OPINION: The Song of Many Roads: Memory Of A Film

This is an extract from Satendra Nandan’s forthcoming book: Loving You Eternally : Nadi to New Delhi. Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali made 60 years ago, had an enormous
13 Jul 2015 12:15
OPINION: The Song of Many Roads: Memory Of A Film
The Apu trilogy is recognised as a triumph of world cinema.

This is an extract from Satendra Nandan’s forthcoming book: Loving You Eternally : Nadi to New Delhi. Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali made 60 years ago, had an enormous impact on a Fijian student’s life and love in Delhi. Professor Nandan’s latest book, BRIEF ENCOUNTERS: Literature and Beyond, was published last week.


Often the most momentous personal decisions are made in moments. I did that once in New Delhi.

Delhi, in the 1960s, became a city in my heart, with its tumultuous crowds buffeting me incessantly—a small boat in the waves of Nadi Bay on a windy day.

Then one evening I went to Sapru House in New Delhi to see Satyajit Ray’s first film Pather Panchali, The Song of the Little Road, made in 1955, on a shoe-string budget. It was in black and white and it was being shown as part of the Delhi Film Festival. It turned out to be more than a theatrical evening. My friend and I had hired a taxi on a hot night. My life was beginning to bloom, with my beloved by my side.

Sapru House hall was full of Bengalis: chattering Chatterjees and banner-waving Bannerjees—one could hear the percolating rhythm of their language and the chatter of a very articulate, artistic community. They were proud of their Bengali Director, in some ways least like them in the parochial ‘colonies’ in which many were fortified in Delhi.

But meeting an educated Bengali was a joy and an emotional encounter for me. Pradeep Maitra, a Bengali student at my college, had become my closest friend. He loved poetry of P B Shelley; I was fond of John Keats. Pradeep joined St Stephen’s College (where Rev C F Andrews had been a lecturer); he wore tweed coats, the fabric imported from London by his banker father in Calcutta.

‘Kalcutta’ was a distorted sound on my grandparents’ tongue. They remembered it only as the port from where the ships sailed for the Fiji islands with their human cargo. I’d not been to that city: the city of dreadful night and the city of joy—co-existing. Calcutta was the first capital of the Imperial Raj.

Later in life I was to meet several delightful Bengalis—writers, artists, academics, actors, students and journalists. One can only judge a person by his or her individuality and one’s experience of personal relationships. To define communities with one’s prejudices and passions now seems so primitive.

Sapru House was near Connaught Place, New Delhi’s modern shopping arcade. We arrived on time. We watched the film in indescribable silence. I’d some vague interest in films but the art of film never quite captivated my imaginative self as literature had done since my adolescence.

At our college, we talked about Guru Dutt’s Kagaz ka Phool and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight: two contemporary arty films with quite different visions and narrations– one by a romantic Indian, the other made by that cinematic genius from England. If Guru Dutt made you feel life was a relentless tragedy, Charlie Chaplin made you think it was a divine comedy.

But no film or fiction has had more immediate impact on my life as Pather Panchali. It’s based on a novel by an impecunious but talented teacher-writer Bibhutibhusan Bannerjee, and published in serial form in 1928. Ray transforms it into a screenplay of deep authentic beauty of life in a vanishing village. The art of turning words on a page into sounds on a stage is a different art. Ray was both a writer and a filmmaker.

I was 23, in love; there was always the dread that one day soon I might leave Delhi for Fiji. And this separation would be unbearable. Love is only another word for immortality; and also for death. Parting is never a sweet sorrow.

After the film, I recall, we got a taxi home. Throughout the winding, darkened streets, my heart shook with tears: I was a sentimental bloke from the village of Votualevu. My spirit was filled with an uncontrollable grief. I couldn’t communicate to anyone the images and memories of childhood that Ray had captured so poignantly and exquisitely in that black and white film with such poetic intensity and haunting music.

Few in Delhi, I felt, could have understood the song of the rain-drenched rustic road that Apu and Durga, brother and his older sister, traversed every day for the little gifts of life—a fallen fruit, the sight of a train passing, stealing a guava, visiting an old, emaciated aunt sitting neglected in a corner of human distress and physical dereliction. That was the humane power of inimitable art where art became an imitation of life. Art, in fact, created life.

In that old woman the children encounter their first death: an empty vessel floating in a stagnant lake.

