Satyajit Ray, or Manikmama



A few weeks ago, I went to see “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” a riveting documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville gas station. It’s well worth your time.

On the way out, I picked up a Midtown Art film calendar that had Apu’s face on the cover. Apu as in Satyajit Ray’s “The Apu Trilogy, the highly acclaimed series of films about a free-spirited Bengali boy who grows into a man of the world.

Ray was my mother’s cousin and I always knew him as Manikmama. Manik was his nickname; mama means mother’s brother.

Ray directed more than 30 films and went on to gain international fame. But he also wrote books and made movies aimed at children. I grew up with tales of Feluda, the sleuth, and Professor Shonku, the scientist who spoke 69 languages.

But it was film, and specifically, “The Apu Trilogy” that catapulted Ray to international fame.

satyajit-ray-003-at-work-in-his-study-at-bishop-lefroy-road-calcutta“Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon,” declared Japanese director Akira Kurusawa. That was a quote often recited in my hometown, Kolkata. Ray was such a point of pride, along with Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist.

Bengalis hailed him as a hero for the fame he showered on his people but many shied away from his work. His films were too negative, someone once told me. They were too real.

Yes, too real for comfort in a country still struggling to lift all boats. Ray’s movies were the opposite of Bollywood and had little to offer to the masses who wanted to escape at the cinema, not see their own reality.

“Pather Panchali,” which means Song of the Path, tells the story of Apu as a boy from a poor family in rural West Bengal. “Aparajito” or “The Unvanquished” follows Apu through his formative years as the family faces crushing poverty. Finally, we see Apu as an adult who marries and faces tragedy in the last of the trilogy, “Apur Sanser,” or “The World of Apu.”

For many years, I told my Western friends to watch Ray’s films to gain a better understanding of the place I came from, for insight into what life was like in Bengal. But the film quality was always poor, especially when the only way to see these films was to rent videotapes from Blockbuster.
But now the films have been digitally restored and the subtitles are clear. If you live in Atlanta, I encourage you to go see the Ray trilogy at the Midtown Art Cinema, playing for a week starting August 14. Otherwise, you can always rent the DVDs or buy them online.
The last time I saw my uncle was in 1992 when I went to visit him at his residence on Bishop Lefroy Road in Kolkata. He was in his usual stance — in repose on a wicker lounger with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. A month later, he received an honorary Oscar, the only Indian to receive an Academy Award to date.
Audrey Hepburn presented the award to Ray, who by then had fallen gravely ill and was confined to his bed at a Kolkata hospital.
 I remember watching him on television that night, fighting tears of pride.He died shortly after, on April 23, 1992.
There are many Indians in the world of art who have now made a name for themselves outside their homeland. But Ray, like Rabindranath Tagore in the literary world, was a pioneer.
So many of my mother’s relatives were artistically inclined. They were painters, designers, poets and writers. I can’t help but feel that Ray had something to do with that. Or at least that his spirit guides me from within.

‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise’


I met Maya Angelou in 1983.

I worked for the Center for Participant Education at Florida State University and we had invited Angelou to speak on campus. I went with my friend Graciela Cuervo to fetch her at the Tallahassee airport, shook her hand and said: “Maya, I am so happy to finally meet you.”

She was a towering figure in so many ways. Even physically. She stood 6 feet tall.

She looked at me and said: “Ms. Basu, it’s Ms. Angelou.”

I was taken aback. I had not imagined her to be, well, so Diva-like.

She sent me all over town to find her an avocado sandwich. I moved her things from a west-facing room at the Holiday Inn because it was too hot. That night, at the event, I had to allow people to sit on the floor behind the podium on the stage — there were not enough seats in the auditorium. She didn’t like that and made it clear she didn’t. But on stage, she told everyone, in her resounding voice, how thrilled she was to be among them.

Others, including my friend Valerie Boyd, who curated the literary component of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, have also spoken about how demanding Angelou could be. Journalist and writer A’Leila Bundles said she was dignity personified but sometimes haughty and over the top, according to folks who groused about the special items her contract required.

“Was the story about ​the rider requesting ​30 year old cognac true or apocryphal?” Bundles asked. “Th​at rumor​, and the way she carried herself ​ were the source of​ ​caricatures in recent years. ​How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.”

If anyone had the right to be demanding, it was Angelou.

She grew up poor in a small Arkansas town, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl in a brutally racist society that she was worthy, important and talented. She was pioneering in literature and wrote about the cruelty of Jim Crow like no other black woman had done before for wider audiences.

I was 16 when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was blown away.

Angelou gave voice to women of color. Her work continues to inspire generations of women, who, like me, drew from her words a strength to always live with pride.

The news of Angelou’s death spread quickly Wednesday. There are many obituaries and appreciations online. I urge you to read them, to learn more about a phenomenal woman.

Read the CNN obituary.

Here is Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.



The etching Panesar took off a gallery wall and gave me.

