Posts Tagged ‘satyajit ray’

“For love of unforgotten times”: “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I think I must have been seven or eight, no more – a child who had been acquainted with the English language for not more than three years – when I first encountered Stevenson’s  A Child’s Garden of Verses. Our teacher at our primary school in Kirkcaldy used each week to write a poem in chalk on the blackboard, and we used to copy them into our jotters; and our homework would be to memorise that poem. And if modern sensibilities think of that as quaintly old-fashioned, or even as an imposition, then so much the worse for modern sensibilities. Memories are vague, of course, but from what I remember, I did enjoy those poems, and I cannot remember any complaints from any of the other children. And those poems have stuck in my mind ever since, for the general betterment, I think, of that mind. I look through the poems in this collection now, and there are so many I remember memorising at home and reciting in class … That one about the speeding train, for instance:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches…

And I remember our teacher telling us how, when you read it out loud, it sounds like a train rattling along. I think that was possibly the first indication I had of poetry communicating through sound as much as through anything else. I remember my imagination being stirred on windy nights by the idea of a horseman galloping by:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

I was only going to give the first verse here, but now that I have done that, I can’t help giving the other verse too:

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then,
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Yes, reading these poems at my age is tremendously nostalgic, but it seems to me that there was as at least as much nostalgia in Stevenson’s writing of these poems as there is in my reading. For, although I enjoyed these poems as a child, I am not sure that they strike me, reading them now, as poems written specifically for children. Rather, they are very much, and, I think, very consciously, poems about an adult looking back: nostalgia is not merely what these poems evoke – it is the central theme of this collection; and, inevitably, since nostalgia literally means “the ache for home”, there is, under the charm and the whimsicality, an ache, a sorrow.

The sorrow is partly for the lonely, sickly child Stevenson remembered himself to have been. There is the famous poem in which he, lying sick in bed, imagines in the patches of his bedquilt a new land on which his toy soldiers may manoeuvre; or the one where he remembers his imaginary friend; or the one where he remembers sitting on his own at the window every evening, waiting for Leerie the lamplighter stopping to light the streetlamp in front of his house; and how he wished to become a lamplighter himself once he grows up, and do the rounds each night with Leerie. Occasionally, Stevenson mentions playing with other children, but only occasionally: in most of the poems, he is on his own, imagining friends, imagining new, exotic worlds.

But these poems are not self-pitying: Stevenson grew up in a comfortable family, and he knew his background was privileged. The greater part of the sadness in these poems comes from that sense of loss we all feel when we look back on our childhoods, even though that sense of loss is for something that, for the most part, exists only in our imaginations. For our imaginations harden too, along with our arteries, and the new lands we used to conjure out of the patches in our counterpane are, in our adult years, well beyond our reach.

In the last poem in the collection, Stevenson drops the pretence that he is writing for children. This last poem is called “To Any Reader”, but actually, it is addressed to the adult reader. Here, he bids his adult reader picture “another child, far, far away”, playing in “another garden”.

But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you…

And Stevenson knows the loss is not his alone. In one poignant verse, addressed to his mother, he writes:

You too, my mother, read my rhymes
For love of unforgotten times,
And you may chance to hear once more
The little feet along the floor.

This is a loss, and a sorrow, the expression of which we rarely encounter – the sorrow of losing a child not through anything so dramatic as death, but simply by the fact that the child grows up. I imagine we rarely hear of it because such a grief seems self-centred: if the parent and the grown-up child are on good terms, it seems like an unjust rebuke to the grown up child; and if not, it is, inevitably, more than tinged with bitterness. But it remains a potent grief nonetheless: the child that had delighted us so by the very fact of being a child may well have become the most splendid of adults, but some sadness inevitably remains that that delight is no more.

Another writer who captured this particular sense of loss is Bibhutibhushan Banerji, in the novel Aparajito (a follow-up to the better known Pather Panchali, and equally wondrous and moving). In this novel, Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya, dies on her own in her remote village, while the last remaining member of her family, Apu, now an adolescent, and unaware of the state of his mother’s health, is in far distant Kolkata. In Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Sarbojaya, as she approaches her end, imagines she hears her son’s voice, and she hobbles to the door and opens it; and outside, there is only emptiness: all she can see are fireflies glowing in the dark. As with so many images in this trilogy of films, that image of the glowing fireflies affects the viewer – well, this viewer at least – with an intensity that no amount of analysis can quite account for. But, marvellous though this sequence is, Bibhutibhushan, in his novel treats the scene differently. Here, Sarbojaya, at the point of death, hallucinates her son Apu has come to see her; but it is not Apu the young man as he is now: it is Apu as he had been as a ten year-old.

I remember when I first read that, I was so moved, I had to put the book down for a while to collect myself. For this is the Apu his mother had lost. Her daughter she had lost to the brute fact that all that lives must die; but her son she had lost to the equally brute fact that all that lives must change. Worldly wisdom tells us not to look back, and to keep up with the changes; but our worldly minds often cannot. And the grown-up Stevenson understands the sorrow felt by all those who share that “love of unforgotten times”.

There is nothing in these poems quite as heart-tugging as that scene in Aparajito, but neither did Stevenson intend there to be. Instead, there is charm, there is delight; and there is, it seems to me, a lingering sadness underpinning it all, a sadness that seems to me more than the consequence of my own nostalgia for those far-off days at North Primary School, Kirkcaldy.

I have never sat at my window to see Leerie the lamplighter pass by. Indeed, I have never even seen a lamplighter. But reading Stevenson’s evocation, it seems as if I have. Leerie the lamplighter has become part of my own nostalgia as well.

