Pather Panchali Summary
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Indian-Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay published Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) in 1929. It follows a family’s quest to better their lives by moving from an impoverished Bengal region to the larger city of Kashi/Varanasi in more central-north India. It takes place in regions that were once considered India, but are now East Pakistan and Bangladesh. The autobiographical tale was adapted for film in 1955 with the directorial debut of Satyajit Ray, who would become one of India’s most prominent movie makers; the movie is often considered to be India’s equivalent of Casablanca (1943).
Themes in Song of the Little Road include the political determination of the domestic sphere, identity formation, and the maintenance of dignity. The novel remains a classic of Indian literature for its depiction of how social and political upheaval can determine individual character. Originally written in Bengali, the novel is narrated by the youngest boy of the family, Apu. The novel has three parts, divided into each major stage of the family’s journey.
The novel opens with the Roy family living in the poor village of Nischindpur, Bengal. The family is headed by Harihar Roy, a Brahmin priest who struggles to provide for his family, as he has poor business skills; he keeps hoping that he’ll make a living as a poet and scholar. In the past, his family made their keep by performing religious rites for “clients.” Technically, the profession didn’t pay, but the family received gifts, such as fruits, grain, and (on occasion) rupees.
Harihar’s wife’s name is Sarbajaya, and he has two children, Apu and Durga. They live with a seventy-five-year-old grandmother named Indir Thakrun who spends much of her time complaining about the better, earlier years when the family held much material wealth, not only some diminishing social prestige. Sarbajaya and Indir frequently clash, and after one major fight, Sarbajaya forces Indir to leave the house, which Indir does, dying soon after.
Though the family is Brahmin, the highest rank possible in the caste system, much of the novel centers on Harihar trying to provide a stable upbringing for his family. The family has lost much prestige since the British have lost political power in the region and social reform movements in the 1930s demand a more democratic society. Throughout the novel, the main characters attempt to appear dignified even while they are gradually stripped of material wealth or social respect.
Because Harihar is such a dreamer, the day to day matters of running a family are dependent on Sarbajaya. She does this without asking relatives for money or succumbing to low self-esteem. Her pride against asking for help will inadvertently lead to the death of her daughter.
Though the family is visibly poor, Apu and Durga have a great time growing up. Nischindpur in Sanskrit translates to “Land of the carefree.” The brother and sister love watching rabbits and birds, playing in rivers, and climbing trees. They grow up to be close. Durga teaches Apu the names of every plant and tree. When they are forbidden from entering their wealthy cousin’s fruit gardens, they strike out by themselves to explore the wild forest regions.
Apu admires Durga’s energy and free-spirit, despite all the social obstacles she faces. Apu’s character is more like his father. He loves books and writing poems, and listens with great rapture to his Sarabajaya read the epic Mahabharata. He starts school in an impoverished setting; his teacher also works at the local grocery store. Despite this, he proves himself to be a fast learner. Unlike his sister, Apu is very shy.
Durga, the eldest daughter, has less reason to be carefree than Apu. Durga doesn’t receive an education because the family figures she’ll just be married off one day. She also has to manage thrice as many chores as Apu, and unlike him, she never gets away with slackening off. Once, when Durga steals sweets from a neighbor and is caught, her mother, Sarbajaya, publically flogs her daughter. Durga’s integrity is effectively destroyed by this public humiliation, but Sarbajaya feels more comfortable having proven the point that she personally did not approve the theft and, unlike her daughter, is a good person.
Harihar begins life as an itinerant scholar, believing he can make more money that way.
He doesn’t, and the family becomes poorer. They also have to deal with a major hurricane. When Durga becomes fatally ill as a result of the storm, the village lacks medical supplies to help her. Sarbajaya refuses to ask their rich, snooty relatives for help. Their hut begins to leak with rainwater. Durga, agonized with pain and a high fever (yet uncomplaining), dies. Her dying wish is to see a train.
Shortly after Durga dies, Harihar finds a job as a private priest for a wealthy family. He returns to the village to share the good news with his family. He has presents for both of his children.
When he sees Sarbajaya, she breaks down. They all agree to leave the village to forget their life there. Apu has a tough time with leaving, however, because it feels as if he’s leaving Durga.
Song of the Little Road closes with the remaining family members boarding a train for the holy city of Kashi. They all believe they’ll have a better future in Kashi, but Apu keeps thinking of his sister’s dying wish to travel on a train one day.
There’s something cool, even implicative and spooky about being named after a girl in a movie. Something sort of unforced, like a quirk I get to keep but was uninvolved in forming. It’s as though my love of film predates me, is beyond my control, and here I am, the product not just of my parents but also of their taste. Because the Durga I’m named after is the Durga in Pather Panchali (1955)—the first installment in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, and one of the greatest films ever made.
I’ve always felt connected to this character, the mischievous young girl with a sweet tooth who steals her neighbor’s fruit and is kind when no one else is to her old, hunched-over auntie. But since watching the movie again last month, I’ve wondered whether I was named after the character or, rather, Uma Das Gupta’s cautiously expressive portrayal of her. It’s easy to conflate the two, since Das Gupta never appeared in another film, and Pather Panchali’s realist qualities often lead you to think you are watching a documentary. But this time around, I was struck by the careful artistry that went into her performance.
