How was life in your growing years?
Nothing really to do with India, oddly enough. My strongest interest as a child was in science—especially electronics and the collection of rocks and minerals. The interest in electronics was undoubtedly stimulated by my father who was a very fine experimental physicist at Oxford University. He used to design electronic circuits for me when I was, maybe, seven or eight years old, and then help me to build them. In those days, we were still using valves, as well as transistors. So the valve designs used 240V power supplies — not too safe for a boy without any experience… I have fond memories of happy afternoons in my father's university laboratory workshop at the weekend with no one else around—just him and me.
Rock and mineral and fossil collecting I did more on my own. I had a large rock collection and some of the best specimens came from the United States, where I spent a year in the mid-1960s. Of course, I also read a lot (including Jim Corbett's fascinating The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag.)
How did you land up at the School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) after reading Chemistry at Oxford? Did the study of the Orient lead you to India?
By 1984, I was beginning serious research on my biography of Satyajit Ray. I felt I needed some background in modern Indian culture and history. Since I was living in London, SOAS seemed the obvious place to go. To be honest, I don't think I learnt very much at SOAS from the teaching but just studying there encouraged me to read plenty on India; I also studied some Bengali with one of the lecturers, which proved moderately helpful.
I went to India in 1975 purely for an adventure, after leaving school also to teach science to young children at the Lawrence School, Sanawar, in Himachal Pradesh, for one term. I must say, I knew very little about the country, its history or its culture before this first visit. I had no family connection with India, but I had come across one or two bright Indian scientists who were studying at Oxford with my father and others. I also had a school friend who was of Indian origin, who is now quite a well-known writer.
Your relationship with Satyajit Ray was undeniably extraordinary. What according to you would have contributed to this special chemistry?
It's not easy to explain why Satyajit Ray and I 'clicked' on first meeting in London in 1982, but we did, for which I shall always be grateful. I suppose any artist who comes across someone with deep admiration for his work is likely to be sympathetic to that person. No doubt Ray sensed my love of his films, and the fact that I already knew quite a lot about them, starting with The Chess Players, which I saw at the premiere at the London Film Festival in 1977: a wonderful, life-changing experience, with Ray present on stage, speaking mellifluously.
One of the greatest inspirations in Ray’s life, one presumes, would have been his gifted, unassuming father. Did Ray ever speak to you about Sukumar Ray?
I am sure Sukumar Ray was a great inspiration to him, but Ray didn't speak too much about him to me, though he was pleased when I got hold of a photocopy of his father's essay on Tagore, written in England in 1912. The title page appears in Ray's 1987 documentary on his father. He also signed for me a published copy of his English translations of his father's nonsense verse, which is one of my prized possessions.
You have been very forthright in voicing which of Ray’s films mesmerize you and which don’t? Could you recall a few from either side of the spectrum?
Well, the ones that I shall continue to watch—which is surely the greatest compliment one can pay to a film-maker--are: the Apu Trilogy, The Music Room, The Goddess, The Postmaster, Charulata, The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, Days and Nights in the Forest, The Adversary, The Chess Players, Pikoo, Branches of the Tree and The Stranger. But I can well imagine revisiting some of the others, too—such as Tulsi Chakravarty in The Philosopher's Stone, for his wonderfully mobile face, and also the black comedy about corruption in The Middle Man, with that interview between Rabi Ghosh as the ruthless PRO dissecting the dreams of an innocent and not-too-bright young college graduate.
There are a few Ray films I probably won't bother watching again—such as The Expedition (Abhijan) and The Kingdom of Diamonds (Hirak Rajar Deshe)--but then again, I might some day! As I've said elsewhere, none of Ray's films is a dud—each one has something worth cherishing. That's very rare indeed in a film-maker.
Christopher Fowler says in his tribute to your book on Ray “The problem with Ray is that no single frame can capture the haunting heart of his cinema” Ray’s defining trait is largely seen as his problem. Could this be why public veneration for Ray is blurred at best and bloated at worst?
In India, I think the first problem with Ray's films is that they are not shown enough, and most of the DVD copies are not of good quality. So they are not well enough known. Secondly, they are in Bengali (mostly), which limits their appeal inevitably. Thirdly, public taste has been corrupted by Bollywood films, which have become worse and worse in recent decades. Also, many Indians probably think Ray is somehow old-fashioned, mainly about poverty (which is of course nonsense, if you consider his films as a whole), with nothing to say to the 'new' India of the past two decades. Furthermore, of course, he is a subtle and moral artist, which means you have to be fairly subtle and responsive to human values, not just to politics and economics, to be able to relish his films. But it's a bit of a tragedy for India that India's greatest artist of the past half century or so is, by and large, neglected.
In 2004, you rightly noted “In the future, there is a definite risk that Ray’s work, except for the Apu trilogy, will become trapped in an eddy by the very breadth and uniqueness of its creator’s range of eastern and western references” How do your foresee the scenario going forward?
Sadly, I am not very optimistic even today. In India, perhaps the best thing to happen with Ray's films would be for some enterprising producer to persuade the Ray admirers among leading Indian artists to introduce his works on TV. For example lyricist Javed Akhtar could speak about The Middle Man, director Adoor Gopalakrishnan could introduce Pather Panchali; actress Sharmila Tagore could introduce The World of Apu and superstar Amitabh Bachchan could speak about The Chess Players. In the rest of the world, the situation is better in comparison, but I'm afraid that Ray's cosmopolitanism goes against him. People respond to some aspects of his films, but miss the cultural richness of his work, because there is simply no other Indian artist with his phenomenal range (certainly in the cinema).
How was the experience working with Ray, editing three of his screenplays? Didn’t you ever wish to turn a filmmaker yourself?
The draft screenplays were all available in English, so it was easy enough. Ray was a bit nervous about 'The Alien' screenplay, given the fact that it had been plagiarized in Hollywood. As for my film making ambition, I did once work in television, but I don't have the personality for film-making; and anyway I prefer to write books.
Which among your books leave you the most satisfied as a writer and biographer?
Because I work in three rather different fields—Indian culture; archaeology and scripts; and science and the history of science—it's a bit difficult for me to compare my books. My biography of Ray is my best book on India; my biography of Michael Ventris, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, is my favorite in that field; and my biography on Einstein, A Hundred Years of Relativity, is the science/history of science book that worked best, though it is not especially original. But I am fond of some of the other books too, such as The Last Man Who Knew Everything, a biography of the polymath Thomas Young.
Tell us about your forthcoming book on the history of India. Given your non-conformism, this surely would be much more than a historical account.
I've only just finished writing it. It covers four millennia, and stresses culture and ideas more than the rise and fall of empires. I've tried to connect the ancient past with the issues that govern modern India, so that the past comes alive. Like the debate on the language of the Indus Valley civilization and the Aryans or the reasons for the advent, disappearance and subsequent revival of Buddhism in India. On the whole, I conclude that Indians would benefit from being more curious and more critical about their own history. Not surprisingly, in addition to many other Indians, I mention Ray from time to time!
Your books have not been translated into any of the Indian languages. That seems intriguing given your deep interest in the history and culture of the land…
Yes, it's a bit of a pity, but I guess the reason is that any Indian wanting a long book on Ray will probably know English, and I suppose the same is also true of Tagore. I can't really imagine a Bengali reading a book on Tagore that was written by a foreign writer and then translated into Bengali.