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.

Rangakaka: Remembering a colorful life

Rangakaka and me in New York, 2011.

Rangakaka and me in New York, 2011.

The film “Aradhana” had just made its big splash in 1969 when my family returned once again from a soujourn in America to India. As we settled back to a middle-class existence that back then meant ration cards and standing in line for water, the songs of “Aradhana” blared on speakers at street stalls. We had a radio at home but half the time we didn’t have electricity. So there were two ways to hear music for someone like me in Kolkata: go see the movie over and over again at a cheap matinee or listen to the street speakers.

The movie starred Sharmila Tagore, a Bengali actress who was hugely popular in Kolkata, and Rajesh Khanna, perhaps the biggest star in Bollywood at the time. The songs were all number one hits and I went to see the movie many times with Shantidi, the woman who worked for us as a housekeeper.

That summer, we went to Delhi to visit my father’s brother. I called him Rangakaka.

My uncle’s name was Tapan Kumar Basu. In my culture, younger people never address an elder person by their first name. Kaka is the word for a father’s younger brother. My father had four brothers so the family gave them all terms of endearment. Ranga was the name given to this uncle. It means color in Bengali, a fitting name for a man with so much joie de vivre.

Rangakaka was the most outgoing, the most gregarious of all my father’s brothers, I thought. He gave new meaning to “eat, drink and be merry.”

On that trip to Delhi, I was only 7 years old and did not know my uncle well then, though my parents were very close to him.

When he was a college student, he had lived with my mother and father in north Kolkata for a while. One of the stories that was often circulated in the family was of the time when my parents were out and burglars broke into the house, gagged and tied Rangakaka up and shoved him under the bed. My father always told me Rangakaka was a lucky man that day.

Instantly, I took a liking to Rangakaka. One big reason was that he knew all the lyrics to my favorite “Aradhana” songs. Another reason was that Rangakaka drove us everywhere in his Fiat when few people in my family even owned cars. Those who did hired chauffeurs to take them around. But not Rangakaka. He told me he loved to drive. In the early 1970s, the streets of Delhi were wide open and it was easy to navigate traffic. Unimaginable today.

Rangakaka drove us around and all the while regaled us with song. “Roop tera, Mustana. Pyar mera, diwana. Bhuul koi hamse naa ho jaaye.” Your beauty is intoxicating. My love is crazy. Let’s not make any mistakes.

I loved that I had such a hip uncle who knew the songs that were dear to me. My parents did not care for popular Hindi songs. They listened to far more intellectual Bengali music, which I did not understand well then and therefore, was not interested. It was sort of like having a mom and dad who listened to Beethoven and then visiting an uncle who sang the Beatles. Yay.

Rangakaka sported sideburns, drank whisky and smoked cigarettes. He liked to dance and get loud. Everything my father was not.

He was an architectural engineer and in his long career, he worked on several important projects in India, including the Vidyasagar Setu, the longest cable-stayed bridge in India that carries traffic over the Hooghly River in Kolkata. A lot of his work was in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and when the insurgency raged in the late 1980s and 1990s, I listened to my uncle lament the destruction of one of the most beautiful places in India. Later, when I went to Srinagar to cover the war, Rangakaka set me up with his contacts and friends. I felt a modicum of security knowing that I could run to my uncle’s friend’s house if I were in danger. They would have done anything for me because I was Tapan’s niece. That’s how much my uncle’s friends respected him.

I wish I had spoken more with my uncle about his work, especially in Kashmir. I wish I had spent more time with him when he still confronted life full on. For many years, when my parents were still alive, I did not go to Delhi much so that I could spend more of my precious few vacation days at home in Kolkata. It was only in recent years that I spent considerable time in India’s capital, reporting stories for CNN and visiting family.

My uncle and aunt were always generous with their hospitality. The house that they built in the 1970s always had guests in the downstairs room. We referred to it solely by its street number — J1815. I have so many fond memories of Rangakaka there.

On my last two trips, Rangakaka was weak and had trouble going up and down the stairs. Everyone gathered in the evenings in his upstairs bedroom, where we’d munch on snacks, sip wine and talk. Often it was about his adventures or about my childhood. My uncle and I both loved a syrupy Bengali dessert delicacy called Chom Chom. Rangakaka was famed for the number of Chom Choms he could eat at one sitting. He told me once that I was as sweet as a Chom Chom and from then on, that’s what he called me. I was 51 the last time I saw him and he was still calling me by that name.

“Mone aachhe, Chom Chom?” he said. “Do you remember, Chom Chom?” And then he launched into a childhood story.

I had planned to visit Delhi in January but for many reasons, I postponed my trip. Now I am full of regret.

Rangakaka died on April 9. He was 77.

I was on assignment for CNN  when I received the sad news in a text from Rangakaka’s eldest son, my cousin Jayanta. My heart grew heavy. It was as though I had lost my father all over again.

