Oral history interview with Sibnarayan Ray

Ray, Sibnarayan
Manjapra, Kris
2007-12-12

This div will be replaced by the JW Player.


Participants
SR
Sibnarayan Ray, interviewee (male)
KM
Kris K. Manjapra, interviewer (male)

Interviewed in Shantiniketan, West Bengal by Kris Manjapra

This object is in collection:
Bengali Oral Histories
Subjects
Intellectual history
Personal narratives
Decolonization
Postcolonialism
Independence movements
Oral history
Bengali Intellectuals Oral History Project
India
South Asia
West Bengal (India)
Bangladesh
Permanent URL
http://hdl.handle.net/10427/78012
http://hdl.handle.net/10427/78012
ID: tufts:MS165.001.012.00001
To Cite: DCA Citation Guide
Usage: Detailed Rights
view transcript only

KM
This is a Calcutta oral history project interview. It is being conducted with Prof. Sibnarayan Ray on December 12th 2007, in the morning around 11:30. Let's begin the interview. So Prof. Ray I wanted to begin first by your childhood by your birth and moving on from there in this, kind of, life history interview. Can you please tell me when you were born and where?
There is a slight mystery in this. The days when I was born didn't have this present system of registering birth and so on. So it was all from memory. When I asked my mother, because for our matriculation we had to give our dates, there was a rule at that time that you could not sit for an exam till you are 15. So my mother it's January, I remember, probably 20th of January and 1921. So that was the date officially on all records.
KM
Hmm.
Yesterday I was going through some old papers I found that there was a horoscope, in old days they used to make horoscopes, and the horoscope shows that it's not 1920, but 1919. Now I no longer know by which date to go. I am still continuing to calculate it at the 1921. So officially it is 20th January 1921 and it was in a rented house in north Calcutta, that area is called Goabagan near my maternal mother-in-law's house. But by the time I was 2 we moved to another area near road that was Hortuki Bagan named after another tree. It seems like all India must have been full of bagans, of fruit trees.
KM
So the first was the betel nut tree bagan and the second one was hortuki which is another fruit bagan, and I was there till I was about 8 or 9, and I didn't go to school till I was 7. Much of what I learned was from my mother. I used to -- when she cooked I used to read the Mahabharata to her, and so gradually the entire Mahabharata was read during the year. Ours was a strange house where with one man earning - my father who taught in a college, he was professor of Sanskrit in City College - there were about 30 people to feed. The village, whoever is from our village would come to Calcutta and come straight to our house and knew that there was free meal and bed. So we grew up in a very crowded house and never quite knew who was who.
KM
It was very interesting, that kind of life, but when I grew up I felt that it must have meant for my mother a tremendous sacrifice and for my father a strange philosophical indifference that my mother very often possibly went without meals or made a very late meal at 4 in the afternoon after feeding of all these 30 people. But that period of life, this childhood up to the age of 7 or so was possibly in many ways the most interesting age of my life.
KM
Hmm. Can you tell me a little bit more about your father who was a professor of Sanskrit. He did not come originally from Calcutta. So what was his...what is the history of his journey to Calcutta? Why and when...
They, they have a long history. My father's family, they originally came from this side, West Bengal from near Ganges, but one of the very enterprising members of the family, I think somewhere around the late 14th to early 15th century migrated and then built up for himself a big area, a zamindari and from the Nawab of Bengal managed to get the award of a Raja. Now he is man from whom our family tree derives. I have a nephew who is a specialist in all this family lore and he has prepared for me an autobiography, a big family tree, hundreds of people and that goes back to this founder of this family. So his name was Kinkor, the founder of the family and his son became the Raja. Now for, I think, some 8 generations they lived very well and that particular village where they lived, Rakhmal, ancestors lived was the only village in the district of Barisal where every house was built in brick, knowing that those were the years of mud built houses, but in this village everyone was brick built and the bricks were thin, 1.5 inch they lasted very long.
