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  • পরবাস | Essay
  • Remembering Lila Ray-- An Essay by Anandarup Ray [Parabaas Translation] : Anandarup Ray
    translated from Bengali to English by Anandarup Ray

    Remembering Lila Ray

    Anandarup Ray

    A familiar figure in Santiniketan of the 1950s and 1960s was
    a fair-haired foreigner in a red-bordered khadi
    sari, often seen hurriedly bicycling along the dusty lanes under the blazing mid-day
    sun, a woven palm-leaf hat on her head. This was Lila Ray, writer, poet and
    translator, musician and art lover, a grass roots social worker, and a wife and
    mother. Highly energetic and always on the go, she was a fearless and
    independent-minded person, with a secure sense of values and a deep sense of humanism;
    a true internationalist who believed in the harmony of multiple cultures. Lila
    was my mother.

    My parents came to live in Santiniketan in 1951 when my
    father Annada Sankar took early retirement from the Indian Civil Service to
    devote his time to writing. They spent the next two decades there, and even
    after moving away my mother returned to Santiniketan frequently to see friends,
    tend to her garden, and write undisturbed. My parents chose to live in
    Santiniketan because they believed in Rabindranath Tagore’s philosophy and
    wanted the Tagore-style of education for their children. Rabindranath had
    personally urged them to settle there when he had met them during the 1930s.

    Early Life

    My mother’s journey to India reads like fiction. She was
    born as Alice Virginia Orndorff in El
    , Texas
    , in 1910,
    a daughter of American pioneers, descending from German immigrants in the 18th
    century and from English immigrants a century earlier. Her father Lee Orndorff Jr.
    was a well-off businessman and real estate investor in El Paso. My mother spent most of her teen
    years in Los Angeles, where she attended school
    and college, and then went to New
    to study piano. While on a tour of Europe, she
    became interested in Indian music and was encouraged to explore it for herself
    by a friend of my father in London.
    She arrived in Calcutta in the summer of 1930
    and met Annada Sankar for the first time in the provincial town of Berhampore where he had
    just begun his career. Lila and Annada Sankar were married in October in Ranchi, and Alice Virginia began life in India as “Lila”
    (at that time, Annada Sankar sometimes wrote under the pen name of “Lilamoy”). Of
    interest to Santiniketan buffs, the writer Pramatha Chaudhuri and his wife  Indira Devi Chaudhurani were present at the

    Lila and Annada Sankar had many common interests and held
    similar views. Lila had an insatiable curiosity about Indian culture and
    history, and Annada Sankar was the perfect guide. He was well-read, and very
    familiar with the West. His book on his travels in England
    and Europe (Pathe Probashe) had just been published and had been very well
    received. He whole-heartedly supported Gandhi’s non-violent approach to India’s
    independence and was an ardent admirer of Tagore.

    Curiously, the adventuresome Lila’s story has parallels in
    the life of one of her forebears:  her grandmother, Alzina Carolina, born in
    1859, an intrepid, pioneering woman, who from modest beginnings became quite
    wealthy. With her first husband, Levi H. Orndorff, a postmaster in Missouri, and her three sons, Alzina set off in a covered
    wagon to Tucson, Arizona, where she opened a boarding house. After
    her husband’s death, she married Charles de Groff. The family prospered in that
    frontier town, and Alzina acquired considerable property in nearby El Paso, Texas, including
    the Shelton Hotel, where Mexican nobility took refuge during the war of
    revolution in Mexico,
    and the Orndorff Hotel, now known as the Cortez office building.  Alzina soon became a celebrity in Texas. The Governor of
    Texas appointed her to the first board of the first technical institute in El Paso, and she was
    elected to the El Paso Hall of Fame. She was also the first president of the
    organization in El Paso
    fighting for equal voting rights for women. When news of Lila’s marriage in
    far-off India
    stirred up controversy in her conservative family, the person most sympathetic
    to Lila was her step-grandfather, Charles de Groff, who no doubt recalled the adventuresome
    Alzina he had married some forty years earlier.