But life flows like a river: and you never cross the same river twice.

In the Ray film I suddenly saw the trodden, sodden paths of Maigania and Votualevu; and Lega Lega’s mud-splattered feeder road that led to the airport.

Ray had captured in that unique world, the most universal of human experience: childhood in its little joys and longings in an indifferent world, wherein humanity was fitfully glimpsed in the tears of things and the grains of a fistful of bitter rice in a hut.

The morning sun’s rays came through the broken shelters, as did the afternoon rain. But who saw the heart’s brokenness in a mother’s sorrowful steps?

Life was precarious: the tattered homes, the few dented utensils, the villagers so cruel and compassionate, the mother’s dreams of a better life in another world, the simplicity of the father wanting to be a writer; the old woman waiting for her meals if only someone would serve her—she was one mouth too many to feed; the eternal cow contemplatively chewing its cud like Lali; the calf, the lily-pond and its insects dancing on the surface of the lake shining like a sheet of glass; the well and the coconut palms; the passing, satanic locomotive, with black smoke billowing, and the children’s first sight of it : the smell of its smoke—I’d felt it in my nostrils on the rail-tracks running like two snakes through Maigania.

The image of the shopkeeper-schoolmaster like Bhondu in my popular short story ‘The Guru’; the sweet-seller,–behind whom ran the boy, the girl and the dog– reminding me of the Chinese Jaji who, once a week visited our village to sell ice-cream and an ice-block for a penny. And whose relation, years later, I was to meet in Canberra. Such images seared my soul like songs of a wounded heart.

No work of art had affected me so deeply—the images, the music, the cinematography and ,above all, the simplicity of the story—seen through the eyes of two children—moved me with a force I’d not imagined. The details could have been taken from the daily lives from any village of Fiji.

The monsoon rains, the winds, the dilapidated homes, the few characters of the village, the meanness of a small place, the kindness of some strangers across the river, and the heart-aches of life– all contained in this most human of poems: the little road. I, too, had walked barefoot on that road that led everywhere from nowhere.

Food we always had in abundance; but material possessions were not part of our lives. Harihar’s young daughter grew on stolen fruits. For us the fruits grew on wild guava trees while paw-paws rotted, unappreciated. In floods the river was full of bananas, coconuts and paw-paws floating towards the insatiable seas.

In the film, the vignettes of childhood framed with such resonance that I felt I was witnessing the days and nights of my own childhood.

Durga and Apu munching stolen sugarcane sticks, while witnessing the passing train with its black smoke billowing across the pristine landscape; as we saw the Pan Am flying over the Sabeto hills into the darkened horizons of the sea-blue sky. We were like butterflies and birds unaware of their fate, before the monsoon deluge.

The occasional visiting performers reminded me of our Ram Lila days and Goinda dances we celebrated in the grassy playgrounds of Votualevu. Except that we didn’t know we were so poor; or rather that others were so rich. And that there were other worlds, other peoples. Ignorance was truly blissful.

Harihar ,the dreamer father-pundit, who wants to be a writer, finally does get a job in another town: he has to leave his family of three. For months there’s no communication from him to his despairing wife; the family is on the brink of starvation.

Months later, he returns to his storm-tossed home with gifts. But his world had been devastated by a bigger storm – he has lost his most precious gift of all :Durga, his daughter named after the life- giving goddess, is dead.

You’ll hardly ever see a more heartrending scene than when the truth of the tragedy pierces the father’s heart. The music of Ravi Shankar tears the very heart of grief and becomes transcendent. Reality of life is ripped open but no blood flows. How much blood does one see in the breaking of a heart? At the end Apu is alone inside himself. The world darkens as the child experiences death and sorrow in his poor but once-happy family. He begins to sense that there are other monstrous monsoons to come—one had taken his beloved sister away from him.

Finally the family leaves their ancestral home on a bullock cart, with their few, paltry belongings. They leave the ancestral village to go to Benares, the holy city,—mother, father and young Apu. Another journey, another life, almost in another world.

Within four years Satyajit Ray made two more classic films with Apu: Aparajito, The Unvanquished, and Apur Sansar, The World of Apu. The Apu trilogy is recognised as a triumph of world cinema.

And to think it affected my life so profoundly when I didn’t know much about films or love. Or life.

Within a few days I was back in my village in Fiji.

 Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj


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