KM
By the time I went there, I think I must have been about 5 or 6 when I first went to our village, I still remember this large number of houses in very dilapidated condition with snakes crawling all over because again there was a legend that my ancestor had made a pact with the goddess of snakes, Vasuki, that no Raychoudhury will ever kill a snake and no snake will ever kill a Raychoudhury. So it was an interesting kind of life because living in a city like Calcutta you learn to fear snake more than any other animal and here in our own house, my aunt - I remember, I still remember, these are the memories that are very sharp in my memory - my aunt was my father's elder brother's wife, she was then a widow. She said come and have some fun. So she asked me to sit in the staircase and then she lifted a plate on top of one of those big jars in which rice was kept.
KM
Out of this a pair of snakes came out. These are very poisonous snakes, big snakes, and then they started the great dance and then my aunt brought out a big plate of milk and then they drank that milk and went away. I sat there with every move was a mixture of fear and joy. Fear because I didn't believe that they would not turn and bite me and joy, the beauty of those 2 snakes. They are very beautiful looking and the dance was really a very marvelous art form and these all things, the relation between a man, snake and art you know even as a child certainly deeply moved me. So I remember that, and then later on I notice that throughout that village there are hundreds of snakes.
KM
What is the name of the village again?
The name of the village was after us, it's called Rayerkaki, it means the colony of the royals and it had a peculiar kind of planning. In fact if you start with the plan of that village like Dante's Inferno that you have this central circle which are all Raychoudhury's then they married their daughters to various Kulin people and then they are not allowed to go very far so within a quarter mile there was another circle where all the house occupied by these Ghosh, Bose, Mitra, Dutta, these were the sons-in-law. Then the next circle was all these officers of the zamindari, the Dewan, the Nayeb and so on. Then finally there was another, the payiks, the kind of troops or policeman kept by the zamindar to beat up the peasants and then finally the fifth tier was the peasants and invariably they were all Muslims. Long afterwards, after I had done my masters, it was during the war, my mother sent me in the village to collect the arrears.
KM
When I saw their condition ... by that time I had read Marx [Karl Marx], I had been very deeply influenced by Communist thought, so I called a meeting of the peasants and I said, "The land belongs to you. For many centuries my predecessors have exploited you, I see no reason why you should pay anything. From today you are all freed and this land is yours." I don't know the legality, what was to be done about this but when I came back and reported this, my mother was so angry that for days she would not speak to me and in fact that broke my relation with my family. After...
KM
How old were you then?
... that for the next 10 years I lived by myself.
KM
This is after your masters? This is when you were in your early 20's then?
By that time I was having private tuitions, doing all kinds of odd jobs. I was able to manage and got university scholarship for doing my doctorate, so I was independent. I didn't have to depend on the family, but it also meant a break with the family except for my father. Somehow it seemed to me that my father was not involved in any of this. Very early in life he had decided that he wanted to study, so he left the land, I think roundabout, say, 1870's.
KM
He came to Calcutta, he studied at Sanskrit College, he became a professor and he got his job as Professor of Sanskrit and for 40 years he taught. When I grew up his image that remains with me was that you are surrounded on 3 sides by 3 huge walls of books into which he would withdraw leaving the whole world to my mother to run, so whatever he earned on the 1st, give the money to my mother and let it run. So I never really asked father anything about our needs. The only time I'd go to my father, it would be for my studies, and a large part of the Sanskrit that I acquired was really oral, not written. My father used to get up at 4 in the morning and then for an hour he would be chanting various Vedic hymns and without understanding a single word I memorized them because I listened to them everyday half awake and half asleep, I use to sleep with my father. So they still remain in my mind, those, all those Vedic songs though now I only half guessed their meaning, I don't know about Vedic Sanskrit. It was an interesting kind of influence.
KM
How about the religious aspect of life? I mean your father was obviously a believing man.
He gave me a model, you know, on kind of a...a certain model of detachment and also in a way that books knowledge they can give you a certain kind of experience which nothing else could give. So it was worth sacrificing everything for that. Now this is a rare, rare thing. I have dedicated one of my books to my father in which I have said to my father who left me nothing except an example. By the time he died he was quite old, he died over 92 so he had retired and the college had very generously given him a pension of Rs. 50 a month. This was during the period of the war, partition and independence. Rs. 50 would not have given the rent of half a room, so terrible life.