    A New Life in India

    Lila quickly adapted to life in the small towns of rural Bengal, wherever Annada Sankar got posted. With her warm
    smile and generous heart, she made friends easily. She fully accepted the
    Indian perspective, having observed the inequities of British rule from close
    quarters. She wore saris made of khadi,
    spun the charka, and avoided the
    affectations of being a “memsahib.” My parents were extremely supportive of
    each other’s activities. They adopted an unostentatious, simple life-style,
    free of alcohol or tobacco. They did not practice any religious rituals, and
    the Upanishads and the Bible were
    both read at prayers. Their circle of friends grew—writers, poets, artists, intellectuals.
    Besides managing her household, Lila concentrated on bringing up her children (my
    older brother Punya Sloka and my two sisters, Joya and Tripty; another brother
    Chitrakam died at a very young age). She studied Bengali in earnest, which was
    difficult at first, but soon read, wrote, and spoke Bengali with complete fluency
    (the soft Bengali “d” and “t”, however, were difficult for her).

    Exposure to the richness of Bengali literature and culture led
    to Lila’s life-long interest in translation. She and Annada Sankar also became
    members of PEN, an international organization of poets, essayists, and
    novelists. The Indian chapter was set up in 1933 by Sophia Wadia, with Tagore presiding
    over its initiation in Bombay.
    Her first publication, an article on the Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay
    after his death in 1938, appeared in PEN magazine. PEN also published Bengali Literature: A Historical Survey
    (1942), with Lila and Annada Sankar as co-authors. Lila translated the Bengali
    passages quoted in that volume. She also wrote on Rabindranath Tagore, the
    literary contributions of Abanindranath Tagore (until then known outside Bengal
    only as an artist), promising young writers and poets of Bengal,
    the different strands of literary criticism in Bengali literature, and the
    local cultures of Birbhum and Mymensingh.

    Move to Santiniketan

    Soon after their marriage, Annada Sankar took Lila to
    Santiniketan to meet Tagore, who greeted Lila warmly and asked her to think of
    Santiniketan as her home. Tagore repeated that invitation when he met her again
    in 1939, adding that she would be free to join any department she liked and
    could decide on her own program. Finally, in 1951, Lila and Annada Sankar were
    able to move to Santiniketan, enroll the children in school and college, and set
    up their home on the edge of the lalbandh

    Lila’s joy knew no bounds. She had found the “home” to which
    Tagore had invited her. Annada Sankar no longer had to work for the government,
    and Lila was free to spread herself in all areas of interest to her. Her first
    task was to take care of her family without the help of the retinue of servants
    to which she had become accustomed as an ICS wife. This she did with great
    gusto, using her bicycle to run daily errands, including bringing home the mail
    from the post office rain or shine--“the family peon,” as she called herself.
    She was probably the first “older woman” to ride the bicycle in conservative

    Lila fully immersed herself in Santiniketan life, and
    “Lila-di” or “Lila-mashi” became a much-loved figure. In Santiniketan, Lila and
    Annada Sankar’s social network expanded,  and people could visit them at any time. For
    scholars and students from abroad, Lila’s residence became a hub, a home away
    from home. There were books and magazines from Europe,
    records of classical Western music, and occasionally, Lila’s home-baked
    chocolate brownies. She was always welcoming, doing everything she could to
    treat her guests well.

    Social Work and the Land
    Distribution Movement

    My mother cared deeply for the less fortunate around her.
    She had helped the needy in New York,
    and continued with social work in the villages and towns where she lived,
    including around Santiniketan. She knew how to treat victims of snake bites and
    kept the necessary antidotes with her. She was regularly called to help women
    during childbirth. She organized small groups of women to teach them general
    hygiene, pre-natal and post-natal care, as well as the benefits of khadi and the charka.

    Lila had become a follower of Gandhi and his eminent
    disciple Acharya Vinobha Bhave.

    She enthusiastically joined Bhave’s program for voluntary
    land distributions, and travelled to the villages with Bhave’s supporters.
    According to the well-known Gandhian Sailesh Banerjee, Lila was a true believer
    in the Gandhi-Vinobha approach. She continued to spin the charka even after independence and actively helped create the Khadi
    center in Bolpur. She translated Bhave’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, which was published as The Steadfast Wisdom. To help villagers, she translated from
    English into simple Bengali the paragraphs in the Indian Constitution dealing
    with fundamental rights.

    Ananda Pathshala—A School
    for Young Children

    Children were very special to Lila. She was passionate about
    early childhood learning and loved to devise special games to amuse children
    and teach at the same time. Pratima Devi, Tagore’s daughter-in-law, and Indira
    Devi Chaudhurani, Tagore’s niece, had started a women’s group in Santiniketan
    called Alapini, whose members carried out a variety of social welfare work
    around Santiniketan. Bina Basu was the first secretary of Alapini, and Lila
    succeeded her. Lila took the lead in establishing Ananda Pathshala for children
    between the ages of four and six, in 1954. When Sudhiranjan Das became
    vice-chancellor in 1961, the school was transferred to its present location,
    Deholi, and regular financing from the university was arranged. After Lila’s
    death in 1992, her family built a playroom in her memory at Ananda Pathshala
    for the children she so loved.