The Apu Trilogy Revisited

The Apu Trilogy, directed by Satyajit Ray, consists of the films Pather Panchali (a.k.a. The Song of the Road, 1955), Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished, 1956),  and Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu, 1959)


It’s always difficult writing about things you feel personally close to. For one thing, it becomes virtually impossible to keep an objective distance, or even the pretence of one, and the whole thing ends up being the kind of gushing that puts off the very readers one wishes to enthuse. And for another thing, it becomes very difficult to keep autobiography out of it.

Looking back on what I had previously written in this blog on these three films, I see I hadn’t quite managed to keep autobiography out of it. But it was not as bad as I had feared. I see also that while I had focussed on the themes of the work, I had spoken also on what happens – i.e. the plot. But that previous post had been written over six years ago. I try not to say much about plot in my posts these days, since, in any major work of art – whether a film, or a novel, or a play, or an opera, or whatever – the plot is usually the least interesting aspect, and doesn’t, I think, merit much discussion. And after all, a summary of the plot is always a bit boring: if you know the work in question, it becomes merely an account of what you already know; and I fail to see what possible interest it can have for those who don’t know the work. So, I promise, in this post at least, to keep off the plot as far as I can. I promise also not to get autobiographical.

(No, on second thoughts, I retract that second promise, for once I start talking about these films, who knows where my ramblings may lead me! The first promise, though I intend to keep.)

But I do feel I need to talk about these films again. (And here I make another promise: I shall do my utmost best not to repeat anything I had said in my previous post.) This last Sunday, I was at the British Film Institute on the South Bank in London, seeing all three films one after the other, on the big screen, in newly restored prints; and, since then, I am finding it difficult to think about anything else.

Aparajito 5

I have known these films since my teenage days, and have seen them heaven knows how many times over the years – first on VHS tape, later on DVD, and, occasionally, in the cinema. For reasons given above, I’ll resist the temptation to gush about them, and overload this piece with superlatives: let me just restrict myself to saying that what I experienced at the BFI on Sunday, I feel I need to share.

First of all, the restorations themselves. I didn’t think they would make much difference – after all, how could I love those films even more than I already did? – but they do. Those passages where I remember the picture shaking now emerge as they were meant to be seen; and the extraordinary beauty Ray and his cameraman Subrata Mitra capture – in the Bengali countryside, in the faces of people, even in the scenes of urban squalor – emerges as if freshly minted. I realised, as I frankly hadn’t done before, just how visually gorgeous these films are.

And the soundtrack too has been restored. The music for Pather Panchali was composed by a then relatively unknown Ravi Shankar during a single session on a single day (Ravi Shankar later composed the music for the other two films also), and it emerges here resplendent. And what music! With the restoration of the soundtrack to such pristine quality, I realised all the better how much thought Ray had put into the placing of the music. There are musical themes – leitmotifs, I suppose I should call them – associated with certain dramatic themes, with certain characters, and with certain dramatic situations; and their reprises, often in subtly altered form, tell us much about the nature of the drama. For instance, in Apur Sansar, the third of these films, we hear, on the night of Apu’s bizarre wedding, the soulful strains of the boatman’s bhatiali song; we hear this music again much later when Apu returns, and sees his son for the first time. The effect of linking those two scenes together with this music is heart-rending. And we get this kind of thing throughout – scenes and situations linked together, often unexpectedly, by the music. For this trilogy of films seems to me a musical as well as a dramatic masterpiece.

Most striking of all, for me, was the return at the very end of the last film of that hysterical death music we had heard near the end of Pather Panchali. I never quite understood why the reprise of this music at this particular moment should be so striking. I suppose an explanation of sorts can be offered: at its first appearance, a father loses a child; at its reprise, a father reclaims his child. The wheel has, in a sense, come round full circle. But this is a contrived explanation, and it doesn’t really satisfy. In the end, one has to put it down – as with so much in these three films – as one of those pieces of magic that defy rational analysis. It works, it resonates, it takes our minds and our souls to some rarefied plane to which only the greatest of art can take us: we might as well just leave it there, and not even try to account for it.

When I try to convey my overall impressions of these films, I often find myself speaking of its emotional intensity, and I think I give the impression of a tearful wallow, a weepie. I suppose this is, in a sense, inevitable. Everyone I know, or know of, who has responded to these films, speaks of its very direct – often disconcertingly direct – emotional impact. Saul Bellow, in Herzog, describes his titular character watching Pather Panchali in a New York cinema, and weeping with the mother when the hysterical death music begins. Indeed, only now, writing that last sentence, do I realise that the words “hysterical death music” that I have used both in this paragraph and in the previous are taken from Bellow’s novel. In the previous paragraph, the borrowing had been unconscious: Bellow’s words had obviously lodged in my mind, and they had surfaced unbidden. But since I have already written it, it might as well stay: Bellow’s words do, after all, describe the nature of the music, the expressive ardour and ferocity of which convey more powerfully than any other music I am aware of an utterly uninhibited abandon in the face of that greatest and most devastatingly final of all losses.

In my earlier years, I remember, I used to try my best not to weep as Moses Herzog had done in that New York cinema. For I was a man. A young man at that. And men don’t cry. At the end of the film, I would try to compose myself as best I could before walking out of the cinema. What’s that in my eye? Yes, that’s right, something had gone into my eye, and I was just scratching it, that’s all. But this time, my worry was quite the opposite: I was afraid that, as Hopkins puts it, “as the heart grows older, it will come to such sights colder”:  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be so emotionally affected by these scenes; that, with age, my heart, along with my arteries, will have hardened. And I am genuinely happy to report that such was not the case. I was as emotionally affected as ever I have been.

