The Unicorn Expedition and Other Fantastic Tales of India
The Home and the World
On a visit to Calcutta I was told a story about Louis Malle. The French film director had spent some time in the city to film part of his famous—and in India notorious—documentary on India. One day Malle was shooting a riot scene, not uncommon in Calcutta. This infuriated a Bengali policeman who ran up to Malle threatening to smash the camera. Malle objected. “Who do you think you are?” shouted the Bengali. “Louis Malle,” replied the director. “Ah,” said the Bengali with a sweet smile, “Zazie dans le métro.”
It is no doubt an apocryphal tale, but one hears many such stories in Calcutta. It tells you something about the atmosphere of the place, an extraordinary combination of squalor and high culture, violence and civility.
I was told this anecdote by a young and very successful newspaper editor called Aveek Sarkar. We met in his office, housed in an old building in the center of a commercial district where beggars and rickshaw-wallahs dodged in and out of the hopeless traffic jams, while entire families, the children naked, the adults in flimsy clothes, washed themselves by burst waterpipes. Aveek was dressed in a dhoti and smoked Montecristo cigars. He offered me a fine Scotch whiskey and talked about Bengali poetry. Every Bengali is a poet, he said. There are at least five hundred poetry magazines in the state of West Bengal and when Calcutta celebrates the birthday of its greatest poet, Rabindranath Tagore, poetry bulletins are published by the day, sometimes even by the hour. “We don’t look to the rest of India, which is intellectually inferior,” he said. “Our literature is related to French literature, not Hindi. I don’t even read Hindi. Calcutta is like Paris.”
Aveek introduced me to Satyajit Ray, the film director, graphic designer, composer of music, and author of children’s stories. He lives in a grand old apartment building in an elegantly crumbling area known as South of Park Street. His working room is stacked with books—anything from Bengali literature to fifteenth-century Italian art to modern British theater design. There are inkstands, pens and paintbrushes, and an old-fashioned gramophone. And in the midst of this sits Ray, a tall, handsome man, dressed in a dhoti, drinking tea. He speaks English with a refined baritone drawl, rather like an aesthetic Oxford don. Without having seen Calcutta—or, indeed, his films—one might mistake him for a brown sahib, a genteel colonial relic. He is something far more complex than that, however; he represents a style historically and socially rooted where most of his films take place, in the decaying grandeur of his native city.
Ray had been very ill. He still appeared weary. “It’s a frightful bore making films in India these days,” he said. He complained about the sad state of the Bengali film industry. Cut off from a large potential audience in Bangladesh by a government ban…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.