A sense of community

Amal Chatterjee
11 min readAug 6, 2020

Source : Google photo of the Amish people building a barn together

Synopsis : The village people in rural Bengal , India are shown in graphic detail in the movie called Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray. The focus is on the poverty and the daily issues that the poverty brings out in them that leaves many questions unanswered. The blog looks at the greater implications of a caste ridden society where people are not equally treated. The anger and the frustration that comes with it translate into crude and vulgar words that create tension in their village life but the Africans show the way how people can live together in communal harmony and peace.

I was recently watching the movie called Pather panchali ( Song of the road )by Satyajit Ray and was very impressed by his true depiction of rural life in Bengal in the 1950s . It won him many international awards and accolades in many film festivals including Oscar that established him as one of the greatest film directors. The movie shot in black and white and in 16 mm format would be considered primitive today in terms of technology but it was a masterpiece of film making in a true life situation using only actors and actresses who had never done any acting in their life.

Ray asked a photographer to use a borrowed 16 mm camera who had never shot a movie but turned out later to be a master cameraman under the expert direction of Ray. At first no one took Ray seriously enough to come up with the money to make the movie because they thought that such a movie would never make money because it was too graphic and artistic that the common people would not understand or enjoy but he proved them all wrong. Pather Panchaly became a worldwide sensation that proved what could be achieved on film under the direction of a true artist like Ray.

But today I started to think of the greater implications of the movie that showed utmost poverty in rural Bengal and the helplessness of the villagers who struggled day to day to feed themselves and lived in the debt trap they saw no way out of. In the movie the man struggles to find a few rupees to feed his wife and two children while the wife wonders how to get their next meal while her husband is away looking for a job.

They live in a very dilapidated house that barely shelters them from the elements, where the roof always leaks and the walls teetering on crumbling down during frequent storms and heavy monsoon rains. The graphic description of a rural village in Bengal will make you squirm in your seat if that was what Ray wanted you to experience.

It surely made me squirm but I also started to think about the reasons why such deplorable state of precarious existence prevailed in a country that was agriculturally , culturally and spiritually rich. I cannot show you the entire movie that comes in 12 parts because it has no English subtitles so I will present to you only part one of the movie here so that you can understand what I am writing about. The visuals are easy to understand even without the subtitles.

Note : If the video does not play then just click on the U tube link

Source : U tube

The movie shows the wild trees growing everywhere in the village that has no road, no running water and no electricity, no government school or health clinic. The houses are ruins that the residents are unable to fix because they have no money to fix the leaking roof and the crumbling walls. The woman does the cooking and washing while her children are asked to sweep the yard, fetch water and firewood from the forest. The children play like all children and do not mind their poverty. They are bewildered by the passing steam engine train in the distance and wonder at the humming sound of the telegraph poles to which they press their ears.

I was always intrigued by the coarse language Bengali women used and still do in rural parts as well as cities so to understand them, you only have to visit the villages or watch a movie like Pather Panchali that lays bare the meanness of the rural women toward each other. They could read and write Bengali so they were not illiterate but the poverty made them so mean to each other whom they hurt with harsh , vulgar and often cruel words.

When some men got employed after getting some education , they moved to cities to raise their families but they brought with them the same crude rural culture and language because they had nothing to replace it. They brought with them the same rituals they practiced in their villages, the same tools and utensils , the same belief system and the same way of dressing and eating because it was a part of their culture. They kept a strong connection with their rural kins and sent money to them to help them out or brought some kids to give them some education and raise them properly because their parents were unable to do so.

This connection to their roots is still maintained to some extent although it has started to be frayed around the edges. The next generation of educated people who were born and raised in the cities no longer felt any connection to their rural kins and their problems. This has led to the deterioration of the relationship that their previous generation kept going. I know it from my own experience.

When I visited the village during my childhood and even later, I sensed a feeling of alienation from the outside world because nothing there had changed 70 years after the independence, there were still no paved roads, no water, no electricity and no health clinic so people continued to live the same way they always had in a fatalistic way.

The village people were religious to their core and followed the tenets of Hinduism assiduously like praying before the holy plant Tulsi in the evening, lighting a clay lamp and blowing the conch shell so one could hear the conch blowing from different households at about the same time. They muttered prayers to their Gods and Goddesses everyday and before their meals. They celebrated Durga Pooja and numerous other such religious events to express their religiosity. They gave alms to the beggars even if they had so little themselves and they always hoped for a better life that never came.

So they lived a life full of deprivation, difficulties, uncertain future, pressing need for money for their day to day living, uncertain future for their children, worries about how to get medical help when needed etc. so they showed their vexation at the slightest excuse toward others who were slightly better off and who had a steady source of income from their farms or from their city kins. The families that were better off than others in the village often showed their scorn and contempt for their poor neighbors who were living with all their difficulties daily.

The movie shows how a woman cursed the children when they got a few fruits from her trees and accused them of stealing creating great anguish for the poor families. Such meanness and crude language was a product of the village life in Bengal or was it? Why there was no community spirit in their villages that we find in the African villages or among the Amish communities in Pennsylvania , USA ? What made the Africans or the Amish in the USA care for each other ?