But although there is much loss in the course of these three films, loss is not the central theme. Rather, at the centre of these films is the ability to grow with experience, to engage with the world and all that it has to offer. In this, I think, Ray’s trilogy is somewhat different from those two magnificent novels by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji (Pather Panchali and Aparajito) on which they are based. Bibhuti Bhushan (it is customary in Bengali to refer to people by their forenames rather than by their surnames) had been primarily interested, it seems to me, on the continuity between past and present – on those events of childhood, apparently trivial though many may be, which shape the person that is to emerge; and also on the re-creation through memory of the past that helps nourish the present. But Satyajit had picked up, I think, on another aspect of Bibhuti Bhushan’s novels, and this is Apu’s desire, his hunger, to engage with the world, and all that it has to offer.  And to do this, he has to live through loss. He has to learn – not so much to overcome grief (for such grief cannot be overcome), but to live with the grief, and not turn away. But turning away, despite all, is precisely what he does in Apur Sansar: here, even Apu buckles, and chooses to turn his back on life, and live instead with the memory of the dead. Only in the final section of the film does he re-emerge; or, rather, it is only in the final section that he begins to re-emerge: there is no closure, no finality, for such things cannot exist while we go on living. But even in this beginning to re-emerge, there is joy. For all the pain and grief that run through these three films, ultimately, what is conveyed is a sense of joy – a joy that is all the more precious for being so precarious, and for having been so painfully won.


I suppose this is the point, as I am approaching the end of this post, where I should recap and summarise, but I must be careful once again not to appear gushing. Before I went to the British Film Institute last Sunday, I was wondering whether I could take so long an emotional marathon. And it’s fair to say, I think, that the six or so hours I experienced was not exactly light entertainment. But I am glad I went. Sometimes, one feels one knows certain works so well, that one doesn’t bother revisiting them: they’re in one’s mind anyway, so what’s the point? But even when something is imprinted in one’s mind as firmly as these three films are in mine, it is worthwhile revisiting them. Especially when, as in this instance, they have been returned to their pristine glory by such loving and meticulous restoration.

Confessions of a culture-vulture

It was Cosi Fan Tutte last night.

Every November, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera give a few performances in nearby Woking, and, almost invariably, they perform a Mozart opera. Which, obviously, is fine by us. Last year, it was Don Giovanni (I reported on that briefly here). I was recovering then from serious illness, and, in my weakened state, was afraid I might fall asleep during the performance; but, in the event, it turned out to be a first step back, as it were, to life: by the end of that performance, I felt less of an invalid, less weighed down by my troubles and worries – in brief, less of a miserable old sod. Those three Mozart-da Ponte operas have that effect on me: no matter how serious the aspects of our humanity they probe into, they elate, they exhilarate.

Take last night’s Cosi Fan Tutte. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about this opera, and I dwelt at some length on how deeply troubling the whole thing was. I cannot think of any other work, in any other artistic medium, that is so exquisitely beautiful, and yet so profoundly troubling. And last night, I felt the full force of this paradox all over again: the music is so perfectly beautiful, that the sense aches at it; and yet it presents a view of ourselves, of us all, that perturbs, and leaves one uneasy. I have read many accounts of this work, and even writers with far greater command than myself of the English language clearly find themselves struggling in trying to describe its effect. It remains elusive: just when you think you have found the key to it, some new detail occurs to you, and the entire edifice you have built for yourself suddenly comes tumbling down. It is hard indeed to account for a work that so entrances with its beauty, and yet so troubles you to your very depths; and which, even despite this troublesome nature, leaves you, somehow, elated by the end.

In other words, it’s a right bugger to blog about. So let’s move on.

One full year on from when I was feeling so sorry for myself and so comfortably self-pitying, I find myself in the midst of a spree of nights out. Last night, as I said, it was Cosi Fan Tutte; last week, it was Handel’s Rodelinda at the English National Opera. This was unplanned: a friend of a friend had an extra ticket which he was willing to see off at a ridiculously low price, and it seemed rude to turn it down. I must confess, though, that I am not really convinced by Baroque opera. Not dramatically, I mean. As I understand it, opera audiences of Handel’s time went to hear fine singing from star singers; and they went for spectacle; but they didn’t really go for what we would nowadays consider drama. So Handel operas tend to consist of a long sequence of solo arias – each very beautiful, and each very expressive, but each rather static, designed as they were for the singers simply to stand-and-deliver. Modern stagings invent various piece of stage business – some ingenious, others (to my mind) a bit pointless, and even a bit silly – to prevent it all becoming a merely a long sequence of dramatically static arias; but I rarely find myself convinced. The ENO production did as good a job as can be imagined, but I don’t think I’d have lost much if it had all been done simply as a concert performance. Certainly, in musical terms, and in terms of their expressive power, the arias themselves are top-drawer stuff, and they were quite beautifully performed; but I still can’t quite see this as drama. However, this is just a personal reaction: aficionados of Baroque opera may well disagree.

And I am also attending a series of concerts given at the Wigmore Hall by the Spanish quartet Cuarteto Casals, covering all of Beethoven’s mighty string quartets. I’ve been to two already, and there is a third concert in early December. We are also going to a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in two weeks’ time, in which a friend of ours is singing in the chorus. (To clarify on this point, when I say “I”, I mean I am going on my own; when I say “we”, I am going with my wife. We share some tastes – we both love Mozart and Verdi, for instance – but not all, and we see little point dragging each other off to events we may not enjoy.)

