Saon Bhattacharya on Ray's Pather Panchali

It was Satyajit Ray’s birth anniversary on 2nd May. I thought I’d spend the day watching back-to-back Ray movies in his tribute. Since my husband and I are ardent Ray admirers, we have a collection of all his works—movies, documentaries, books, short stories, et al. As I sat down to make my selection, I found myself avoiding Pather Panchali — yet again. I usually end up selecting either “Mahapurush” from Kapurush/Mahapurush, Poroshpathor, Aranyer Din Ratri, Jalshaghar, Jana Aranya or even Apur Sansar — but never Pather Panchali.

Saon Bhattacharya on Pather Panchali

I began to wonder why I consistently avoid watching the movie Ray is universally celebrated for. On the face of it, the most obvious answer would be that it makes me sad — that against all my efforts at watching it objectively, I end up crying uncontrollably. It brings back ancient memories of watching my father cry when Durga’s father learns of her death… I realised that my resistance to the movie went beyond the layers of Ray’s artistic excellence and Bibhutibhushan’s evocative masterpiece. Pather Panchali, I discovered, is tied up with my childhood memories of simpler times; and of my brief but strong encounters with rural Bengal.

Saon Bhattacharya on Pather PanchaliPather Panchali evokes sights, sounds, odours and aromas from a bygone era. It evokes the earthy smell of mud houses, of packed-earth courtyards painstakingly cleaned and layered with wet clay and cow dung each morning. The rickety cane-and-bamboo hedges that demarcated households, with rickety gates of the same material that kept out no one but the neighbourhood cow from munching at the tulsi shrines or the tiny kitchen plots resplendent with green chilies, lime, flowering shrubs, and twining gourd or pumpkin patches over the tiled cooking shed…

 

Memories of Festive Meal Times

Saon BhattacharyaIt brings back the taste of joint-family meals served on banana leaves. The overwhelming joy of having been conferred the honour of serving water along with a slice of lime and a pinch of salt at each place setting for a festive occasion, as the adults took on the more onerous task of serving the actual food out of huge brass buckets and cane baskets. That is how it was at weddings too. No anonymous caterer or wedding planner, but familiar household faces coaxed you to try another piece of machher kalia or rich fish curry, another ladle of mangsher jhol or delicious mutton curry, a second helping of rosogolla and mishi doi — the menu may have been plebian, but the hospitality came straight from the heart.

Saon Bhattacharya on old Bengali cuisineThe traditional Bengali meal, whether the simple weekday lunch or a festive Sunday dinner, follows its own set of courses. The shukta or the bitters, with either neem leaves of bitter goaurd, come first to clean your palate, followed by a chorchori cooked with juicy marrows and drum sticks to chew with relish. This alternates with a simple daal that is always accompanied by a bhaja of simple brinjal, potato or other vegetable fries or even a piece of fried fish. An elaborate vegetable curry would follow of enchorer dalna (jackfruit curry), dhokar dalna (curry with spicy ground daal vadas), phulkopir roast (cauliflower) or a chhanar dalna (paneer curry), according to season. The vegetable courses are followed by a fish dish or two, followed by a mutton dish. The meal is polished off with sweet and sour chutney, usually of mangoes and dates or tomatoes and raisins served with fried papad. Our famed rosogollas and mishit doi make up the dessert course. A paan or two (in sharp tasting Bengal paan leaves or the mitha patta, as you choose) is all you’re given to digest this feast. What is to be noted is that this sequence is never messed with if you’re a true blue Bong from the old river country. There are popular detective stories (even one of Ray’s Feluda series) where vital clues were given away by suspicious characters messing up the sequence of courses on the family lunch table — bojho kando!

A Bygone Era…

Saon Bhattacharya on Ray's Pather PanchaliPather Panchali evokes memories of habitual childhood mischief, with our band of naughty cousins running off to hide behind the berry shrubs by the communal pond, in the company of the village ducks and their litany of waddling ducklings. It reminds me of the tangy taste of sour mangoes and tamarind relished with salt and mustard oil — all the more delicious because we were forbidden from stealing and eating them. It brings back the gentle voice of my grandmother telling me stories, as she would struggle to put me to sleep in the afternoons. The soft touch of her simple cotton sari, the jasmine and sandalwood smell of her, and her endless love. It brings back the camphor-flavoured water she served in brass tumblers, with a piece or two of sweet batasha

Pather Panchali brings back the sights, sounds, odours and aromas of a way of life that I cannot go back to. And as I realise this, I give myself over to my grief with abandon. Have I been the better for having known a gentler era that will never return? Or are today’s children better off for not having known what cannot be bought for love or money?