered.” It is this same spirit that makes Professor Shonku unwilling to dismiss the existence of unicorns. The Unicorn Expedition is tantalisingly open-ended, and the answer to whether unicorns exist is both “yes” and “no”. The sheer force of the human imagination, says Shonku, wills unicorns, and all other mythical creatures, into existence—not in everyday reality, not in familiar geographical locations, but in a place whose remoteness is a symbol for the powerful leap of faith one must make to be able to perceive them. That, in a nutshell, is what fairy tales, the world’s oldest stories, are all about.

Early fruits

The last section consists of two stories, Abstraction and Shades of Grey , which Ray wrote as a young art student in his early twenties. When Ray started writing fiction seriously from 1961, he wrote for adolescents, with the single exception of Pikur Diary (The Diary of Piku, 1970; later made into a short feature film), and always in Bengali. Even when he started writing for the Durga Puja numbers of magazines such as Desh and Anandabazar , he wrote for the young, although most adults read his stories with joy. (His stories also push the boundaries of the genre of children’s fiction and very often gently coax young readers into thinking beyond their age, quite notably in The Life and Death of Aryashekhar .) But these two stories, both written in English, are meant for an adult readership.

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Both were written during his time as an art student in Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati. News reports describing much fuss about a picture that was eventually found to have been hung upside down at an art exhibition in Latin America are said to have given Ray the plot for Abstraction . In hindsight, there is a strange irony about the story Shades of Grey . It is about an artist who loses his ability to recognise colours. The condition devastates and destroys him. Years later, in 1972, Ray was to shoot a documentary film on the artist Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay, his teacher at Kala Bhavan. Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay had a weak eyesight from childhood and eventually went completely blind. But unlike the protagonist in the young Ray’s story, he did not allow this to end his creativity. Ray called the documentary TheInner Eye .

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