‘Suprabha Ray – The Unvanquished’ is a book that is not just a product of immense research, it is also a testimony of the fact that if a book is destined to see the light of the day, it will, no matter the amount of negatives around it, especially when you have an author, who has stood by the cause of the book and made it happen despite several odds.
Today, in this interview, we speak to Dr. Tumpa Mukherjee, author of the Book ‘Suprabha Ray – The Unvanquished’ and get a glimpse of the story behind its remarkable journey.
Puja Roy: Tumpadi, first of all, heartiest congratulations for having published this book finally. I actually wish to ask you a lot of questions today. But the first question that comes to mind is, what made you take up ‘Suprabha Ray’, as the main subject of your third book, especially because, not much is known about her, other than the fact that she is the wife of Poet Sukumar Roy and mother of filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
Tumpa Mukherjee: Yes, a lot of people are asking me that question, after the publication of my book. I have mentioned about this in the Preface of my book. Actually, my grandfather (maternal grandmother’s brother) Dr. Suhrit Mukherjee was Suprabha Ray’s physician. So from my childhood I had heard stories about her. She had been a source of inspiration for my mother… in fact for my entire family. After I completed my doctoral research on Women in Police, I was restless. I wanted to get engaged in interdisciplinary research on women, more precisely Brahmo women in colonial Bengal. As a student of the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, I had attended innumerable seminars, conferences on gender related issues in colonial Bengal. Influenced by such academic discussion, I wanted a scholarly engagement on Suprabha Ray, hence I embarked on a journey to explore her life.
P.R: Alright, I get that. So it was a gradual progression that kind of had its roots in your childhood. How long did you spend in your research before you actually started writing the book?
T.M: I started doing research on her from 2016. Doing research is always a challenge, more so, if not much is known about the person, but I love challenges. Suprabha Ray in her lifespan did not write any memoir or diary, hence initially I had to depend on secondary resources such as books, articles published in journals and magazines, written on her husband and son.
Then I interviewed few members of the Ray Family. Sandip Ray, the noted film director, spoke to me about his grandmother at their Bishop Lefroy Road residence. I also spoke to other members of the Ray family which included Prasadranjan Ray, the former Additional Chief Secretary to the Government of West Bengal; and Sunanda Raychowdhury, former Head of the Department of English, Gokhale Memorial College. They were very helpful and spoke to me whatever they knew about her. Here, let me tell you that I am very grateful to Prasadranjan Ray Sir for helping me in all my academic endeavours since 2006. (He permitted me to do research on police related issues, as well).Prasadranjan Ray Sir connected me to their (Ray) family members such as Ruchira Majumdar, who had spent considerable part of her formative years with Suprabha Ray, so I got lot of information from her too. Suprabha’s niece, Ratna Das popularly known as Notudi, spoke to me in detail about her mejopishi Suprabha Ray and I got information from her too about Suprabha Ray’s life from 1930s onwards. My aunt Krishna Brahmo, daughter of Dr. Suhrit Mukherjee, spoke to me in details about Suprabha Ray.
P.R – So, what I understand is you have been collecting information in bits and pieces and then collated them all to form a structure, right?
T.M: That’s right Puja. Also, apart from collating information from relatives, I also visited the office of Sandesh (children’s magazine founded by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury and later edited by Sukumar and Satyajit Ray) near Triangular Park in south Kolkata. Most of the members of Sandesh extended their helping hands towards me. Sugata Ray and Debasis Sen of Sandesh helped me by providing innumerable books and photographs respectively. I met Anindya Dutta, the noted documentary film maker at Sandesh’s office. And I am thankful to him for personally arranging the interview with late actor Soumitra Chattopadhay, at his Golf Green residence. I have quoted late Soumitra Chattopadhyay Sir verbatim in this book. I have his words recorded in my dictaphone. Today, when he has left for heavenly abode, these are my most treasurable memories.
P.R: Must be. It’s amazing to learn that Soumitra Chatterjee shared stuff on Suprabha Ray! Can you share any such incident that Soumitra mentioned about her?
I interviewed Soumitra Chattopadhyay Sir on 8th August 2016. He spoke of his relationship with the Ray family. Also he gave me a very important fact (for which one has to read the book) which helped me to understand the situation Suprabha Ray faced after her husband’s untimely death. Soumitra Sir’s interview actually pinpoints to the grit and perseverance visible in Satyajit Ray’s persona, which perhaps had developed in him seeing his mother struggling and confronting odds… as well as the social environment he grew up.
