In 1950, Satyajit Ray stood behind a camera and began shooting his first film, Pather Panchali (Song of the little Road). No one knew it then, but he was soon to be established as one of the world's great filmmakers.
In 1961, he did something else that was to have wide-ranging repercussions. He decided to revive Sandesh, the children's magazine that was once produced by his father and grandfather. The camera was put aside for a while. Ray picked up a pen instead, to write for Sandesh and to embellish its pages with unforgettable illustrations. That simple act was to turn him into the most successful writer in modern Bengal. Nearly ten years have passed after his death, but his position as Bengal's foremost author remains unchallenged even today.
Between 1961 and 1992, Ray wrote more than seventy-five short stories on a variety of themes, in addition to thirty-five detective stories featuring the sleuth, Feluda, and nearly forty science-fiction stories describing the adventures of Professor Shonku. Feluda and Shonku acquired a large number of admirers, so much so that eventually they were 'hijacked' by other magazines. What appeared almost exclusively in Sandesh were the short stories.
It has always been my belief that even if Ray had written a single Feluda or Shonku story-remarkable though each one is-his success as writer would not have been affected in any way. His short stories in themselves are memorable enough to guarantee him captivated readers through several generations of posterity. The reason for this, however, is not easy to pin down. Why do his stories make such an impact on his readers? Is it his language? His style? The wide range of his interests? The very sensitive treatment of his character? His humour? Or the plots, which can rival those of the best storytellers in the business?
The truth is that there is no one specific reason; it is simply a combination of all these factors that produce the final, magical effect. Before compiling the list of stories of this collection, I asked several readers which they thought might qualify as 'the best' of Ray's stories, which stood out in their memory better and sharper than all the others. The response was quick and unanimous. The stories with a supernatural element got the highest votes, why? It is a genre that has always been popular with writers; scores of ghost stories and other spooky tales had been written long before Ray produced his first. In fact, he admitted freely to having a 'special fascination' for tales of the fantastic and the supernatural'. It is not surprising that he chose to write about friendly aliens (years before ET or anything of that ilk entered out lives), or a carnivorous plant with a terrifying appetite, or the spine-chilling curse of a sadhu that could transform a man into a snake. The question is, what made these stories different from the others? What was so special about them?.
One reader put it rather aptly, 'Ray doesn't go into lengthy descriptions. Yet, you can see-even feel-it all happening. That's enough to bring out the goose pimples!' Clearly, here the filmmaker in Ray gave him an edge over other writers. His words were brief, simple, lucid. But the impression that emerged was extraordinarily rich in detail.
The same applied to all his other stories whatever their theme. However, the apparent simplicity in these stories was often deceptive. Behind it lay complex emotions and a tangled web of events. That was the reason why they appealed to young and old alike. The young were happy with a simple tale. It was left to the adults to pick up the subtleties.
The best example of this is the story 'Pikoo's Diary', which appears here for the first time in translation. It is unquestionably one of the most powerful stories that Ray ever wrote; certainly, it was the most difficult to translate. It is, in fact, one of those rare stories that Ray wrote specifically for adults. In 1981, he made a telefilm (Pikoo) based on this story. Those who have seen the film will recognize most of the details in the story. But the telling of the story itself remains unique, captured as it is through the eyes of a child. Having seen his grandfather write a diary, Pikoo decides to follow suit. His language is childish, his spellings appalling, his knowledge of punctuation virtually non-existent. Yet one vivid image chases another, like images in a kaleidoscope.
When the story was written-in 1970-the Naxalite movement in Bengal was at its height. Anyone who lived in Calcutta at the time would recall the frequent explosions in the streets and the ensuing fear and anxiety. It was not unusual then for a young man to get involved in politics, and disappear from home. In this particular case, the home itself is torn apart by strife between Pikoo's parents and adulterous affair-and little Pikoo faithfully records every detail in his notebook, without even realizing the implication of what he is writing. In order to preserve the flavour of the original, this story has been set in a child's handwriting font.
There are three other stories that I have translated especially for this collection: The Hungry Septopus', 'Bonku Babu's Friend' and 'Mr Eccentric'. Translations of 'The Two Magicians ', Bipin Chowdhury's Lapse of Memory' and The Small World of Sadananda are made available here in volume form over a decade after their first publication. The other stories have appeared previously in Stranger and Indigo, the two collections of Ray's stories published by Penguin India. In all there are twenty-one stories that I have chosen as the best of which no less than eight were translated by Ray himself. The dates of original composition (in Bengali) have been provided at the end of each story for the interested reader.
Although a number of readers were consulted before a decision was made on what might comprise the best, some may well fell that their own favourite story has been left out. I must offer my apologies to these readers. But I hope that they will, nonetheless, share my joy in seeing this compilation published in time to mark the eightieth anniversary of the birth of the author.
This very special book is dedicated to a very special person-Souradeep Ray, who celebrates his eleventh birthday in 2001. This book is for you, Souradeep, because your grandfather would certainly have wanted you to have the best.
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