December 13, 2019
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Class Apart

Interesting spin-offs, dull story

Class Apart
When Smoke Gets Into Your Eyes
By Santanu Ray
Writers'Workshop Rs 100; Pages: 141
THERE are some strange books which are interesting in an unintended way: not because of their basic attributes—form, content, ideas—but in spite of them. Former ITC vice-chairman Santanu (Montu) Ray's book of reminiscences is that sort of book. Frankly, I can't imagine how anyone could be remotely interested in this remorseless listing of every tour Ray made, every task he performed in his 34-year career.

There are a few amusing incidents—a brand called Horizon failed because it came to be pronounced by the average customer as Harijan; or how the ITC hotels came to be named: while on board Air-India's Emperor Ashoka 747, Ray decided, on an impulse, to name all the hotels after Indian dynasties. But the rest is arid non sequitur territory: had breakfast, went on market visit, report appreciated by superiors.

He finds the fact that an obscure ITC executive's wife used to carry all her jewellery around with her in a cloth bundle interesting enough to report, but hasn't even noticed that he was with Satyajit Ray on a sea voyage back from London during which Ray wrote the first draft of the Pather Panchali script.

Yet, any amateur sociologist will delight in the picture Ray inadvertently paints of a certain now-vanishing class. The early chapters are redolent of Ferrazzinni's and Flury's, of flying classes, of correct cutlery. And kith and kin. He is recommended to ITC by a family friend; when he is posted to Bombay, a friend's father provides a three-bedroom apartment in Cuffe Parade; he goes to Porbunder, and the Maharaja was at Harrow with his mother's cousin.

The other aspect that shines through all the excise rates and railway timetables is Ray's love for his late wife Rita. He succeeds in bringing to life a charming lady with oodles of wit, imagination and daring. Anyone who reads this book will end up wishing he had met her.

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