I will not be writing here about any of these concerts, since I am not really qualified to pass my layman’s opinions on musical matters. But when it comes to dramatic matters … well, truth to tell, I’m not really qualified to write about these matters either; but if I were to keep quiet about everything I am not qualified to comment on, this blog would never even get started. (And in any case, remaining silent when you have nothing much of interest to say would be going very much against the spirit of our times.)

And there’s theatre, of course. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be in London this winter, and they are bringing down from Stratford-on-Avon all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus has never been amongst my favourite plays, although, given I have never seen it on stage before, I may well go along to have a look come January. More surprisingly, perhaps, I have never seen Julius Caesar or Coriolanus on stage either, and have tickets for both between now and Christmas. And also between now and Christmas, I’ll be seeing Antony and Cleopatra, which I often name as my single favourite Shakespeare play: I find it a hard play to keep away from.

(And speaking of which, the National Theatre promises us an Antony and Cleopatra next year with Ralph Fiennes. It also promises us also Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. At the same time the Royal Shakespeare Company is also promising us Macbeth, this time with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack. Which one will be better? Well, there’s only one way to find out, as Harry Hill might say…)

And if all this weren’t enough, one Sunday in early December, the British Film Institute promises us screenings of all three films comprising Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (which I often regard as possibly cinema’s finest artistic achievement) in newly restored prints. I used to be a very keen film-goer in my student days, but I must admit that this is something that has long fallen by the wayside. However, I have never seen these masterpieces before on the big screen, and this really is very tempting.

So much to see, so little money in the bank…

This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

Nostalgia, the ache for home

It is hard to understand why some cheesy piece of pop music we used to jump up and down to as a teenager, and which we know in our adult years to be but a cheap and shoddy piece of tat, should, nonetheless, when heard in some café or in a busy mall, affect us so powerfully. The obvious answer is “nostalgia”, but that is merely to put a label on something that remains in essence mysterious.

It is not that nostalgia overrides all other considerations. I may feel nostalgic about the time I used to enjoy books by Enid Blyton, but I don’t think I could read them again with any pleasure. But I know that the pleasure I take in revisiting Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles is immeasurably enhanced by memories of childhood encounters.

Most strange is the resurgence of feelings for things one had thought one had left behind. I had thought I had left behind my Bengali heritage, dominated as it was, and still, I think, is, by Rabindraculture. I am sure Westerners often wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Rabindranath Tagore all the time, as if there were no other cultural figure of note. I used to wonder this myself. In my teenage years, I was frankly fed up with his ubiquity. He had been, in effect, an extra member of our family: his poetry, his stories, and, above all, his songs, were omnipresent in our house. And I had thought I had walked away from all that. I had discovered the plays of Shakespeare, the great Russian novels, the operas of Mozart and the lieder of Schubert, and I felt, with some justification, that I had absorbed, and was continuing to absorb, all the culture I would need to sustain myself through my life. But then, one evening some twenty and more years ago, I was in an Indian restaurant with some Western friends; the background music, rather unusually even for Indian restaurants, was instrumental arrangements of Tagore songs (Rabindrasangeet), and all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, a melody appeared that almost reduced me to tears. Not that I physically cried: I don’t cry too easily. But I felt something unexpectedly welling up inside me. It wasn’t merely a resurgence of childhood memories: it was a recognition of something from my past that was beautiful and valuable, and which I had not left behind at all. To borrow an image from a great work of Western art, Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, what I experienced then was like those water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly upon the surface.

The song that had such an effect on me that day was Gram chhara oi ranga matir path: it is a song about the compulsion to leave one’s village behind, and the lure of the world outside:

The red-earthed path leading out from the village
holds the heart enthralled.
Oh, who is it for whom the heart pines
even as it wilts into the dust?
Who is it who calls me out from home,
pleading with me at every step?
Who is it who leads me out
to heaven knows where?
At what bend in the path will I see riches?
Where will I find myself washed up?
Where this path will culminate
my thoughts cannot encompass.

The irony of such a song arousing in me nostalgia, an ache for home, was not lost on me, but that red-earthed path leading out from the village leads back into the village also. And exploring that village, the one I thought I had left behind, is also enriching. That sudden revelation in that restaurant was for me a first step in a journey back. For revelation it was: moments of epiphany aren’t restricted merely to James Joyce’s short stories.

Was this merely nostalgia, and nothing more? I don’t think so. I can listen to Mud’s Tiger Feet playing in the background in some café, enjoy the memories it reawakens of early teenage years, but feel no desire whatever to revisit 1970s British glam-rock music. Nostalgia may be a potent force, but I don’t think it necessarily blinds us to questions of worth and of value: true, it allows us to enjoy what we know to be valueless; but when it reawakens in us feelings for that which is indeed of value, the effect is quite different. It is like those water-lilies of Ibsen, shooting up from unfathomed depths and blooming suddenly on the surface.

I haven’t completed that journey back yet. I’m not sure I ever will. And in any case, the metaphor of the journey breaks down here quite quickly, as this journey back does not entail abandonment of the journey out. But at least I no longer wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Tagore all the time: I now know, and, indeed, do a fair bit of banging on myself. So, while I’m still in the banging mood, let me indulge myself a little further.

Last weekend, I watched, after many years, Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata. I had long known this film to be a masterpiece, but on this viewing, it resonated particularly strongly, more so than it had done before. The film is steeped in Tagorean culture, and not merely because Ray had based the bare bones of the story on a novella by Tagore, Nastanirh (“The Damaged Nest”). While the outline of the story is Tagore’s, the motivations of the characters are very different, and the drama presented is almost entirely Ray’s creation rather than Tagore’s; but Ray himself was steeped in Tagorean culture, and one can sense Tagore’s presence throughout the film.

