The Attic by Satyajit Ray is a short story written in first person that intimately engages with the aspect of human shortcomings and the power of forgiveness. The story revolves around the main character and his friend, Aditya, as they venture back to Aditya’s hometown and encounter some elements of his past. Dealing with the themes of hurt, fairness, humility and forgiveness, The Attic is a delightful story by the first Indian to receive an Honorary Oscar.
The Attic | Summary
The story begins with the narrator and his friend and business partner, Aditya, travelling home from the site of their factory. On the way, they pass Aditya’s native town, and decide to visit it. Though Aditya isn’t sure whether the house or school is still there, twenty-nine years later, he hopes to visit Nagen Uncle’s tea shop.
The month is February, the area is filled with paddy fields. Aditya says that everything has changed, including the school. When the narrator asks whether Aditya was a good student, he says “I was always second.” With that, they pass the school gate and head to the tea shop. The owner, Nagen uncle, is a man of about sixty. He does not recognize Aditya, but offers them tea and savoury nonetheless. There is only another customer besides them- a man whom Nagen uncle addresses as Mr.Sanyal. Nagen uncle tells the narrator and Aditya that Mr. Sanyal has poor vision and is a little hard of hearing– and then, suddenly, Mr. Sanyal gets up and loudly starts reciting the poem Panraksha by Tagore.
Aditya’s expression changes immediately. They learn that Mr. Sanyal has ‘gone a little crazy’ after spending all his money to get his daughter married and then losing his wife and son the previous year, and now stays with his father’s friend. After their snack, Aditya heads straight for his old home, despite saying earlier that he did not want to visit. The narrator follows as Aditya shows him his favourite room, the attic, and pulls out an article. The friends take the article to a jeweller, where they are told it’s an antique.
Finally, they go to the place where Mr. Sanyal stays. Pretending to be someone else, Aditya asks whether he remembers “Aditya Narayan Chowdhury’, assuming that after going crazy, Mr. Sanyal wouldn’t recognize him. Mr. Sanyal does remember Aditya’s name- the spoiled child of affluent parents. Aditya does not disagree, simply hands him 150 rupees, saying it is ‘from Aditya’. It is then revealed that Mr. Sanyal was a classmate of Aditya’s who had won a prize in a poetry reciting competition over him. Aditya had taken Sanyal’s silver medal home to ‘show his father’ and then pretended it had slipped through a pocket hole. All because he could not bear to have lost the competition.
Aditya is returning 150 rupees as the cost of that silver medal. Mr. Sanyal then tells Aditya then that he actually did recognize him at the tea shop, after all, but knew that Aditya did not recognize him immediately. To remind him, he had recited the same poem from the competition all those years ago- and then kept up his act as a chance to vent his anger. Mr. Sanyal does not accept the money– he says it will soon be spent, and asks for the actual silver medal instead. Aditya complies, removing the medal from the attic after twenty-nine long years, and finally restoring it to it’s rightful owner- Sriman Sasanka Sanyal.
The Attic | Analysis
Satyajit Ray’s most recognizable element in his writing is the unparalleled blend of dialogue and passive narration. He is also known for plot twists and surprise endings. The Attic is no exception- the clever simplicity of the title concentrates the attention onto the principal location. Though there is not much time spent in the attic, this area is the subtle center of the plot.
This short story revolves around themes of growth and change, grudges, guilt and rectifying past errors. Ray also employs foreshadowing at a few instances- so precisely that the reader may not suspect it in the flow of reading, but will certainly think back to it as the story draws to a close. The first-person narrative is done interestingly, because despite having a narrator whose feelings and thoughts are open to the readers, the focus remains on Aditya.
The story begins with the narrator asks his friend, Aditya, whether he would like to visit his native place. Aditya accepts a little , saying thus :
“‘I doubt if even the school building, which may have undergone many changes, will be recognizable any more. Trying to revive old childhood memories may prove disappointing!”
This specific mention of the school building is one of the small foreshadowing hints inserted by Ray. Further, the discussion of things changing is central- when something as sturdy as a school building changes over time, is it not expected that Aditya, a person from that same town, has changed too?
The topic comes up again when the two friends reach the school gate, when Aditya repeats that everything has changed. The narrator asks whether he was a good student, while Aditya replies “‘Yes, but my position was always second,” This is once again, a foreshadowing phrase in the story.
As they later head to Nagen uncle’s tea shop, as per Aditya’s wish, the owner does not recognize him. This may be symbolic of things changing over the years– not just the building and the town, but Aditya himself. Unrecognizability is representative of an evolution.
