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Opinion | The perils of being Sandip Roy in Satyajit Ray’s city

As India kicks off the centenary celebration of Satyajit Ray, a hapless namesake of his son gears up for what might well be a very busy year for all Sandip Roys and Rays

Satyajit Ray at his home in Kolkata in 1982.
Satyajit Ray at his home in Kolkata in 1982. (Photo: Getty Images)

It was Day 1 of the Great Indian Lockdown. I was working at home when I heard on the news that Nemai Ghosh, the man who had been Satyajit Ray’s still photographer for decades, had died.

The phone rang. Someone introduced himself as being from a media house. He asked politely if I could write a tribute to Nemai Ghosh. I demurred, saying I had barely known him. I had just met him a couple of times but in a city bristling with Ray devotees there were many others far more qualified to pay tribute to the man Ray once described as James Boswell with a camera.

The person at the other end of the line seemed a bit taken aback. He went quiet before asking if I could recommend someone else. Only later did it dawn on me that the poor journalist must have thought he was speaking to the other Sandip Ray, Satyajit Ray’s son. In Bengali, a Ray and a Roy are all the same, not even a vowel apart. To this day the journalist is probably confused about why Sandip Ray had seemed so blasé about the photographer so close to his father’s heart.

As Kolkata (and India) kicks off the centenary celebration of Satyajit Ray, I, the hapless namesake of his son, am gearing up for what might well be a very busy year for all Sandip Roys and Rays.

It has already begun. On 2 May, Ray’s birth anniversary, the Union ministry of culture released A Ray Of Genius, a lovely short film on the master, melding together stills, moving images and clips from his films. The very next day I was tagged on Twitter by someone meaning to tag the other Sandip Ray. That was retweeted by others and the tag lives on, passing from tweet to tweet, a slippery slope of mistaken identity. Once someone found me on Instagram and painstakingly messaged me a script idea she thought I should read. It broke my heart to tell her she had found the wrong Ray. The irony is that the real Sandip Ray shuns all social media and apparently even prefers an old-school landline to a mobile phone. When I needed to meet him, I was told to just show up at the flat and ring the doorbell. This social media rejection is obviously incomprehensible to the rest of us, which is why my Instagram feed, despite its banal pictures of my lunches, flowers in our garden and our black and white mongrel, with not even a hint of Ray memorabilia in sight, still draws a Ray-seeker now and then.

At a Kolkata Literary Meet last year, I was moderating a conversation with Yann Martel about life beyond Pi, his book, on stage. Later, I heard that someone in the audience was asking her companion, “Is that Satyajit Ray’s son?" Her companion, who was looking at me, clearly visible, larger than life, came back confidently with, “Yes surely it is. I know him toh." Another time someone came up to me before an event and hesitantly told me a poignant story about how much one of Ray’s films had meant to his father at a difficult time in his life. “I came to that book event you once did at Oxford Bookstore because I thought you were Satyajit Ray’s son," a man told me forlornly once. “I am interested in film." I could only look vaguely sympathetic even as I felt strangely guilty, as if I was personally letting him down.

Sometimes I feel I should just smile, nod and graciously accept these offerings. In a city steeped in nostalgia, if Sandip Ray is often the placeholder for his legendary father, my fate is to be the placeholder for the placeholder. There are worse fates. I know a Sandeep Ray who also happens to be a film-maker and writer. He tells me, “When my film was selected for the Iran International Documentary Festival in 2013, right outside the main auditorium, as people were entering for my screening, was a huge photo of Sandip Ray." He is asked all the time “Oh are you the son of Ray?" and he just replies, “Well, I am the son of a Ray."

Sandip Ray himself is a perfect gentleman, well-mannered and polite. His own films, mostly based on his father’s stories, are modest affairs. Bengalis dutifully go to see them as if visiting an old relative. Then they complain it was entertaining but not quite the same as the father’s classic Feluda detective films. But even that complaint feels reassuringly familiar, like an old armchair one can sink into. It’s far easier to pay tribute to Ray than to have to live up to him.

In his centenary year, there will be many tributes to Ray. Magazines will bring out special issues. The ministry of culture will unroll its own plans. His colleagues and friends will share their anecdotes. And there are indeed so many Rays to discover. There’s Ray the film-maker, Ray the calligraphist, Ray the writer, Ray the composer, Ray the science-fiction buff, Ray the children’s magazine editor. Last year, some sci-fi fans in the city unearthed a recording of an old radio broadcast where Ray and three other science fiction writers read their own stories about green aliens in a sort of sci-fi daisy chain. Listening to his baritone echoing through a crowded little book store on a rainy evening was quite a treat. Just reading Ray on Ray is like rummaging through a treasure trove as he riffs on everything from the films of Federico Fellini to finding the right tiger for a scene in his Hirak Rajar Deshey (In The Land Of The Diamond King). An animal trainer named Tiger Govindarajan provided the tiger after the first choice (who had apparently been listening to a cassette tape of the song that was part of the scene as prep work) was deemed too mangy.

But one of my favourite Ray stories has nothing to do with any of these avatars of Ray.

In a special 100 years of Satyajit Ray volume from the West Bengal government, Ray’s childhood friend Dilip Kumar Roy shares a story that sums up Satyajit Ray for me. When they were students, they had gone to the Maidan, the green expanse in the heart of Kolkata. It was a breezy day and they found an empty bench where they thought they would sit and chat for a while. A policeman showed up and shooed them away. The bench was “reserved". Ray protested, saying there was no sign saying so. The policeman shrugged and replied even he did not know why it was forbidden. All he knew was, nobody could sit there. The boys had to leave.

A month or so later, Dilip Kumar Roy writes, Ray came to him in great excitement. He showed him a letter from the deputy commissioner of police. Apparently, several years back an English couple had tried to sit on that bench, not realizing it had been freshly painted. They had ruined their clothes. Faced with their complaint, the police had stuck a Wet Paint notice on the bench and even deputed a guard to enforce it. Over time the paint had dried, the sign had fallen off, but the order for the guard had never been withdrawn. The deputy commissioner of police thanked Ray for alerting him to it. “This incident reveals Manik’s unstoppable curiosity," writes his friend.

At a time when questioning the rules is frowned upon more and more, a sure sign of the anti-national lurking among us, it would be amazing if that questioning spirit could be embraced as the true legacy of Ray, a legacy that can propel us forward. And if as a placeholder of a placeholder I have even a fraction of that lively curiosity about the home and the world, I would consider myself a very lucky Roy indeed.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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