A headline in my hometown newspaper brought me to tears this morning. B.P. Panesar had died.

He was a renowned artist. Water color. Oil. Etchings. He was also made a name as mentor to Shakila, a poor village woman who gained fame for her collages.

He gave away his earnings as an artist to charity. He never married and lived for many years in one room at the YMCA in central Kolkata. He died in an old people’s home, still holding paint and brush.


Uncle Panesar and me when I was about a year old.

I knew him as Uncle Panesar. My father taught at the Indian Statistical Institute, where Panesar worked, and from the instant they met, they became fast friends. My father became an advcate for Panesar’s art. In time, he became a part of our family, especially in the years we spent living on campus in north Kolkata.

He loved to listen to my mother sing Rabindrasangeet and spend hours with my brother and me.

He held me as a baby, played with me when I was a child, encouraged me to paint as a teenager and inspired my creativity as an adult.

From early on, I found Uncle Panesar to be a calming force in my life. I’d peer into his eyes, under his thick bushy eyebrows and try to imagine what was swirling inside his head. What genius, I thought, to be able to produce such visual feasts.

I was especially enamored with Panesar’s collages made with magazine and newspaper cuttings, old pictures, bus tickets and other things people tossed in the trash. Panesar gave up his own collages to train Shakila. He was so taken with her talent. I was sorry at first until I went to visit Shakila and saw for the first time the mastery within that Panesar had helped awakened.

In the late 1980s, I visited Uncle Panesar at the Y. He had moved onto etchings by then and showed me his small studio. He invited me to go see his show at the Birla Academy. I was so taken with an etching of Mother Teresa — I’d volunteered at one of her organizations many years before — that when his show was over, Uncle Panesar took it off the gallery wall and presented it to me. It hangs by my dresser. I look at it as I begin each day. And think of all the good in the world.

I had hoped to see you in a few days in Kolkata. But you did not wait. You have flown away to a better place.

I will miss you, Uncle Panesar. Always.

Purse paradise

Many years ago, I walked through the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, mesmerized that the history of mankind could be told through footwear — from caveman to Christian Laboutin. I was fascinated, given my penchant for shoes. (Yes, I have way too many.)

So when I stumbled upon the Tassen Museum Hendrikje in Amsterdam recently, I had to go in. Housed in a beautiful old building on Herengracht, the museum pays homage to, what else, handbags. It’s not as extensive as the shoe museum but tells a 500-year-history of handbags and purses in the Western world. Through bags, you get a good idea of how social norms changed for women.

And the museum shop is terrific if you are in the market for a good bag.

Goldless again

Used to be the Olympics mirrored the Cold War – a head-to-head battle for medals between the United States and The Soviet Union.
Now, it’s between the USA and China. In London, American might won out with 104 medals versus China’s 84.
I suppose the Olympic medal counts give you a good idea of which nations are world powers. The United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia, France…Brazil is up there in the top 20. But, um, where is my homeland?

Keep looking down the list. Keep going. Down, down, down. There, just below Croatia is India with six medals – none gold.

Saina Nehwal

So why is the world’s largest democracy and the second most populous nation unable to win? Can India not do better than six medals with its 1.2 billion people?

Please don’t think that Indians don’t make good athletes. They have shown they can win big in sports like cricket and hockey.

Perhaps the dearth of medals can be explained by a lack of state-run athletics programs in the vein of China’s or those of the former USSR. Half of India’s population still lives in abject poverty. They cannot afford to send children to expensive training camps on their own.

But what about India’s new middle class who now have disposable income or those who have accumulated enormous wealth in the last two decades?  
Here’s where I think the culture comes in. Indian parents are way too preoccupied with education. Every parent’s dream is to see his or her child come first in class and get into one of the best colleges in the land.
There is no time for sports. Not serious sports, anyway.
And even if there were, it’s too much of a gamble.
What if little Rita spent her entire life perfecting the art of balancing on a 4-inch beam and then fell under the Olympic spotlight? What would she be left with?
American kids still have a life, they still are able to go to college. But for Rita, the opportunities do not exist unless she is a star student. There’s just way too much competition for slots in schools – too many people, not enough facilities.
Abhijit Kunte, a chess grandmaster who runs a nonprofit to help groom athletes, told the New York Times that it should fall to Indian schools to inspire and train boys and girls. He suggested Indian schools follow the U.S. model.
But the Times reported that the Indian government did not spend a single rupee in the last two years on the promotion of sports in schools and colleges.
Sad, because champion athletes are admired in India. The best in their fields climb to superhero status — starting with the giants of cricket like Sachin Tendulkar down to Saina Nehwal, who won a bronze in badminton in London.

But I suspect many parents think like mine did. They prefer that their children graduate suma cum laude from college than come first in the 200-meter freestyle.

Well, perhaps at least until they are on the stand with gold around their neck. 

Here’s to Rio.