The main characters are introduced to Mr. Sanyal, the only other customer at the tea shop, Negan uncle treats him with an amused sort of sympathy. He says Sanyal is, “A little hard of hearing. Cannot see well either. But has no money to buy spectacles.” This line is rather ironic, because as we know, it is Mr. Sanyal who recognizes Aditya first. The man’s identity only dawns on Aditya after he recites a poem by Tagore– and even then, now labelled ‘crazy,’ Mr. Sanyal knows that he can get away with pretending not to recognize Aditya. Yet, despite Negan uncle saying Sanyal’s vision and audition is poor, his eyesight is the sharpest- he recognizes Aditya by the mole under his eye.
It is worth keeping in mind the theme of holding a grudge in this piece- often, when one holds anger or animosity towards another in their heart, they are quick to recognize every detail about the person who wronged them. What may seem minute to one may be an enormity to the other. We can see this by the way that it took Aditya quite a long time and a spontaneous poetry recital to recall Mr. Sanyal’s identity, while for the latter, all it took was a facial mark. The name of the poem which Mr. Sanyal recited is also interesting to note- Panraksha (keeping of a promise). We will see why a bit further in the analysis.
When Aditya hears the poem, he goes pale and asks Negan uncle for more details about Mr. Sanyal. He learns about his difficult life and then immediately heads back to his old house. We can now see guilt trickling into the crevices of the piece- Aditya feels guilty because, as we come to know, Sasanka Sanyal was a classmate of his, who beat him to a silver medal in a poetry recitation contest. Aditya took the medal home with the guise of showing it to his father and pretended to lose it, all in the jealousy of not receiving the silver medal. Here, we understand the foreshadowing of Aditya telling the narrator “my position was always second.” In his house, he has the unrightful silver medal, symbolic of second place. Further, Aditya promised to return the medal, and then lied about losing it- it was a promise unkept, reflecting on the title of the poem that Sasanka Sanyal beat him with all those years ago.
When Aditya and the narrator climb up the old house, they reach the primary location of the story: the attic. “In the whole house, the attic had probably been the worst hit by wind and weather.”- This represents the years that have passed and the way time can change people or things- like how time wore down the attic, it changed Aditya into a more mature and compassionate person. The silver medal, which remained untouched despite the wreckage, serves as a reminder of the subconscious guilt of wrongdoing that always plagues one’s mind, no matter how much time goes by. Everything has changed, but the emotion of guilt, though can be buried and hidden, will not disappear. We may say that Aditya’s guilt is due to both his past actions as well as the knowledge that Sanyal is not well-off, while he is running a factory and a successful business.
The meeting of Aditya and Sasanka Sanyal represents the longevity of grudges, the transformation of personality that comes with growth, and the honesty that can make amends. Mr. Sanyal only pretended not to recognize Aditya at first as an excuse to vent all his anger- readers may wonder why he bore a grudge for so long, over a childhood matter. But the hostility he holds is, in his own right, valid- that medal represented a well-earned victory, a memory, a moment of pride. It also had a financial gain– the silver could be sold, and may have helped him through tough times if only he had it in his possession. We can see that the competition and victory was a pivotal moment for Mr. Sanyal from the very fact that he remembers the poem he won with by heart. And it was subconsciously just as important to Aditya, for he recognized it immediately. The poem being what reminded Aditya of the memory is a reflection of a trigger that stirs one’s conscience.
Aditya says, “‘Man does change with time. Perhaps Aditya is not the same Aditya as before?” which solidifies change as a major theme. Aditya recognizes the wrongness of his past actions, and when presented with an opportunity, does his best to rectify it, even if it is nearly thirty years later. It underlines a message- that one does make mistakes, it is inevitable. But the consequences– whether it be in action or in guilt- is unavoidable. And more importantly, no matter how long it’s been, making amends if possible does make a difference. Here, Aditya is able to put a part of his mind, which was unknowingly always prodding him, to rest.
Mr. Sanyal refuses the money, asking for the medal instead. The monetary value of the medal does not matter to him, despite his financial troubles. The object is what holds meaning. There is a name still engraved on the medal: “Sriman Sasanka Sanyal – Special Prize for Recitation – 1948.” The finality one feels from the passing over of the medal from Aditya to Mr. Sanyal is palpable- it feels like restoring a balance, returning an article to the rightful owner. The medal symbolises reconciliation, acceptance, the ending to grudge and guilt, and the mark of a changed man.