    Research on Bauls

    Another strong interest of Lila was the culture of the Baul
    singers of Bengal, who are itinerant troubadours.
    Lila first came in contact with them in 1935, while living in Kushtia, where
    she learned about the music and philosophy of Lalan . Her exposure to Bauls was
    renewed in Santiniketan. This is where she befriended Nabani Das, the leading Baul
    at that time, and his young son, Purnachandra Das. Purnachandra, a life-long
    friend of my parents, became internationally well known in later years. Lila
    also used to visit the large Baul camp beside the Ajoy river nearby, travelling
    by bullock-cart with a few friends or with her younger daughter.

    One of her neighbors was Kshitimohan Sen who was an
    authority on Indian philosophy and religions, and probably contributed
    substantially to the development of Tagore’s own ideas in this area.
    Kshitimohan asked Lila to translate his book on the Bauls, which was first
    serialized in the Visva-Bharati university magazine under the title The Bauls of Bengal.
    Lila’s own writings on Bauls also helped subsequent researchers on the subject.

    Western Inspirations

    Although my mother became fully integrated into Bengali
    society, she never forgot her Western roots. She read voraciously, and kept
    herself fully informed about literary developments in English, Spanish, German
    and other languages: some referred to her as the “walking encyclopedia of world
    literature.” She had brought her Steinway grand piano with her from El Paso, and the piano had traveled with her from town to
    town during the family’s many moves in Bengal.
    She mainly played Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart and was admired by those who
    appreciated Western music, particularly Indira Devi Choudhurani. Once, invited
    by students to give a lecture demonstration, she chose Beethoven’s ninth
    symphony; her old gramophone and the set of records were taken to China Bhavan
    where the event was held.

    Many foreign scholars and students at Santiniketan in the
    1950s and 1960s became close to Lila. Among the younger crowd were Cynthia
    Bowles (US), Thomas Okelo (Kenya)
    Lili Mi (China) and
    Aryavansa (Sri Lanka),
    and among the post-graduate group were Roy North (UK), John Berry (UK), Bill
    Small (US), Lillian Burke (US), and David McCutcheon (UK). There were also the
    foreign-born wives of several residents, in particular Eta Ghosh (Hungary), Milada Ganguly (Czechoslovakia), and Haimanti Chakravarty (Norway).
    Together with her friends, Lila organized the Christmas celebrations at the
    Santiniketan Mandir in 1956. Their efforts helped revive Christmas celebrations
    in Santiniketan which were initiated by Tagore himself in 1910.

    Lila’s participation in the Christmas celebrations were
    particularly meaningful to her as she had remained true to her Christian roots.
    This is evident from a letter she wrote to her mother about the event in
    February 1957:

    “Here I took the
    service on Christmas day. There was, as always, a huge crowd. We sang old
    Christmas carols, two in German, one from the 14th century and one
    from the 16th. The service opened with one of Tagore’s songs in Bengali. That
    was followed by two carols. Next came my reading from the Bible. Two more
    carols and another Tagore song completed the program.”

    Essays and Poems

    The literary interests that Lila had developed before coming
    to Santiniketan became reinforced during her stay in Santiniketan. A boost came
    when Annada Sankar initiated a Sahitya Mela (a series of seminars) in 1953,
    reuniting writers from West Bengal and Bangladesh. Lila had an organizing
    role, and translated and published the proceedings.

    Lila liked to write poetry, and had published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1956, which cited
    her in its list of emerging poets. Her first book of poems was Entrance (1961), published by Writers
    Workshop. Subsequently she published The
    Days Between
    (1976), Alive and Dying
    (1976), Songs of Mourning (1976), The Valley of Vision (1978), Once There Was (1985, poems for children
    written with Chandrahas Ray, one of her grandsons), and A Visit to the Zoo (1986, also for children). All these books were
    written in English, and her book of poems in Bengali, Ekoda, was published posthumously in 1993. She read her own poems
    in a cassette recording in 1978.