Headstrong and completely unbothered by what people might say, Durga lives in a rural Bengal village with her mother, Sarbajaya, a woman whose nagging instinct to care means she appears near-creased with worry. Durga’s father, Harihar, a Brahman priest struggling to provide for his family, is easygoing to a fault. His outlook or, at the very least, his confidence feels out of sync with his wife’s fraught manner.
For most of Pather Panchali, we experience Durga in her role as older sister to her younger brother, Apu. She is his compass: the first face he sees when he wakes up in the morning, the hand that slaps him when he borrows tinsel from her toy box without asking, the tongue that sticks out and makes him smile. They provide for each other a sense of belonging, an affinity that only siblings share. Durga seems not just powerful but prepared for anything while Apu is drawn to whatever he can push through a crowd and get up-close to. His sister’s affections are revealed by how gently she levers open the world for him. She shows him how it’s possible to marvel not only at rain and trains but also at the calm that anticipates the rain and the before-rumble that says: here comes pure speed cutting through a kaash field, leaving us behind.
Each frame in the film reflects a seemingly shared state of mind of the very young and the very old—innocence that grabs a hold, understanding that doesn’t make too much of itself. Long stretches of wordlessness—as when the two children are trailed by a trotting dog, their mini-convoy reflected upside down in a river—create an environment in which the characters are not contriving anything. They live. They do. They are. Ray illustrates how the young, who are new to the world and are still feeling around its edges, and the elderly, who have long since come to terms with its limitations, understand and appreciate life in a more immediate way.
It doesn’t surprise me that when it came time to shoot, Ray, who spent years working in graphic design as an art director at a Calcutta ad agency before venturing into film, did not rely on a script. He’d prepared sketches in black ink, and the dialogue was stored in his head. The characters’ actions occasionally look like stains on a page. One sketch of Apu and Durga standing between two towering trees captures their smallness surrounded by nature’s great big shelter. Another shows them racing into the frame from the bottom right corner, the sky tarnished with dark, imposing clouds. Ray’s sketches are more than mere concepts; they look like how a great film feels long after you’ve left the theater: just shadows, joy. The lack of a script seems to anticipate the audience’s reaction: at a loss for words.
Das Gupta’s performance haunts, and not just because of the tragedies that befall her character. It’s so much more than that. While Durga doesn’t overwhelm the screen, the way she grins kindly at Apu, or holds his chin while combing his wet hair, or dances freely during a monsoon—these movements of a girl—fine-tune the film. Her mischief is significant to its rhythm. Her attitude is never withdrawn, though her secret wants and her hesitations, like the way in which she doesn’t readily join the other girls, are Pather Panchali’s most memorable tensions.
When Durga is chewing sugarcane or staring off—never at some random middle distance, but far off, with a specific target—she is not just Durga but a cowboy. Huck Finn. A groundskeeper. Wendy showing her Lost Boys the way. In the role, Das Gupta is nothing like the girl who showed up to her audition for Ray wearing pearls.
Sticking her tongue out, as Durga does throughout the film, makes Das Gupta look just a little mad. Like a girl who isn’t necessarily crazy but has perhaps wisely chosen to abstain from conforming to what’s expected. I’ve only ever seen Gena Rowlands, in A Woman Under the Influence, stick out her tongue like that. It’s funny. Strange.
Das Gupta’s keen portrayal, which channels Ray’s gift for close observation, has everything to do with seeing without being seen. She crouches, climbs, and ducks under. She peers inside, looks both ways; she listens before she looks. Durga can fold herself into a ball or just as quickly unfold herself and race ahead. Some bodies betray their private hectic, and Durga’s rattling ingeniousness—seen in the relationship she nurtures with her auntie and the games she imagines for Apu—is what makes Das Gupta’s performance not just moving but connective. She romances you.
Late in Pather Panchali, she gazes at her reflection in a mirror, and it’s the first time we watch Durga perceive herself, studying the round elegance of her face and the heavy fall of her hair. She paints thick kajal under her eyes, and it’s only here that we are more formally introduced to her. Durga looks susceptible and we feel it, and it becomes infinitely clear, if it wasn’t already, that Das Gupta has been carrying the film forward, maintaining its force with her small frame.
Ray’s definition of a star as someone on-screen “who continues to be expressive and interesting even after he or she has stopped doing anything” applies so acutely to Das Gupta’s regenerative qualities. Her presence is somehow transformed even after her character is gone. Her willingness and kindness, her cheeks that wonderfully refuse gloom—all of these qualities persist in the landscape of the film.
Because there she is—even if she isn’t—beside Apu, following him to the pond. There she is—plop!—the necklace he tosses into the water. There she is—the pond weeds—opening and closing around the necklace as it sinks, as if swallowing her secret, protecting her name.
Durga is the water-skaters, the dragonflies, the lilies. Durga is the train passing through the kaash field; she is the show of black smoke that lingers in its wake. She is the leftovers of a family forced to move on, the home once the home is no more. She is also there with Apu, a boy no longer in possession of his compass but equipped instead with a stare that is already wiser. Apu continues, alone but not exactly, because there she is. Look.
Durga Chew-Bose is a writer currently based in Brooklyn. Her debut collection of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is out now.