KM
Fortunately his last years were spent with me and my wife but I never heard him complain about this. There were interesting stories from my childhood, you know this undergarment was not in use in those days, so my father use to wear a dhoti and this short kurta and with a heavy big book in his arm he would go to college. He never rode a bus or a tram or a rickshaw. He always walked from our home to college. So I remember one day as he was going, my mother noticed that the back side of his dhoti was torn and so as he walked you could see the back side. So my mother asked me to call him. So I ran and said, "Mother is asking you to come back." He came back and my mother said, "Please change your dhoti. It's torn." For the first time I saw my father lose his cool. He said "Woman, you know you made me late for my class". So it left a deep mark on my mind
KM
Is that a model that you very self consciously followed from your youth or is that something in retrospect that you have seen his impact on you?
That's a part of me. What I mean is that there are so many other things have happened in my thinking. I have been exposed to other influences, other people, but this is the best starting point. Normally in Bengali families, the mother has a very deep influence on children. I have examined my own character as far as I could do and I don't see my mother's influence. The starting influence is my father's. The second influence is my sister's. She is still alive. She is about 6 years older than me, and I remember what she taught me was something else, different from my father.
KM
My father gave me a taste of what you get from pursuit of knowledge that there is a kind of immortality buried in these printed books and you have to find it. My sister taught me something entirely different. Of the many, many adventures that we had once I remember when I was about 8 we were in Bhubaneswar and whole family was there and then there was an announcement that at 12 in the mid-night Jawaharlal Nehru will be passing through and give an address. My sister said "Let's go and see Nehru". I was 8. She was about 14. The house has been asleep so she put the pillow in such a way people will think we are sleeping and lit our kerosene lamp. We went about a mile and then Jawaharlal spoke in Urdu and the president translated this in Oriya so we didn't understand a single word. We came back at 1 and we were not found out. But it was a great experience for us, this going in the middle of the night, seeing this man. So she taught me this kind of courage.
KM
Years afterwards when I was in the college, she was great friend and admirer of Dilip Kumar Roy who was a great, great musician and singer. So there was a soiree one evening, and she had been invited. So she said, "Would you like to come?" I said, "Yes but how about mother?" "We are not going to tell her." So our dinner was about 8:30 or so. By 9 it was all over. We surreptitiously left the house, went to the soiree. At 2:30 Dilip Kumar said, "Gauri, how will you go home? Let me reach you home." So he took us in his car, but we were afraid to reach home with him not knowing what was waiting for us at home. So we showed a different house and said, "This is our house". He left, so when we went there my mother was ready and of course very angry and she said, "You, my daughter, you yourself have become a rotten woman and now you are spoiling your young brother. If you want to stay outside, stay outside, leave him alone."
KM
So I was... I started crying and I cried in bed. After half an hour my sister came into my room and she kept touching all my body and said, "Did something I did break a bone or something?" I said, "No." So she said, "Why are you crying? I said, "Mother said all kind of ugly things. You brought me disgrace." She said, "Didn't you enjoy it?" I said "Yes." "So what's mean? Words are words. They are like rain just standing in the way wash your body and then go but the music will remain inside you." So I learned from my sister to do what I think is right irrespective of what people said. So these are my two earliest teachers in life, my father and my sister. Then of course I discovered other people who were not personal. I discovered the Birla Library and got totally immersed in Karl Marx. I filled 20 notebooks making notes on Marxist writings. Then I discovered Freud [Sigmund Freud]. Then I discovered Russell [Bertrand Russell].
KM
Do you remember where you begin with...where you began with Marx, which essays first?
No, no I always read The Communist Manifesto and then of course as I grew maturer, began to understand his ideas a little more, then I went in to Anti-Duhring then I went into the critique of capitalist economy [Capital: A Critique of Political Economy] and then Capital and of course the studies were never ended. I have kept on reading Marx to the present day. In fact even after I rejected many of his ideas, even then I continue reading him. Even now I do, I mean even 5 years ago I have written on him. But...it let me say what I think is valuable in Marx, and what I think is simply nonsense...it has no connection to reality.
KM
But in any case Marx was a great influence in my life and so the first book that I wrote, it was in fact my Master's thesis, it was a study on literal decadence and it was written from what you would call a Marxist point of view of cultures related to society and how England entered the period of decay after the First World War, and it was now disintegrating. It was producing the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Pound [Ezra Pound] and Auden [W.H. Auden] and Spender [Stephen Spender] and so on which was a declaration of decay and that was the theme. Now when the book was published, in the preface I said that it's a pity that now the book is written and then printed I seem to have outgrown the ideas which are in this book. After that, 3-4 years later I had all kinds of experiences during that period. First time I didn't live with my family I lived by myself, I travelled.