If you inject another factor that defines a Hindu anywhere is the caste system that makes the matter worse. A brahmin is supposed to be of the highest caste even if he is poor so people must show him some deference. He does not work with his hands and performs rituals during the thread ceremony ( also called Baptism to make a Brahman) , performs worships and blessings during the marriage ceremony that earns him a small pittance. Often farmers pay him in kind like a sack of rice or some fish and fruits. The rich brahmins are often the land owners who get a share of the produce from the share croppers but those who do not have any land are often in difficulty to earn a living.

This caste system divides people so the higher caste people look down on lower caste people thus deciding the frame work for the social interaction that can be demeaning for the lower caste. But the Muslims and the Christians or others do not have a caste system so everyone is treated equal although some may be more equal than others because of their wealth.

The spirit of Africa :

I will post here a video of the way the African communities in West Africa (Burkina Faso) come together to build a house for their neighbor who needed a new house and the joyful way the whole community participated in making a new home. Here is a photo of African children playing together who have no toys or modern gadgets but show love and affection for each other and share whatever they have without hesitation. Please read my earlier blog called The spirit of Africa here in this context.

Source : Google photo of African children playing together to create bond of friendship

Source : U Tube video of the African spirit

In African villages, you will feel a strong sense of community where villagers always help each other by building their houses as shown in the video above , share their food and help raise the children communally. Old people keep an eye on children of others when their mothers are busy doing household chores.

If the women have some issues with their neighbors, they bring the matter to the village council to resolve. The village council decides who will cultivate which parcel of land because no one owns any land so there are no land disputes as found in India. The Africans work hard to make their land productive so everyone participates unlike in India where women just stay home and expect the men to earn a living to feed them.

In African villages people live very modestly in their mud houses but they work hard to grow their crops and raise livestock so they always have the basic food they need. Women grow their vegetable gardens near their huts and share the vegetables with their neighbors joyfully. But in Bengal villages the women depend on what they can buy from the village store or what some of their generous neighbors send them once in a while. They too can be self reliant like their African counterparts because the nature is bountiful if they only grow their own vegetable and gather the fish from the village ponds.

The Cambodian and the Vietnamese women can put anyone to shame in the way they show how to catch the fish, crabs and shrimps from their rice paddies in the most ingenuous way but the Bengali woman depends on her man.

An 18 year old girl in Cambodia builds by herself a very nice hut with the bamboo she cuts herself in the forest and the palm leaves and then shows how to make a strong bed of bamboo as well. She adds a kitchen to her hut, digs a well in the fore yard and a pit latrine all by herself using only very primitive stone tools that she makes to show how self reliant she is while the village woman in Bengal can not fix her dilapidated house and leaking roof so she suffers.

When the Amish people arrived in Pennsylvania from Europe to flee persecution there, they were poor and brought with them only their meager belongings but they worked very hard together as a community to build their homes, their barns and grew their crops to have abundant food that they shared with each other so no one went without food. They fixed the house of their neighbors for free and grew as a self sufficient community over the years. They are very religious and never use harsh words against anyone.

This is in sharp contrast to the villagers in Bengal where they lack such strong community spirit so they suffer. Their religion does not make them more compassionate and amiable toward each other that Ray shows so graphically in his movie. I know that they develop lifelong animosity toward their neighbors because of what they said or did long ago in a mean way so they hold the grudge until they die. Ray shows how a very old woman who lived with the family was meanly treated by the woman who was cross with her over silly reasons.

The neglected and scorned old woman bent with age , lifelong poverty and the humiliating shame of depending on others for few scraps of food singing her pitiful song alone in the light of a flickering oil lamp in the darkness asking the Lord to take her now will bring tears to your eyes. These are the scenes that will make you squirm. Ray zooms in his camera on her face to show how tragic her life is .

I have lived in an African village in Mali and know that their community spirit is so vibrant. They sing and work together to build a house for some one. They always took our baby daughter on their back and fed her whatever food they had. They showed love for other’s children and a very old man came to our window every morning to wake up our children whom he loved.

We were so impressed by the clean and simple houses of the Amish people.Their well behaved and well fed children were taught very good values and manners and raised as devout Christians. They wore simple but very clean clothes. This too is in sharp contrast to the Bengal village people that Ray shows in his movie in infinite details.

Personally I can always forgive poverty but can never forgive meanness in people because poverty cannot be or should not be the reason for anyone to behave in a mean manner toward anyone . Learn from the Africans , the Amish and the Mennonite people who show a great community spirit in spite of their very basic and simple life. However, it should not be construed from the movie of Ray that all villagers in India are like the ones in Bengal. The rural folks in other parts of the country also live with great community spirit and build beautiful houses for their neighbors just like in Africa.

The humanity always survives when they work together for the greater good of the community. Satyajit Ray should always be remembered for this movie in which he brings into focus the life of poverty and despair that helps you open your eyes to the reality and the need to be more compassionate toward your fellow beings. He was given the highest award of Bharat Ratna ( Jewel of India ) by the Indian government for his contribution to the film industry that brought him international fame.

Source : Google photo of Satyajit Ray

Ray received numerous awards and honours, including India’s highest award in cinema, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1984) and India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna (1992). … Often regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of world cinema, Ray made his directorial debut in 1955 with Pather Panchali.

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