Over the title sequence, we hear what is effectively a fantasia, composed by Ray himself, based on a Tagore song; but where the Tagore song is upbeat and joyful, Ray slows down the tempo and casts it in a minor key: the result is heart-achingly melancholy and wistful.

(There are two more Tagore songs featured in this film – rather anachronistically, as the action takes place, we’re told, in 1879, when Tagore would merely have been eighteen years old. But it doesn’t really matter: only a pedant would object to such things.)


Madhabi Mukherjee as Charu in “Charulata” dir. by Satyajit Ray

And I found myself utterly captivated, from opening frame to last. It is set in an aristocratic Bengali household. The husband, a wealthy liberal, spends all his time on his newspaper: he sees the dissemination of his liberal politics as the principal purpose of his life. However, his wife, Charu, is utterly isolated inside her mansion. The opening sequence is a virtuoso piece of film-making: we see Charu wandering from room to room aimlessly, seeing the world outside through her opera glasses. When the husband eventually notices that his wife is a bit lonely, he invites Charu’s brother and her sister-in-law to come over – the brother to help with the financial management of his newspaper, and the sister-in-law to keep Charu company: he doesn’t realise that the presence of the sister-in-law – a frivolous airhead – is no companionship at all for an intelligent woman such as Charu.

As with so many ladies from the 19th century literature, Charu has no outlet either for her intellect, or for her passions. Under similar conditions, Hedda Gabler turned psychotic and destructive. Emma Bovary is arguably in a similar situation, but, unlike Hedda or Charu, she is deeply unintelligent: her rebellion is as stupid as that she rebels against.

But the drama here is very different either from that of Emma Bovary, or of Hedda Gabler. Charu’s husband’s younger brother arrives, and there develops a relationship between them that, from his point of view, is but bantering, but, from her point of view, is something far deeper and far more intense: here she finds, as she thinks, a long sought-for outlet both for her passions and for her intellect. In both, she is mistaken.

The film has all the depth and complexity of a great 19th century novel. Much of it is very elegant, with an intricacy that one does not normally expect from a film; but there are powerful passions simmering underneath, and I had not remembered just how powerfully the passion bubbles up to the surface towards the end. But despite this, it remains a very subtle film. Among the major themes is betrayal: Charu’s brother betrays Charu’s husband; Charu’s brother-in-law, to Charu’s mind at least, betrays Charu; and Charu herself betrays her husband. But there’s no adultery, as such: the “action” is almost entirely what happens in the characters’ minds.

It is not a film that appears in any of those lists of “Greatest Ever Films” with all the Vertigos and Citizen Kanes. Most people, even self-proclaimed film-buffs, have not seen this film, or even for that matter heard of it. Why is this, I wonder? It is not because this film is quiet and slow and refined, whereas we prefer in our times the loud and the fast and the brash: Tokyo Story, as quiet as slow and as refined a film as can be imagined, regularly takes top spots in these lists.

I suspect that its relative neglect is due to its being steeped in a particularly Bengali culture – more specifically, a Tagorean culture – that makes it difficult for uninitiates to take in. But I may be mistaken: I am really not sure. All I know is that if I were asked to name my favourite film, right now, I’d name this, although, even were I to enumerate its many merits, I would find hard to account for the strength with which it resonates with me. I suppose it is all part of my “journey back”.

If I didn’t know better than to finish a post with a cliché, I’d write now “the apple never falls far from the tree”, but far be it from me to end on so weak a note! And I don’t really hold with what it expresses: far from being merely apples falling helplessly close to the tree, we have both the ability and the freedom to explore far and wide, and make what we like our own; and the currently fashionable principles of identity politics that question this ability and deny this freedom are, to my mind, mischievous and harmful. But I do feel that what we take in during our formative years – not necessarily consciously, but often, as it were, through the very pores of our skin – retains for us a particular significance: even when we think we have left it behind, it comes back, and takes us by surprise.

“The Apu Trilogy”, directed by Satyajit Ray

Please note that this post inevitably reveals some details concerning the plots of the three films comprising the “Apu Trilogy” – Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar. However, these films do not rely on the plotlines to make their impact, and in my opinion at least, those who have yet to see the films, and are fortunate enough to be able to look forward to their first viewing, may read this without fear of having the experience of that first viewing spoilt. However, it is only fair to put up what is known as a “Spoiler Warning”.

Films about people living in poverty are usually described as “social dramas”, or even as “social documents”, as if it is expected that the principal theme of these films will be the poverty itself. But a social document is exactly what this trilogy of films isn’t: these films are not specifically depictions of poverty, far less political statements. They are films about people – people who, admittedly, happen to be poor.

The story of how these films came to be made is perhaps too well-known to need re-telling. Satyajit Ray, a commercial artist working in advertising, had dreams of filming the two novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito by Bibhuthi Bhushan Banerji*. He had briefly been Renoir’s assistant when the great man had come to India to film The River, but beyond a love of the medium of cinema, he had no credentials, and certainly no experience, to take on the direction of a film. However, in an act that even with the benefit of hindsight seems foolhardy to the point of insanity, Ray raised what money he personally could; employed the services of photographer Subrata Mitra, who had no experience of cine-photography (Ray apparently told him that he wanted the film to look like Cartier-Bresson’s photographs!); wrote a script; brought together a cast of mostly (but not wholly) amateur actors; and started shooting. Not surprisingly, the money ran out after a while, but by good fortune, John Huston happened to be passing through Calcutta, and, sufficiently impressed by what had been shot so far, he recommended the Government of West Bengal to provide funding for the rest. It was still a shoestring budget – certainly a joke by American or by European standards. But the film eventually got made, and released in 1955. And for many, including myself, this film, and the two that followed to make up the trilogy, are the most powerfully affecting works of art that cinema has produced.