KM
This is during your college years? Or this is after your masters?
This was during the war.
KM
During the war. The first -- Second World War.
Second World War, yeah. And then in '46 I was to go abroad. I got a scholarship to London School of Economics and my friends, many of them who were followers of M N Roy, they asked, "Will you come to the summer camp?"
KM
And I went there in a belief that Roy will remember me and will be able to give me introductions in Europe and then I stayed on, it was a 10 day camp. And I got involved in discussions, I spoke, I argued and somehow it seems I left a deep impression on Roy. So when camp was over M N said, "Can you stay on and spend a week with us?" So I went there and stayed with them in Dehradun and then Roy said "Why don't you sit down and write what you said in the camp?" And so furiously each morning after breakfast, not even breakfast, after tea in fact I started writing. Then in the evenings I would read out what I have written to Roy and he will make his comments and that's how roughly within 10 days my second book was written. It's called Radicalism. It was recently re-printed, and then Roy said, "Why do you want to go abroad?" So I said, "Partly out of curiosity but also because I want a doctorate because I want to be in the teaching profession."
KM
And he said, "But have you seen India? Have you seen how people live in India? What are their problems?" I said, "No, I was completely...I was absorbed among books and mostly European books, I had little interest in India." So he said, "Give me a year and I will send you to different parts of India and then if you still feel you must go, then you go." It was more easily said than done because if I refused that scholarship, well, there was a provision that the money had to be paid but I got involved and for the next 10 years, not 10, 8 years, I worked fulltime with Roy.
KM
Before we move into the...that phase of your 8 years with Roy, I just wanted to return to the masters period and the pre-masters period. Can you recall for me your experiences in college? Where did you go to college?
City College but I did my MA in the university[Calcutta University], post-graduate from the university...
KM
Yes.
...and I have written about that period in the university period. I had, in fact, three friends. We were called the four musketeers. It's an interesting thing that I didn't have a Bengali friend. One of them was from Punjab, the first one. He is still alive and he is now very, very successful businessman, billionaire. The second one was from Gorakhpur. He was very brilliant. He got a First Class First in Philosophy and First Class First in Economics.
KM
The third was from Bihar. He became a professor of philosophy and I was the fourth. So we were from different parts of India, and we were studying different disciplines. The man from Punjab, he was studying business management. The man from UP was studying economics, the man from Bihar was studying philosophy, and I was studying English. But I don't know how the four of us became such fast friends that we were almost inseparables, and I think we profited very much from each other.
KM
Did your family, your father or mother did they...what did they think of your choice to do English as your first degree?
No, not really, not really, my parents, my father had no views on this at all but mother and my other relatives wanted me to go in for the ICS [Indian Civil Service] and I had decided very early in life that I will never serve the government, I will never take a government job. So that was all. So next best thing is to teach, and I said I am going to teach in by and by but before that let me see bit of life and so I was doing all kind of things. I worked for sometime in trade unions, I worked for sometime in a village as a...just unpaid village schoolteacher. This I did in the 40's, in the years of war, and this was sampling things, but then it was Roy, but all the time my main interest of course was literature, and I wanted to be a literary man, to be a writer, but not living by writing. Writing for me would be something I enjoy. Teaching would be the one from which I earn a living.
KM
This was not my plan but then I said I got caught into this Roy, and next 8 years more or less was gone first of all developing his ideas from early Marxism into Radical Humanism. I think I had a big share in that development.
KM
Now how were the notions of first Swadeshi or the Swadeshists, second, Vivekananda. How were these two almost cultural icons, working either for you or not for you, were they at all present in your mind in 1930's and 40's?
No, no, no. I was never attracted to Swadeshi and I was never attracted to Vivekananda. Roy was.