At the Charlotte airport, I plugged in my ear buds, went to my Hindi playlist and selected “Aradhana.” I could hear Rangakaka singing, and it made me smile.



Practicing for a performance in the courtyard of Kolkata Sanved.

On a bright December afternoon in Kolkata, I watched a handful of young women throw their arms in the air, swirl the scarves of their salwar kameez and leap from one end of the courtyard to the other. They danced their cares away. Literally.

The women had all been forced into prostitution or into abusive relationships. Dance was their therapy. For some, it was their only joy in life.


Sohini goes over steps with a star dancer who was abducted as a girl and forced into prostitution.

Their leader is Sohini Chakraborty, a sociologist and dancer, who launched Kolkata Sanved after experimenting with rehabilitation for sexual violence survivors through dance. A poster she saw once at Kolkata’s massive book fair steered her in that direction. Under a photograph of a girl  were these words: “They sell me, my own blood for gold and silver, I rinse and rinse my mouth but the treachery remains,’ printed underneath.”

Chakraborty says she went inside the book stall to learn more about that girl and “embarked on a new journey.”

I spent many hours with the women and girls at Kolkata Sanved. It was amazing how uplifting it was to watch them come alive through music and movement. I even danced with them on my last day.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I salute Sohini, her staff and all the women who have rediscovered themselves through Kolkata Sanved. And all the other brave women I have met through the years on my travels around the world. We have a long way to go. But we have also come a long way.

Read more about Kolkata Sanved.

Missing plane tragedy, one year later

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 1.17.04 PM

I have been corresponding with K.S. Narendran for almost a year now. His wife, Chandrika Sharma, was one of the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 when it vanished from the skies on March 8, 2014.

He recently shared with me how he has been coping. He spoke  with me by email, phone and Skype from his home in Chennai, India. The story was published today on

I feel honored that he shared so much of himself. I think all of us could learn from his fortitude.

Click here to read.

They own nothing. ZERO.


A woman sleeps on a sidewalk in central Kolkata. Extreme poverty afflicts millions in India.


A few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama visited India, I wrote a piece for CNN about how my homeland was poised to become a global power in the next few decades. The most recent World Bank forecast says growth in India is likely to outdo China’s.

But then came a sobering reminder of the widespread poverty in India.

The latest Census data says that 43 million households have zero assets to their name. That means about 215 million people own nothing. The Census listed cars, computers and televisions. But it also listed simple things like radios, bicycles and cell phones. Nothing. Zero.

As such, these people are largely excluded from society, marginalized by extreme poverty.

India’s extreme poor are often left out of the discussion on growth and a more fruitful future. But any measure of progress has to be diminished by these shameful numbers.

Recently, the Aam Admi  (Common Man) Party won a surprising and resounding victory in the Delhi elections, putting anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal back in the chief minister’s slot. Aam Admi’s core support comes from the urban poor.

Whether or not you agree with Aam Admi, the win in Delhi, though largely symbolic, is a strong indicator that “inclusion: might just be the “it” concept in Indian politics in the years ahead. Politicians who forget about the millions without assets, the millions without clout, may have disappointments in store. India has to lift all boats. A global power cannot be a nation in which so many people own absolutely nothing.

Read my story about Obama and India on

Reflections on a fresh start

Below is what K.S. Narendran, husband of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 passenger Chandrika Sharma, posted on his Facebook page on the 6-month anniversary of the plane’s disappearance. I have admired his fortitude since I first spoke with him in March and his incredibly poignant expressions of his ordeal. So I thought I would share.

You can read my CNN story on him here: A hole in the clouds, an empty space on earth
chandrikaBy K.S. Narendran:

September 7, 2014 at 10:37am

It is six calendar months since MH 370 made news….

Since then, many horrific events across continents makes one wonder about the world we live in. Are we moving towards a better world that will see future generations, or a world bereft of humanity? World-views that breed hate and intolerance, self-centeredness and greed, power mongering and domination, and, all brands of fundamentalism and violence are ascendent. The space for inquiry and dialogue has shrunk, mutual respect has given way to the valuing of mutual gain, and relationships have progressively reduced to the short hand of techno-aided ritualistic greeting and voyeuristic tracking. From this wide angle lens, the outlook is bleak and scary. It is then tempting to bring attention to one’s immediate context, seek relief and refuge, assuming of course that we are more ‘in control’ of our lives than of the world at large.

In my personal context, what rears up is that I have associated normalcy with a certain belief in the uninterrupted certainty of routines and relationships. The disappearance of MH 370 has been a rude reminder of the transience of all things and the fickleness of dreams, goals and plans. It has been easier putting these on hold or distancing from them, and harder to find energy and meaning in making each day count. From being a seeker and wanderer that I thought I was for the most part, I have seen myself be more the drifter and the dodger, allowing myself a lot of latitude rather than exhorting myself to ‘move on’.