(I am sorry to introduce such a personal note so early in this post, and sorrier still to use superlatives that are bound to put off at least some readers, but it is impossible for me to discuss these films without at least touching upon what they have meant to me personally over the years; and since this personal note is bound to be introduced at some time or other, it might as well be sooner rather than later.)

I remember vividly my first viewing of Pather Panchali. It was 1975, and I was a teenager, attending secondary school in Glasgow. Being of Bengali origin, and having as father a man steeped in Bengali culture, I had heard much both about the books and the films, but I did not at the time know my mother tongue well enough to read the books, and, before the days of video or DVD or satellite channels, there wasn’t much opportunity to get to see the films. Then, someone told me that Pather Panchali was being shown by the Glasgow University Film Society. So I found out the hall: it was a lecture hall rather than one designed for showing films, but a makeshift screen had been set up, and a projector whirred away at the back. And what I witnessed that night stays with me still: I came out of that hall feeling devastated. Neither before, nor since – except when I watch it again – have I been quite so affected by a film. Nothing else communicates with such intensity, with such immediacy, the sheer pain of human loss. One forgets one is watching a film: the profound sense of loss somehow becomes one’s own.

Loss is a recurrent theme through these films, but it is not the only theme, and nor even, I think, the principal one. Ray is interested in the human ability to grow through experience, to transcend the sorrow that is our common human lot, and even, yes, to find joy. And there is joy in there: this is no mere sentimental wallow in the lachrymose. The closing sequence of the last film of the series, Apur Sansar, is as joyous as anything I have seen. Of course, it is a qualified joy, as all human joys are, but it is nonetheless triumphant in its own way. It’s not that Apu finally acquires wealth, or anything like that: this is nothing so crude as a Hollywood rags-to-riches story. Rather, having for a while turned away from life and led an existence shielded from human contact, Apu, at the end, returns to take up once again his worldly responsibilities. And even in this there is joy. For this, I think, is the central theme of these films: they are not about the poverty, and, despite the pain of loss that runs through them, neither are they primarily about loss, or about pain. If anything, these films are about human aspirations. Basil Wright expresses it well in The Long View, his marvellous but now sadly-out of-print personal history of cinema:

When Apu’s family, and later Apu himself, think of the future, it is in terms of the most modest ambition – if indeed the word is not too positive in this connection. The object, really, is somehow to survive. The object is to obtain a modicum of money, a modicum of education, to be able to afford to keep one’s wife and to have the good fortune to see one’s children grow into adulthood. These hopes, in India, are not so often realized; but like all true human aspirations they carry with them an imperishable glory, and it is this which Ray celebrates in his films.

–          From The Long View by Basil Wright, Secker & Warburg, 1974

Indeed. An imperishable glory.


Pather Panchali is about childhood, about all those apparently insignificant childhood experiences and impressions that mould the person the child later becomes. The setting is a remote Bengali village: the era isn’t specified, but it’s possibly early in the twentieth century. Apu is born into a family of impoverished Brahmins: the father, Harihar, is a gentle, other-worldly man who makes what  meagre living he can by looking after a local landowner’s accounts; but he dreams of writing plays, and dreams particularly of educating his boy. (Educating the girl was not on the agenda in this society, although we shouldn’t interpret this as deliberate neglect). The mother, Sarbojaya, desperate somehow to feed and clothe her children, and often exasperated by her husband’s apparent detachment from worldly, day-to-day matters, is frequently on edge. This village, we later find out, is not where she had grown up: we find out also that she is literate. Obviously, her background had been very different, and here, she is lonely and isolated. The various pressures that fall on her push her into a certain hard-heartedness, and even perhaps cruelty, but she is neither cold-hearted nor cruel by nature.

And on top of everything else, they have living with them an old aunt, Indir Thakrun, physically bowed with the infirmity of extreme age, and aware of being but a useless burden on those who can barely afford to feed themselves. She has trained herself to be meek and submissive, to be ingratiating to those on whose charity she survives, and under whose roofs she can find even an uncertain shelter; but inside her there burns a rage, which she cannot always suppress. As she hobbles from place to place, seeking only for somewhere to rest her head in her final days, all she really wants is to die. In one unforgettable sequence uniting all three of these characters, the mother tells of her fears and of her loneliness to her husband; but he, exhausted, is already half asleep: Sarbojaya is speaking virtually to herself. And meanwhile, the old woman is sitting outside, singing in her cracked broken voice into the darkness. She sings a well-known, traditional Bengali song:

The day is done, the night is come,
Ferry me to the other shore.
Those who came after have gone before,
I am left here, stranded and alone.

These three roles are played by professional actors – the veteran actress Chunibala Devi (whom Ray found living in considerable poverty and distress in her extreme old age) as the old aunt; Karuna Banerjee as the mother Sarbojaya; and Kanu Banerjee (no relation) as the father Harihar. The children and the peripheral characters are played by non-professional actors, but to convey the intricate network of relationships that is presented amongst the principal  adult characters, one needs experienced professionals.

