In 1982, in the Saradiya special issue of the children’s magazine Sandesh, which he used to edit, Satyajit Ray wrote a short story, Onko Sir, Golapibabu Aar Tipu (The Maths Teacher, The Pink Man And Tipu), about an imaginative young boy who encounters a strange otherworldly creature—much like the adult Banku Babu does in Ray’s most famous short story (the one that almost got made into E.T.). The creature, whom the boy, Tipu, names Golapi Babu, seems to be from an alien planet—evident from his strange pink skin, and his tongue; he says he has been banished to this part of the universe and will be able to return home only if he can rescue Tipu from a major crisis.
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Are you sad, he asks Tipu, when they first meet in the wilderness behind Tipu’s house. Well, I was looking for a mongoose I saw here the other day but he seems to have vanished, so naturally I am a bit disappointed, Tipu answers. Unh hunh, says the Pink Man, not that kind of sadness—I mean the kind that makes you go blue behind your ears, that makes your palms go dry. I have never felt that sad, says Tipu. You will, says the Pink Man, before leaving.
When I first read this story as a 13-year-old, I felt a shock of recognition at this strange description of sadness. I had just lost my beloved grandfather and I felt that if I looked, I would find I was blue behind the ears. My palms were definitely dry. Further into the story, Tipu does come to a crisis—caused by a meddling schoolteacher confiscating his beloved books of fairy tales because he believes they are a corrupting influence on young minds. I felt yet another jolt of recognition: This had happened to me. I read incessantly, feverishly, and had had books taken away so that I could focus on tests, leading to a deep sense of loss unlike any other. And here was a middle-aged man who got how devastating, almost panic-inducing, it could be.
Ray’s genius lies in many directions, but more than his magnificent cinema, his clever Feluda and Shonku stories, and his elastic mind that enabled him to do everything he wanted to—from designing posters to composing music—brilliantly, his essential humanity shines through in his much less celebrated short stories. Most were first published in the Puja special issues of magazines like Anandamela and Sandesh and later compiled into anthologies of 12 stories, each with playful names like Ek Dojon Goppo (One Dozen Stories), Aaro Ek Dojon (Another Dozen), and Eker Pithe Dui (1 Followed By 2, referencing a popular Bangla nursery rhyme), and although they were technically written for children—there’s no sex or violence, even though the protagonists are often adults—they are poignant and mature in their understanding of loneliness, of childhood, of questions of identity.
Some are simply weird and wonderful and dryly funny—the story about a kleptomaniac on a train, for instance, or the one about a suspicious man who receives a parcel in the post and spends two days terrified, convinced someone has sent him a time-bomb, or the one where an insufferably arrogant man is tricked into believing he is losing his mind. Some are terrifying—Ray loved ghost stories and the paranormal, and gave full reign to his imagination when he was writing them, building an atmosphere of fear and menace in a few short sentences. You have Khagam, about a sadhu who curses a man who kills his pet snake, and Anathbabu’r Bhoy, about a man who decides to spend a night in a haunted house, ignoring all advice to the contrary, and Fritz, about a doll that’s probably not quite a doll? My favourite is actually not that scary but so spectacularly imaginative that it embeds itself in your memory, especially if you have ever lost a much loved pet—it is set in Bengaluru and features a cat ghost. “Simon, Simon, Simon”—I can almost hear “Brown Saheb” calling out to his beloved pet cat in his haunted bungalow.
One thing bothers me, though. While Ray wrote so beautifully and sensitively about childhood, his protagonists were always, always male. This is a feature of most of his writing; wildly at odds with his portrayal of women in cinema. The worlds of his writing are unvaryingly masculine, and Ray seemed to be aware of this. His last film, Agantuk, based on a short story written by him, adds far more agency and depth to the leading female character than in the original story, in which she remains in the shadows.
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This is disappointing. In an interview, Ray said he had kept his Feluda adventures and short stories deliberately uncomplicated by sexual tensions because they were meant primarily for a young audience. Yet, it is difficult to imagine why a man of such brilliance and such sensitivity towards female characters in his films, didn’t want to enter the world of little girls, though he so thoroughly inhabited the world of little boys. Much as I love and admire these stories, the little girl in me still asks why Ray excluded us from these mundane-yet-magical worlds of his creation.