Now I can understand very well how slices of his childhood life experiences are reflected in his films.
P.R: Can’t wait to read your book now.What about libraries of Calcutta? Did they not have not anything at all?
T.M: Libraries did not have much information about her, but then yes, I visited National Library, Jiban Smriti Digital Archive located at Uttarpara, and Bethune College and Archives regularly. Late Professor Uttara Chakraborty helped me a lot. When I first contacted her, she was in USA. But even from there, she used to send messages, guiding me on how to explore the archives. She personally accompanied me to the archives on women at Bethune College. My research supervisor Prof. Samita Sen, Vere Harmworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, read my manuscript andin spite of her hectic schedule,gave her critical comments. I loved working in the library of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. The place is a citadel of Bengal Renaissance. As I sat in that library hall, adorned with photographs of stalwarts of Bengal Renaissance, reading Tattwakaumudi, The Indian Messenger and other books, time just froze. I observed that there is a need to preserve magazines of the colonial period as they are rare documents of our socio-cultural political history. Digitalization of such valuable documents is the need of the hour!
Aparna Bandyopadhyay of Diamond Harbour Women’s University and Sudarshana Sen, of GourBango University respectively helped me in all possible manners. My friend Nandini Jana, who did a research on Brahmo women also helped me immensely.I visited Hindusthan Record office located near central Kolkata, as suggested by my friend Syamantak Chattopadhyay, and they too were very supportive.
Apart from that my family members were very supportive. My uncle and aunt Saroj and Krishna Brahma (son-in-law and daughter of Dr. Suhrit Mukherjee respectively) were very kind to share their memories of Suprabha Ray. My cousin brother Alekshya Brahma scanned and sent me the letter Suprabha Ray had written to our Dadu (Dr. Suhrit Mukherjee). The letter is published in the book).
There was a point when I was writing and simultaneously doing my field and library work. Amidst all this, for a couple of months between 2017 and 2018 my chotomama was hospitalized and during this time, I couldn’t focus much on my research. It was after his death, that perhaps to get out of the personal tragedy, I tried to pursue my research and started writing again. By June 2018 my first draft of the monograph was ready. So over all, the journey of this book took me through various phases of self-learning and development.
P.R: Absolutely! And that’s why I keep reiterating that the journey of this book is remarkable. You must have come across many fascinating things about the grand lady which must be a part of the book. Can you please share some of the things about her that really moved you?
T.M: Well, her entire life touched me…especially the journey of her life from a docile, submissive daughter-in-law of the illustrious Ray family to a woman who challenged the patriarchal constraints of the early twentieth century colonial Bengal.In the journey of her life,is the story of her growth as a woman, emergence of the female subjectivity and exercise of female assertion. Suprabha Ray, paved the way for generations of women and provided them courage to strive for their emancipation and create space for an independent way of living.
P.R: Despite his mother being such a big influence in his life (as you have mentioned in your book), Satyajit Ray is still known as the grandson of UpendrakishoreRay chowdhury and son of Sukumar Ray…
T.M: This is extremely sad! But that’s how a patriarchal system probably worked back then…even now perhaps in a subtle manner. Suprabha Ray, the mother, had a big influence on Satyajit Ray’s life which I have mentioned in the book in great detail. I think the meticulous insight which gets reflected in Ray’s films and stories, the source of such influence is his mother. His childhood experiences with his mother at Lucknow or Darjeeling…gets reflected in his films. For example, in his childhood visit, Satyajit Ray had seen the mountain Kanchenjunga. The peak remained invisible…behind clouds for some days after his arrival in Darjeeling. Then, at dawn, one morning he was awakened by his mother and was shown the mountain in all its glory, changing from rose to gold to silver as the sun arose in the horizon. Later on in life Satyajit Ray used the changing colours of the Kanchenjunga peak to represent the change in the behavior of the characters portrayed in the film Kanchenjunga. In the book I have mentioned many such incidents (including writing the dialogues) which reflects his mother’s profound influence on him… One has to read the book to understand this aspect.
P.R: Suprabha Ray was a very talented lady, as you mentioned, who brushed her hands in almost everything artistic. We would love to know what was her relation with her father-in-law Upendrakishore Ray Choudhury?