So what am I stuck at? I think it has to do with acceptance of what seems like an irreversible loss…. not being sufficiently pragmatic in responding to an event that continues to defy explanation, and to be remain mired in the swirl of possibilities. The other day, after a hard grinding walk, I was lying flat on my back in my apartment doing my ‘stretches’ about the same time and place that Chandrika would as part of her daily routine to stay fit. Unannounced, a thought entered: “what if the phone rang and it was her?” No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, and the phone rang. At that moment, I told myself: “This can’t be true”. Of course, it wasn’t. But those seconds let me see that no matter how far my rational mind had moved on, at some undefinable depths of my being there remain remnants of expectations that cold thought or reason could not banish.

I have struggled to receive or counter those who helpfully ask me to keep up hope, following it up with “where is the evidence? Without a shred of evidence, why must we believe and accept the worst?”.There isn’t a paper from MAS to help approach the banks and other institutions with. I suppose even they are in a quandary on what they can commit to paper without being interrogated. So such of those concrete things that one does in closing a chapter in one’s life so a new chapter may be written is in abeyance.

As I take in the news of Tony Abott and Modi cozying up to each other,and doing the deals, I wonder if it may have helped for Modi to whisper a word on MH 370 and push for the truth. Given the silence in the establishment, it will not surprise many if those in power thought it was a Mumbai cab registration number. And as I read of Malaysia and Australia’s calling for an independent investigation into the incident involving MH 17, I wonder why the repeated calls for an independent investigation into MH370 have been seen as less deserving. While the difference in ground (or ocean) realities may be pointed out as basis, the lack of transparency and credibility in both instances stands out as crucial grounds to consider the case for independent investigators.

I have in the last few weeks tried to grapple with the idea of loss and mourning. Why do I miss those whom I have a shared a slice of life with and today are no more in our midst? Near ones. Friends in distant lands I hadn’t stayed in contact with for years. Friends I have met in recent months. Why should the knowledge of ‘physically forever gone’ be such a big deal? Often, the mind shifts to a shared past, suggesting that one part of loving, losing and grieving has less to do with another’s presence in the present. At other times, it moves forward in time to an imagined future, that now needs repair. The present has to do with being suddenly incapacitated in small or large measure to fully apprehend and respond to an altered sense of space and the configuration of things. The void that one experiences suggests a wholeness with ‘my world’ and within myself prior to separation, a wholeness whose quality I don’t have an acute awareness of (or value enough?). Memory then is a companion (or a crutch) that keeps alive the notion of the erstwhile unity or wholeness till I discover a new location to re-anchor myself, a new relationship with memory itself, with all people, and things. It is a bit like a glass of water with my finger dipped in, and what happens to the water whenI remove my finger.It is just that memory is sticky, heavy and impedes flow.

I am not a mushy sentimentalist. The over-grown stoic in me seldom made time for such a part. What I miss most in my intimate partner is a friend and a foil, whose expressiveness made up for my lack of it, and whose yen for thoughtful action ensured that life was never frozen, stagnant and lost in a sea of words.

Many years ago, I sought to understand what the process of celebration was all about. Strangely, in the current context, my mind has strayed to that very inquiry. It makes me wonder if celebration and mourning are essentially two sides of the same coin. That in mourning one invokes the memory of a life lived. That much like Robinson Crusoe who perhaps could not celebrate all by himself and needed a gathering, mourning is a collective process that celebrates the life of one who has gone, and gives a vocabulary to the legacy that lives on. In this process there is sadness, joy, and celebration, all in good measure.

No longer one

India now has a 29th state. Telangana.

It was six decades in the making, the fruit of a strong separatist movement that argued neglect by successive governments and finally succeeded in breaking off a chunk of land from Andhra Pradesh. The man who once went on a hunger strike in defense of Telangana, K. Chandrashekar Rao, became its first chief minister Monday.

The celebrations began Sunday night. Hyderabad, which will now serve as capital for both states, was awash in pink, the color of Rao’s party, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi.

India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, hailed the newest state in the republic.

Amid the joy, however, there was reason for pause, especially among the citizens of Andhra who were against the carving up of their state. For economic reasons. For political reasons.

Proponents of Telangana argued that holding together different peoples under linguistic lines was silly; that it was better to have a more culturally cohesive state. Others pulled out proof that small states can prosper in India. The cited Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh as examples.

It’s a good thing the two states will share Hyderabad, a city that was at the forefront of India’s high-tech boom and houses corporate giants like Infosys. I visited there in 2000 and remember being so impressed with the efficiency and cleanliness there compared to my hometown, Kolkata. Without Hyderabad, I worry Telangana might flounder.

I am always wary when states are split because I fear that it might lead to a deeper division of people. We certainly don’t need to add to that problem in India.

But now the deed is done. I hope for Andhra and its sister Telangana to both prosper. Only time will reveal if this was the right decision.