KM
Roy when he was young, he was obviously very strongly attracted to Swadeshi and Vivekananda had a formidable influence on him and this continued I think till he went to Mexico. This is where he first discovered Marx and then his ideas changed as one can see from his...he wrote four books in Spanish. The first book is very conventional kind of book but the third is a large, bigger book. There he was very critical of Vivekananda and Aurobindo, and generally of religion and so on, mixing religion and politics, and one of the most interesting things about his writings in the Spanish was the first book was India Past, Present and Future and in that he spoke very highly of the Muslims, which was rather unusual for a Hindu Brahmin to do and his book would list achievements of Muslims in administration, in economics, how the karkhanas developed, and how the British came and destroyed whatever schemes and networks and so on. So there was I think throughout his life this striking thing about him, his appreciation of Islam.
KM
And also in your, an autobiographical piece that I have read that you wrote you mentioned the trauma of 1926-27 with the Muslim riots. Now what was your awareness of the problem of the Muslims in Calcutta?
No this is the reason, in jail, he wrote his book The Historical Role of Islam. His notion was that the problem in India was that the Hindus had turned their eyes to the great achievements of Muslims, the fact that Muslims had a glorious period roughly from 8th century to 12th century when they were the bridge between the classical and modern world. Now the Hindus are absolutely unaware of this. They saw Muslims either as invaders or as low-caste peasants who were converted Islam. So either they're enemies or they're despised. So his task was to develop in the Hindu mind some appreciation, respect for Islam.
KM
Secondly he wanted the Muslims themselves not to become prisoners but rediscover their heritage. They had once built a great rationalism, brotherhood and so on and jihad did not mean simply fighting and plundering but it also meant compassion, understanding, persuading, tolerance. So it was a two-fold appeal, and I think this was what was happening in Calcutta. It started when he wrote in his journal one year that this gulf that is growing between the two communities because of their deliberate unwillingness to recognize what was good in the other was on the rise. That this only man who tried to break through this was C R Das [Chittaranjan Das], and Roy was hoping at that time that Das would provide that transition which India needed. Unfortunately Das died in '25 so that was a very big loss, for Roy had pinned a great deal of hope on him.
KM
When you were a college man before you met Roy, were there professors that you encountered who had the same kind of open perspective that would speak about the Hindu-Muslim problem or about the problem of the peasants or about questions of social justice, were there any?
There were, there were, there were, Marxists among my professors...
KM
Can you remember names?
...but the problem was that there was hardly a Muslim among them. The only two Muslims I personally came to know during my young years, know very well. One was my professor Humayun Kabir who later on became the education minister and so on. Kabir was a professor in the University of Calcutta and he taught Kant [Immanuel Kant]. He was a professor of philosophy and I regularly attended his class and he was a very good friend of M N Roy, so I knew him quite well. And other was Abu Syed Ayub who was not a Bengali but learned Bengali because he wanted to study Tagore [Rabindranath Tagore] in the original, and became a very great cultural figure in Bengal's public life. So these are the only two Muslims I remember who acquired some kind of prominence in the intellectual world of Bengal. Later on I noticed that Roy had founded the Communist Party in Tashkent mainly with the Muslims and in India his first convert was Muzzafar Ahmed, a Muslim.
KM
And then in the Radical Democratic Party there were quite a few Muslims. So in a way he was trying to draw Muslims into -- because in his mind there is no hostility toward Islam and I apparently will say that Jinnah [M.A. Jinnah] told him that if all Hindus were like you there will be no Partition of India at all. But the most of the Hindus were simply not tolerant. Somebody like, say, Nehru [Jawaharlal Nehru] or Motilal [Motilal Nehru] was just dismissed as a nobody and they have had to pay a very heavy price for that.
KM
You have also mentioned in the autobiographical sketch that after you met Roy you would often also meet him when he would come to Calcutta, because he would come from Dehradun to Calcutta during the cold season. And in those times he would meet particularly with Sudhindranath Dutta and with Ayub.
KM
So can you now, now let's enter that kind of phase, that 8 years phase before you went abroad. Can you speak about your exchanges with Roy, with Sudhindranath Dutta, with Ayub and others that come to your mind from this movement?