T.M: She respected her father-in-law. Her father-in-law called her Mamoni, (she later on in life referred her daughter-in-law Bijoya Ray as Mamoni). When she wore the white thaan, Kadambini Ganguly had told Suprabha, perhaps her ‘liberal’ father-in-law would never approve of such an attire. But Suprabha wore thaan all throughout her life.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect would be her relationship with her mother-in-law Bidhumukhi, sister-in-law Sukhalata Rao (sister of Sukumar Ray) and Pushpalata Ray (wife of SubinoyRaychoudhury), after Sukumar Ray’s death. As a student of Sociology and Women’s Studies, I was quite inquisitive to explore the changing ‘power dynamics’ within the Ray family after the untimely demise of Sukumar Ray. But since not much authentic information is available, I could not write about it. Though one can feel it…understand it through Satyajit Ray’s films. Ray often in a very subtle manner showed the ‘power’ dynamics in family and extended society in his films.
P.R: Once you knew that the book was complete, how did you approach the publishers? What was the response like?
T.M: Well. Nobody was willing to publish this monograph…I was repeatedly told that such books have no ‘market’ value. Books on Satyajit Ray have ‘markets’ but not his mother. I felt bad thinking how much we have ‘commodified’ Satyajit Ray. One of the publishers to whom I submitted the book proposal wrote the following:
“ … I am sorry to disappoint you but the proposal would not suit us. First, although you do argue for her strong individuality and battle against Bengali patriarchy, Suprabha Ray’s claim to fame seems to be wife of and mother of two incredibly gifted and famous men. So for us she doesn’t seem to emerge that much on her own. The other thing is that book is too short for us- may be 100 pp? We need books to be closer to 200 printed pages…this kind of book might work very well online, or if you added more such women, bigger publishers would be interested. We ourselves are trying to move away from the nineteenth and early twentieth century”.
Though I did not engage into any further dialogue, yet at the back of my mind I felt that my book has focused on the fact that she had an autonomous identity as a teacher, singer and sculptor!
And then there were others, who did not want to publish, but in a very sugarcoated manner told me to wait for three to four years! It seems they are very busy with their present publishing
The contract I signed with the first publisher based in Kolkata unfortunately the publishing house was not cooperative. Perhaps he lacked infrastructure, so after waiting for 15 months I had to cancel the contract and publish it from a suburban local publisher.
P.R: My Goodness. Coming back to ground zero after 15 months of signing a contract! How did you cope with the rejection of such a gem of a work?
T.M:I have been brought up to confront challenges. So though I faced innumerable obstacles in publishing this book, but I was very determined…though at times I would get depressed. My family especially my eldest maternal uncle Chittaranjan Banerjee supported me as always.Apart from my family, my friends such as Sudarshana Sen, my college alma mater Debraj Bhattacharyya, Suman Bhattacharyya and Avik Chanda were very supportive and helpful. Sugata Ray and Anindya Dutta were verysupportive. My friends Syamantak and Riddhi Goswami of Ray Society were very encouraging. I am thankful to all of them for their kind words and support that came my way, when I was struggling to publish this book.
P.R: Now that’s quite a journey Tumpa di, for the book and definitely for the author. One thing that you would like to tell your readers about your book and why they should buy and read it.
T.M: The book is interdisciplinary in nature. Anybody interested in History, Gender Studies, Sociology, Cultural and Film Studies will find the book worth reading.
This book is a story of a woman who lost her husband at a prime age, then struggled to bring up her child and then faded into oblivion. The book also delves with the struggle of a ‘single’ woman in colonial Bengal. For me the book is relevant even in contemporary India. The book deals with the conditions of widows. Even now widows (elite educated society included) confront subtle discrimination and face subtle ostracism as they negotiate their terms of living in this patriarchal society. The book throws light on contemporary issues such as ‘single parenting’, which is a universal story that conveys a universal message of love and sacrifice and is very much relevant even in contemporary times.
P.R: Thank you so much for your time Tumpa di. I wish and hope that your hardwork reaches more and more valuable readers.
T.M: Thanks a lot Puja for all your support. It was lovely interacting with you!
Suprabha Ray – The Unvanquished by Dr. Tumpa Mukherjee, Publisher : Avenel Press,West Bengal.
The book will be available in College Street, Kolkata; amazon.com from December 2020.
P.S – All pictures of Suprabha Ray is courtesy the Ray family members.