Apu also has an older sister, Durga. Durga has a close relationship to the old aunt, for whom she steals – much to her mother’s shame – fruit from a neighbouring orchard. And she forms a close relationship with her brother as well. It would have been all too easy to have depicted these children growing up in poverty as brutalised, but they aren’t: they are allowed their childhood, their childhood games and fantasies, and, although it may be once again a strange word to use in this context, even a sense of joy.

It is through Apu’s eyes that we see this world. It is mainly a world populated by women: the father is away for much of the time, trying desperately to earn a few pennies to feed the family. The people we see most often are the mother, the sister, the old aunt, and various female neighbours – both sympathetic and otherwise. But with every event, it is Apu’s reaction shot Ray cuts to first, thus ensuring that although his role is essentially passive, it is he who remains at the centre of the narrative. Many of these events he witnesses are trivial: a group of travelling players put on a performance; a sweet-seller passes by; a somewhat out-of-tune brass band plays “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” – of all things – on their battered instruments at a wedding; the children wander off to see a train thunder past. But these are the events that will make Apu the man he later becomes.

Apu and Durga see the train for the first time

The train is a major image in the films: it is a symbol that acquires various layers of meaning as the trilogy progresses. We first hear it on the soundtrack as Apu is being taught to read by his father: this is not just a symbol of connection with the world outside, it is the only connection with the world outside, the world which Apu will eventually have to face, and with which he must eventually make terms. It is this train that will later take Apu away from his mother into Calcutta. In the famous sequence in which the children see the train for the first time, they are confused and disorientated: Apu does not yet know it, but this is his first a glimpse of his future. But this sequence is intercut with another, very different one: the old aunt, barely able to stand on her feet but unable to take further humiliation, hobbles out of the house for the last time. And as the children return from seeing the train, they find her dead under a tree. As prospects of a new world become apparent, an aspect of the old world dies: at long last, Indir Thakrun has been ferried to the other shore.

This is not the last death in the film: the final half-hour or so is pure heartbreak. And at the end, the family, now reduced the three, leave for Benares to the sound of a haunting pastoral theme played on the bansuri (bamboo flute).

Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Bud Shank (flute) improvise on the theme from Pather Panchali, composed by Ravi Shankar

Among the many miracles of this film – not least of which, lest we forget, is that it was made by someone without any cinematic experience to speak of  – is the music. It was composed by Ravi Shankar before he acquired his international reputation, and at each point – whether depicting the carefree joy of children at play, or whether depicting hysterical, uncontrollable grief – it seems both perfect in itself, and perfectly integrated into the texture of the film.

The two later films in the series, Aparajito (meaning “Undefeated”) and Apur Sansar (usually translated as The World of Apu, but which can also mean “Apu’s Family”) possibly display, unsurprisingly, a more assured directorial hand; but for many, they lack something of the freshness of vision and the unforced lyricism of the first film. What I find particularly interesting is that Ray allowed himself greater freedom in these later films to depart from Bibhuthi Bhushan’s novels. After all, these films are not a slavish translation of those novels into the medium of cinema: wonderful though those novels are, they are but a starting point for something quite different. The artistic vision communicated in this trilogy is Satyajit’s rather than Bibhuti Bhushan’s; and, while one may have individual preferences amongst these three films, they really need to be considered together as a single unity.

In Aparajito, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. The family has moved now to the holy city of Benares, and the father is now earning his pennies by carrying out priestly duties by the sacred river (he is a Brahmin, after all). But the family, we find, has merely exchanged its rural poverty for an urban.

The opening section of the film seems deliberately fragmented, with little in the way of narrative continuity, and with seemingly random characters drifting in and out. After life in the country, the city is a noisy, confusing, disorientating place, but also, for Apu, an exciting one. Through all this, a narrative strand of sorts does begin to develop: the father’s health is failing, and soon, the inevitable happens: Sarbojaya becomes a widow. At the very moment of death, Ray cuts, with magical effect, to birds wheeling above the city rooftops: it is one of the many moments in the trilogy when an image seems just right in the dramatic context, even though it is impossible to put one’s finger on why it should seem so.

Eventually, the family, now reduced to two, return to the country, and as the familiar Bengali landscape comes into view through the train window, we hear once again that pastoral bansuri theme we had known from Pather Panchali: Apu and Sarbojaya are back home again.

Most novels or films about growing up – the Bildungsroman, as it is known – take the  form of a widening circle: as the protagonist becomes older, new environments, new horizons, begin to open. Indeed, in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, one of the chapters depicting Ursula’s growth and development is actually titled “The Widening Circle”. But Ray, very daringly, depicts a narrowing circle: new horizons certainly open for Apu, yes, but even as they do, the focus of the narrative closes in on the relationship between Apu and his mother. The hustle and bustle of the earlier part of the film, the disorientating crowds and the large array of characters, they all seem to vanish into the background, leaving in the foreground a teenage lad and his ageing mother, and the conflict that develops between them even as they continue to love each other – indeed, because they continue to love each other.

The mother had wanted to spend her old age with her beloved son, and, to this end, had wanted him to take on the duties of a village priest. But Apu, who years earlier had heard the sound of the train in the distance while his father had been teaching him to read, wants to engage with the world outside. Sarbojaya, partly because she remembers the aspirations her late husband had had for their son, relents, and allows Apu to attend university in the city; but the consequence is that she is left alone. The shifting relations between the two – the mother’s possessive love for her son, and her fear of the loneliness of old age; the son’s continuing love for his mother, but also his desire to escape from her – are all depicted with the subtlest and most delicate of touches that even Chekhov might have been proud of. In particular, there is one episode that might have made a short story in itself: Apu, back home on a short break, asks his mother to wake him early, so he can catch the morning train back to Calcutta; she, desperately wanting him to stay on a bit longer fails to do so; Apu wakes up late, is angry with his mother for not having waked him, and runs off to the station as fast as he can. It so happens that he is in time for the Calcutta train, but something happens on the platform – something mysterious that not even he quite understands. He doesn’t board the train. Instead, he walks back home again, tells his mother he has missed the train, and stays on for another day.

