The home of Siddhartha Shankar Ray in Kolkata is a history aficionado's delight. There is that magic about it one associates with enlightened aristocracy. On a more elevated level, the home is redolent of the intellectualism which once so profoundly defined the world of politics and culture in India and specifically in Bengal. Ray's politics, always associated with the Indian National Congress, drew its admirers as well as detractors, which is just as well. It is his career which remains symbolic of the character of the man. He served as a minister in the government of Indira Gandhi, was in office as chief minister of West Bengal and then served as Indian ambassador to the United States.
The intellectual in Ray certainly had a whole lot to do with his family background. Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das was his maternal grandfather, which explains the strong political roots which defined his personality. His home in Kolkata is unadulterated proof of the profundity which defined his life right till the end. He was, in line with his background, a deeply well-read man. A voracious reader, he was clearly into reading not just about the law and politics, but seems to have saturated himself with studies of literature and history.
His books, well preserved in the glass-fronted shelves in his sitting room and elsewhere in the house by his niece Ilina Chanda, convey the very powerful impression, as you step into the room, of the man being present in all his gigantic form, metaphorically as well as physically, waiting for his visitor. Those books all have his touch and as with all great men who have been avid readers, it is obvious Siddhartha Shankar Ray deeply immersed himself in the books he collected throughout an eventful life. You want to take one of the books in hand, to feel the pages the way they must have felt when Ray turned them as he sat reading in the evening or in his moments of intellectual inquiry.
But then, it does not seem proper to touch treasure which remains a memorial to illustrious men. You quickly discard the thought, for there is no more that desire in you to have your hand or your moving fingers go over the very spots where these famous owners of books and reputed political figures must have let their hands and fingers rove in the intensity of delight. Touching Ray's books, or having them drawn out of that huge collection, would in essence be sacrilege, a certain degree of defilement as it were. It is then for the visitor to remain content observing the titles, indeed the vast landscape of writing traversed years ago by an individual who once was and does not anymore exist in the world of the living.
There is a work on Mountbatten for you and a few paces away a collection of Maugham's plays. Oscar Wilde and John Grisham are neighbours. At not a great distance is Bill Clinton's memoirs, and then you are struck by a work interestingly titled as Beethoven and His Nephew. A work on JFK peers at you from a corner. Estranged Democracies sets you thinking and so does Istanbul Intrigues. The work Timing the De-escalation of International Conflicts gives one a rather good idea of the seriousness that Ray brought into his studies of diplomacy. Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette provokes the question: How did Ray view the Terror which came in the wake of the French Revolution?
On the walls are images which float out of the past. There is Union Minister Ray between Indira Gandhi and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Delhi on 10 January 1972. And then there is Indian Ambassador Ray in conversation with Hillary Clinton, the photograph autographed by the latter. On another wall is a large sketch of Deshbandhu, the leader who died too early and too young in 1925. Siddhartha Shankar Ray's office on the ground floor somehow arouses that certain feeling in you that he might step in any moment and take you by surprise as you study the thick volumes on law outlined against the walls.
The room is the way it was in his lifetime, the diversity of objects, of bric-a-brac, on the table a reflection of the aesthetic sense of the politician, the high window behind the chair he sat on a symbol of eloquent architecture that is fast fading away in these more banal of times. But, of course, architectural aesthetics is a definition of the home itself. Timelessness underpins it, to a point where you transport yourself back to the 1930s or 1940s or 1950s. With Kolkata being emblematic of heritage and Bengali culture, Ray's home on Beltola Road is an unvarnished reflection of tradition which has remained beyond the grasping hands of crass mediocrity.
You walk through the rooms. You observe the collections of the bibliophile. You imagine him sitting at his desk in his office. You feel the breeze, as you marvel at the beauty of the ambience, playing across the lawn. You feel the presence of Siddhartha Shankar Ray, as late evening gives way to early night.
And then you make your way home, through the forever waking streets of history-drenched Kolkata, thoughts of bygone glory and present beauty rippling out in the cool waters of your imagination.
Leave a Comment
If you stumbled on the scene too late, you might have missed him there ...
Climate Crisis is one of the most vogue crises people are facing in th ...