    Her prose writings include many essays, the first set of
    which was published as A Challenging
    Decade: Bengali Literature in the Forties
    (D.M. Library, Kolkata, 1953),
    and a second set was published as Equities
    (Indian Institute of World Culture, Bangalore, 1956). She was invited to give
    the Tagore Memorial Lecture at PoonaUniversity in 1969, which
    published it as The Formative Influences
    in the Life of Tagore

    Lila wrote the chapter on Bengali literature in Bengali Language Handbook, by Punya
    Sloka Ray (Center of Applied Linguistics, 1966). She also wrote Engreji Sahaj Path, a textbook, with
    Punya Sloka Ray (Banishilpa, Kolkata, 1987). She also translated the papers of
    Punya Sloka on the valuation of a language: Bhasar


    Lila was a prolific translator of novels, short stories,
    essays, and poems. Her first effort was Vigil,
    by Satinath Bhaduri. It was the first book from India to be included in UNESCO’s
    List of Important Works, 1965. This was followed by Ganadevata, by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay (1969), A House of Joy, by Sisir Sen (1970), Bhuvan Shome, by Bonophul (1971), A House Undivided (from Oriya), by
    Kalindi Charan Panigrahi (1973), and Phatik
    by Satyajit Ray (1983).

    She published several anthologies of her translations of
    short stories, the first one being Broken
    , 1957. This was followed by Flight
    and Pursuit
    , by Annada Sankar Ray (1969), The Prisoners, by Jorasandho (1975), and Woman and Other Stories, by Annada Sankar Ray (1977). She also
    translated modern Bengali poetry, including the poetry of  Lokenath Bhattacharya, Daud Haidar, Asokebijoy
    Raha, and Annada Sankar Ray.

    Her translations of Vinobha Bhave and Kshitimohan Sen have
    already been mentioned. She translated a selection of Sanskrit slokas with
    Sujit Mukhopadhyay, as The Path of
    Universal Love
    (1957), and also Confessions
    of a Believer
    by Mahbub-ul-Alam (1957). Her non-fiction translations
    included many essays on topics such as Gandhi, Tagore, and Indian culture, as
    well as the biography of Pandit Nilakanta Das, a well-known Oriya leader (from

    Lila collaborated with Satyajit Ray on the subtitles of
    several of his films, such as Ashani
    and Ghare-baire. She also
    translated Satyajit Ray’s Bengali script of Pather
    at the request of Cine Central of Kolkata. Satyajit Ray and Lila
    remained good friends until her death.

    Translators’ Society
    of India

    Lila believed that translation is a creative discipline that
    requires a good rapport between the author and the translator, which can be
    based on direct interactions or when that is not possible, on research.
    Translation should not be regarded as a mechanical or clerical process. She
    expressed her views in several essays, including “Violets and Crucibles” (Visva-Bharati Quarterly, 1956), and On Translation (Translators’ Society of India,

    Lila was invited as the Indian delegate to a Round Table
    Conference on Translation in Rome,
    organized by the international PEN. She came back convinced that translation
    needed to be encouraged in India
    as a profession, especially because India is multilingual and diverse.
    The central authorities in Delhi also adopted
    this view, and organized a conference in Hyderabad,
    in 1963, to discuss the training of translators. Lila was asked to prepare a
    syllabus that universities could use to train translators.

    Lila and her colleagues founded the Translators’ Society of
    India (TSI) in 1968, with help from Sekhar Sen, who had also created the
    Writers’ Guild in West Bengal. The TSI was the
    first initiative in India
    to organize and assist translators. Later, the National Book Trust convened a
    four-day workshop in 1973, with Lila as the technical director. As the Book
    Trust and other organizations entered the field, the TSI faded away. There is
    no doubt however that the TSI, and Lila in particular, stimulated the emergence
    of translation as a worthy profession in India.


    Lila’s life is the story of an enterprising young American,
    a lover of music and literature, who came to India by chance, and fell in love
    with a remarkable young man. She was a most supportive wife and mother and a caring
    grandmother, who lived life to the fullest. She did her share in building
    bridges between the land of her birth and the land where she made her home. My
    mother loved the star-encrusted, night skies of Santiniketan and enjoyed
    explaining the constellations to visitors. In one of her poems, she seems to
    write her own epitaph:

    When to be asleep in the deep night

    Is the starlit end of a sunlit life

    And death is adventure to me

    I will seek these stars.


    I am grateful for the suggestions of many friends,
    particularly Surajit Dasgupta, whose biography of Lila Ray in Bengali was very
    helpful. Also helpful was correspondence with Alex Weyand, a descendant of the
    Orndorff family.

    Published June 2015

    Anandarup Ray, a son of Annada Sankar and Lila Ray, was a student in Visva-Bharati in the...

    Photographs courtesy .

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