There is no surprise twist at the end of the film. Apu by the end is on his own. He grieves, but he knows he is now free, and responsible for himself. And it’s a responsibility he doesn’t shirk. His mother’s passing causes grief, naturally, but there are examinations to be passed: he will carry out his funeral duties in Calcutta, he tells the village priest quietly as he leaves the village for the last time, aparajito, undefeated.

At the start of the third and final film, Apur Sansar, we see Apu as a young man. Lack of funds has prevented him from completing his studies, and he is now living in a small room in Calcutta on which he owes rent, somewhat secluded from the teeming city life around him. Into this environment enters an old friend. The two have a night out together, and Apu, who, like his father, harbours literary ambitions, tells his friend of the novel he is writing. As with most first novels, it is pure autobiography. The protagonist of this novel, as he grows into manhood, is faced with sorrows and losses and all the vicissitudes of life, but he has never, says Apu, turned his back on life – he has always faced it, accepted its responsibilities But when Apu starts speaking of love, his friend, who can see all too clearly the autobiographical nature of what Apu is writing, turns on him in astonishment. Love? Sex? What does Apu know of such matters? Has he ever come within yards of a woman?

All that soon changes. His friend invites Apu to his cousin’s wedding, and the events at that wedding are bizarre – and not merely by Western standards. But no matter how  bizarre the events, Ray’s focus, as ever, is firmly on the people involved, on how humans behave, and react to each other. Apu attends the wedding as a guest, but somehow – he himself is not sure how it all happened: there was a sort of magic in the air, a sort of enchantment – he, who, as his friend had pointed out, had never been within yards of a woman, suddenly finds himself a married man.

How did he get to this? On the marriage night, as his wife, Aparna, sits quietly and shyly on the huge four-poster bed, Apu paces up and down, perplexed. What has he done? He had been till now content to look after himself: true, he wasn’t exactly wealthy, but he had survived. But now? A wife to look after, to care for?

The scenes depicting the early days of Apu’s marriage to Aparna constitute, for me, the most convincing depiction in cinema of love. When Aparna first sees Apu’s bare little room, she weeps. But seeing Apu distressed by her weeping, she stops herself. And the scenes that follow are magical. It is the hardest thing in the world to depict happiness: even amongst the finest of writers, very few have succeeded. But this is what Ray depicts in these scenes. If we are to look for a literary influence here, it is not perhaps to Bibhuthi Bhushan we should look (these scenes owe little to the novels on which these films are based), but, rather, to The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan. Amidst all the bitterness of life, some measure of happiness has been snatched.

But it doesn’t last long. Of the three films, Apur Sansar has by far the strongest narrative line, but Ray takes care to ensure that the narrative never takes precedence over the characters. Tragedy strikes once again, and this time, Apu, who had lived through tragedies before, whose autobiographical protagonist is determined to face life, no matter what it brings – Apu finally breaks. He even tries to commit suicide under a train that is as real as it is symbolic. He travels – by the sea, in mountains, in forests. And in a scene of haunting, breath-taking beauty, he allows the pages of his manuscript to drift away into the air. Refusing even to see his newborn child, he withdraws from life. He withdraws from everything he had stood for, everything he had aspired towards.

It is the journey back from this abyss that forms the culminating section of the film, and, indeed, of the trilogy itself. It manages, somehow, to be joyous and uncertain at the same time: life is difficult and uncertain, and will continue to be so, but even out of that may be glimpsed moments of reprieve, even of joy.


While writing the above, I realised just how difficult it is to attempt to describe something one feels very close to personally. How can one convey the essence of something very dear to one without appearing gushing, without misrepresenting it? Looking over what I have written, I think I may have run the danger of presenting it to the uninitiated as a somewhat sentimental work that merely wallows in grief: it isn’t. Yes, it does address some of the most powerful of emotions with an unembarrassed directness; and, perhaps, such directness is alien to certain types of Western sensibilities that prefer a more decorous reticence in such matters. But these emotions of grief, of loss, of pain – these had to be depicted directly: otherwise, the themes of transcending the despair, of growing and developing through experience, of the moments of joy that may still be found in the midst of all this – none of these themes would have registered with adequate force.

And, although the trajectory of my own life has been very different from Apu’s, somehow, Apu’s experiences have become my own. When, for instance, Apu tells his newly married wife of his past, he mentions briefly “I had a sister”: he stops there, and says no more about her. But having not merely witnessed, but having lived through the scenes with Apu and Durga in Pather Panchali, I find it hard not to feel myself at least something of what Apu himself feels at that moment. Such a powerful sense of personal immersion is something I rarely experience in other works – and certainly never in any other film. As Basil Wright put it, these films carry about them “an imperishable glory”.


* These two novels continue to be regarded, quite rightly, as classics of Bengali literature, but, despite translations into English being available, recognition in the West has eluded them. This is not a reflection on the literary quality of these magnificent novels – certainly amongst the finest that I’ve ever read – but is due, rather, to a curious unspoken conviction on the part of Western literati that the only Indian literature worth the name is that written in English, and that works written in one of those funny little languages of theirs need not be taken seriously. This sort of thing, I believe, passes for “liberalism”.