My, my, my own impression as I have written in my biography of Roy that in India the closest thing to friendship that Roy had was with Sudhin. On the one hand he was surrounded by the disciples with whom he could hardly share his intellectual problems. They expected only answers. Some of them were very bright like Tarkunde [V.M. Tarkunde], Parikh [G.D. Parikh] and others. None of them were really intellectually his comrades but actually, kind of people thought that I was Roy's son because my name was also Roy but because when I was in Calcutta I was nearly 18 hours with him and it was not unusual for people to think I was possibly his son,
KM
but wherever he went I was present throughout these long sessions with Sudhin. And the wide range of things and nothing with politics. I mean they would discuss about the origin of Man, the dispersal of the... whether it was autochthonous, whether there were different places where Homo Sapiens appeared, they would discuss about problems of elite formation, problems of intellectuals, Rolland [Romain Rolland], social change, natural revolution, their takes on dictatorship, they would talk the growth of capital, all kinds of wide variety so that they hardly ever talk about poetry. Sudhin was a great poet. The interesting part was Sudhin never brought poetry in his discussions with Roy and Roy had no great interest in poetry. It was another point where Roy and I often disagreed, but leaving poetry aside the range of discussions was very wide and sometime they will sit on till 1 or 2 in the night, very exciting discussions.
KM
What was your role in these discussions? Did you ever engage or were you listening?
My role was really of a listener. I was too young. You see Roy was 37 years older than me and Sudhin was 20 years older than me. So although they both treated me with a lot of love and respect I never liked to butt in when I knew that I was really no equal to them. I might have read their insight but nonetheless their insight and experience was much better than mine. I had never been abroad, I had not met other people. So I was really...once in a while I will pop a question but very humbly not with criticism and only when I was alone with Roy in Dehradun that I would often have very serious arguments and then Ellen [Ellen Gottschalk] would intervene so that it did not become bitter but not in the presence of others.
KM
Can you tell me a little more about Sudhindranath Dutta? He has been spoken about in some historical accounts as somewhat of an elite figure put into contrast with Manik Bandopadhyay or Samar Sen, Samar Sen as being more of the elite Marxist variety, and that's sometimes said in a kind of negative way, and also M N Roy is sometimes presented as the elite Marxist. How would you characterize their way of life, their habitus and you know...?
You know Sudhin Dutta's father was a famous vedantist. He was also a friend of my father, Sudhin Dutta's father, and for a little while he also taught in City College, but he was an attorney, and he earned enough for Sudhin never to really earn because they earned enough apparently. Sudhin's marriage was a failure, the first marriage.
KM
hey never divorced but by the time I came to know Sudhin he was married to a Punjabi girl Rajeshwari who would sing Tagore songs and was educated in Santiniketan, was a Punjabi. But I learned later that Sudhin had promised not to see his first wife before he could marry Rajeshwari, a promise I learned long, long afterwards he could not keep. Towards the end of his life Buddhadeb's [Buddhadeb Basu] wife tells me -- Buddhadeb's wife Pratibha used to share the house here, and when I eventually came to Santiniketan almost every evening I used to go to her for all these old stories about writers. So she said that very late in life Sudhin used to go to the lake in the south and there meet his first wife and they would sit together, talk. Those were my favorite. She would not marry again. She died, she died after Sudhin and when Sudhin died she came there and people saw her for the first time because she never made any claim, but in Sudhin's will he left half his property to his wife, the other to his second wife.
KM
But Sudhin knew half a dozen languages because at that point of his meeting with Roy, that Roy was polyglot and so was Sudhin so it was easy for them to make references to many things that most other people not even know, a book in Spanish, or a book in Italian or a book in French or a book in German. So Sudhin did not know Russian but he knew several languages. Rajeshwari also knew Italian very well. So in their house when they sat whether it was in Sudhin's house or Susin Dey's house, Susin Dey was usually Roy's host in Calcutta, so the discussions will go on. Now Sudhin to us was a great poet. I imagined no end as a poet and my own literary career started in his own journal Parichay. In fact it was in the same year when Sudhin handed the work to the communists. You see Sudhin could run that paper Parichay which was one of the best papers in the language because all the loss was made by his father.
KM
So when his father died he suddenly knew he could not meet all this. He wanted in first place to give it over to some other people but the communists were anxious to take it because it was a great prestige, and so his co-editor Hiranya Sanyal, he took over as editor. It was at this point that I came to know Sudhin, that is in '42 after I had just done my masters.
KM
Before you had met Roy?
Yes just as I had finished my masters, a part of my thesis I wrote in Bengali and I brought it to Sudhin.