Among modern Indian titans, auteur filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s public life is pretty well documented. While he never managed to write an autobiography, he had himself, over the years, in Bengali and English, gifted us with fascinating vignettes of his childhood, his filmmaking methods, and his creative thought process, in his inimitable lucid and chatty writing style, laced with a wry humour and generous humanism that was his very own. Thus, the problem with another volume, this time by his wife, and aiming to relive the private life she shared with him, is not just that it is inevitably held up in comparison with what the world famous director has already written. The greater problem is that there is always bound to be the suspicion that it is an attempt to flog a dead horse.
Which is why reading the first few chapters of Manik and I by Satyajit Ray’s wife Bijoya appeared all the more tedious to this reviewer. Where Satyajit was an acknowledged master of economy, employing pithy descriptions in street-savvy Bangla throughout his literary work—and they are substantial—to bring alive his thoughts and actions, wife Biyoya appears to be a dry chronicler of facts and events. However, somewhere down the long narrative, one realised the disarming charm and honesty that went into the effort. That is when the woman behind the famous man suddenly shines through in all her humility and sincerity, and not only brings to life their long and fruitful conjugal experience, but also unravels before our eyes her powerful and meticulous, yet silent presence that contributed in no small measure in making the versatile genius who he was.
It is no use recollecting here the innumerable incidents and anecdotes that pepper the narrative, often in a disarming and intimate style that reminds one of their sources—the voluminous diaries that the author and wife Bijoya kept, noting down the minutiae of half a century of their life together. Wherever events and time periods in her story coincide with what he has himself written about, while the husband may win at the style stakes, wife comes out no loser, with her keen perspective on the many practical sides of his creative life. Satyajit and Biyoya were cousins. Their love affair was not destined to get social or familial sanction. There is enough trivia in this book—about his fear of carrying wallets, to his fear of electrical appliances—to keep the Satyajit-junkie busy for days.
But the most arresting part of the narrative is that of her early life—of the time when the author was trying to make a life of her own—and this is hardly known to anyone—as an actress in Bombay. That she realised the futility of pursuing this career path, and that, much later, she would express her lack of interest in the films of ‘difficult’ European auteurs who were her husband’s peers and whose films Satyajit, or Manik, as he was called at home, would follow with interest—are some moments in the story when her disarming humility overpowers the reader. The story of the 50 years of life Bijoya and Satyajit shared were also years of intense national and international turmoil. Wherever the events make their appearance in the narrative, they provide wonderful insight into Bijoya’s mind.