My father Ashim Ray (1927-86) is considered an exceptional novelist and short story writer who has left a major contribution to serious Bengali literature. However, in his lifetime his contribution was not recognized and he never got any major award. He could carry on his serious writing only because my mother was super supportive of his work. She even copied a number of his novels in the pre-Xerox time, including Asanglogno Kabya (Incoherent Poetry), a novel on the Naxalite movement in general and a Naxalite leader in particular. The novel has been included in the new syllabus of Bengali literature in the MA of the University of Calcutta.
When Suniti Chatterjee, the doyen of Bengali grammar, unfairly deprived his novel Sabder Khachaye (In the cage of words) of the Sahitya Academy award with his casting vote in favor of Abu Syed Ayub’s book Rabindranath o Adhunikata (Rabindranath and modernism) – which already won another major award and it was against the rule of the Academy to award an already awarded book – my mother said to him, “Don’t worry, your readers will give you many awards.” Since then my father has been receiving awards, even 35 years after his demise, the latest one being in the form of a review of his short stories by Arnab Saha, a contemporary critic, in Ei Samay daily (a Times of India publication).
Saha wrote,” In one of his short stories, Mithu Bhutu Shakespeare, protagonist Sunil Sen comes to realize that to understand new times, a new narrative is required. Ashim Ray has invented that new narrative and introduced it in all his brilliant short stories.”
So what kind of support mother used to give to father when we three brothers were little boys, I would like to recall. After breakfast which he would have while glancing through the day’s newspapers, father would sit before his writing table with his green Sheaffer fountain pen and a thick bunch of plain full scape papers. Mother would visit us from her kitchen every now and then with a stern look banning us from entering the study room and from making any noise. We were made to understand from our early age that father was a very important person, different from fathers of our classmates. However father never flaunted any gravitas and treated us with all friendliness.
Recently I had the opportunity to see Joshy Joseph’s personal/political fiction film Walking Over Water and liked it so much. It’s a cerebral film. Standing on the diametrically opposite side I understand Joshy’s anguish. We see how Joshy has to grapple with the chagrin of his better half’s complete indifference toward his creative works. Their only son Ozu, a college student, stands confused as he struggles to negate his mother’s idea of truth and fiction – truth is sacrosanct and it has nothing to do with fiction – which he discovers – has already been inculcated in him. Ozu’s confusion has a throwback to my own college days when I was a bit confused on the question of why my mother rated father so highly as a litterateur when none of my classmates heard of his name as a writer and I myself found his Bengali novels, essays and short stories difficult to understand. I admired him more as a senior journalist with The Statesman and used to read his political reports in the paper as if I was reading my text book. When the Congress (I) government fell in the assembly elections in Bengal in 1977 he called it a “colossus with clay feet.” I immediately lapped up the expression. It took me some years to get matured and understand his worth as creative writer when I started reading and rereading his novels, short stories and essays. I believe Ozu will take in his stride the incipient confusion to follow the same trajectory.
Years later when I quit journalism and chose to immerse myself in photography to become an independent artist my father was no more; but his dedication to his creative work and his missionary zeal to remain true to himself paved the way for me as he used to say: “Creative work is not a 100-meter sprint, it’s a life long marathon.”
Joshy’s film shows subterranean tension on the issue of truth and fiction. Ozu’s mother thinks her husband’s creative works are completely fiction driven, so far from truth. She opposes the aesthetics creative people bank on. That fact and fiction, if judiciously gelled, can push truth to a new high has no resonance for her. This goads me to recall the story behind the novel Asanglogna Kabya.
The protagonist of the novel was a real life character, who lived in Uttarpara, a north suburb of Kolkata. For him communism was not just a fight to seize power, it was a unique philosophy, a new value structure. He was the general secretary of the 3000-member workers’ union of Alkyl Chemicals. He had joined a new party from his old party CPI(M). He was an eloquent speaker of the new philosophy that his new party apparently preached but to fulfill new dreams the party had fallen flat in the blind alley of self-annihilation. And he had a nervous breakdown. Before getting admitted to a mental hospital for treatment, he sought a “mental shelter” from an author whose novel’s protagonist had helped him live his “incoherent” life. In his factory’s library he had read Ashim Ray’s Ditiyo Janmo (Second Birth) and had developed a kinship with Sona, the hero of the novel. He was living in great hallucination, believing the revolution was over, now it was the time for reconstruction and amity. One fine morning in 1971 he rang our door bell.
He kept on coming to our house telling his life stories to my father. Mother took care of him serving him healthy meals and spared no effort to make him feel at home. It is interesting to know how my father structured the novel based on the life story of the Naxalite leader by banking on a subtle mix of fact and fiction. He transformed himself to a BA plucked (failed) factory supervisor, who had taken up the herculean task of writing a novel based on the life story of someone who he loved dearly, who in his effort to turn a great poetry into a reality was moving toward a dangerous destiny. The protagonist of his novel was his mentor who opened the eyes of the less educated supervisor trying his best to write a novel in first person and was doubtful of its completion and unsure of his own competence of its completion. In doing so my father could assimilate the life and philosophy of the Naxalite leader and bind it with his own to push the truth to a new high revealing a kind of inner truth.
Both in film and literature there is enough scope to judiciously combine truth and fiction to come up trumps. Similar is the case with painting, drawing and sculpture. However, in still photography, it is very much a restricted area. Photographers like Jerry Uelsmann and Pedro Meyer who ventured into it created worlds of their own. However, as a practicing still photographer I feel a photograph is still a truth claim and its documentary value cannot be overemphasized as Susan Sontag said, “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” I felt it strongly when I did Intimacies, a decade long work on a joint family in Kolkata.
Walking Over Water leaves quite a churning in me making me dig out my personal story. Its uniqueness will continue to ring in the minds of viewers, though on a melancholy note.
The writer is a Kolkata based still photographer, film and art critic