RANDOLPH — He has known and worked with Mother Teresa in India, written novels and acted in independent Indian films. But Literature Professor Kalyan Ray of the County College of Morris has one lifelong passion.
“I absolutely love to teach,” he says. He has introduced his students to “some great persons long dead,” from Greek dramatist Sophocles to Shakespeare, as well as to writers they might not normally encounter, such as Sankha Ghosh, a famous South Asian poet.
One thread that has run through his life has been that of service. He performed volunteer work in his native Calcutta for Mother Teresa from the time he was in seventh grade into his adulthood. He still volunteers at her hospice for one month every summer. That strong sense of service carries over into his approach as a teacher as well.
His greatest satisfaction has come from working with students with great potential who have overcome great obstacles. He recalls one student, in particular, who was working toward her degree at CCM.
“She was tough and slightly dented by life, and was only 22 or 23 at time,” he recalls. After class one day, she told him she was planning to drop out. When he asked why, she said she was a homeless, single mother. Every few weeks she had to leave one shelter and go to another, which made it difficult for her to concentrate on her studies.
“I told her, ‘This is the biggest test you will have in your life,’” Ray recalls. “She was primed for failure, but this was a smart woman.”
He persuaded her not to walk away from college. Ray acted as an advisor and helped her achieve the necessary academic standards. Eventually, she earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts. He then encouraged her to pursue a four-year degree, continuing to advise her through those years.
One day she came back to see him. She had finished her bachelor’s degree and was not sure what she should do next. “I said, ‘Fine, it’s time for you to go to Harvard.’” She laughed. Then he took a postage stamp from his wallet and challenged her to apply. The worst that could happen, Ray told her, was that the school would turn her down. He wrote her a recommendation letter. She was accepted at Harvard and eventually graduated. “It can be done,” he says with a sense of satisfaction.
Ray applies that same sense of unlimited possibilities to his own life. He has written two novels. The first, Eastwords, is about Colonialism and blends Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Nights Dream and The Tempest with characters in India. The book has been adopted by several universities in the United States and India as an example of post-Colonial literature. Another book, No Country, just completed in draft, is about the Irish and Indian diaspora. He has also translated several works of Indian poetry into English, including City of Memories, published by Viking Penguin, which has a preface by a well-known friend of his, Allen Ginsberg.
In addition, Ray has acted in two independent Indian films, one of which, Antaheen (meaning “the endless wait”), won the Best Film category from the National Indian Awards. In that movie, he played an estranged husband in a study of two couples. In the second movie, Adhibhisandhi (meaning “plot” or “stratagem”), he played a more charming but sinister character.
“If you have taught plays and works having to do with texts and characters, it is not a difficult transition to go from teaching to acting,” he says. Ray also recently hosted a 26-part television program in India in which he interviewed writers, musicians, actors and directors, which began airing in February.
During summers, he has taught in Greece, Ecuador, Jamaica, the Philippines and India. His time in the Philippines was funded in part by the Luce Foundation, where the foundation’s namesake, Henry Luce, actually sat in on Professor Ray’s classes.
Today, Ray divides his time between the United States and India. His wife, Apama Sen, is an award-winning independent film director in India and his stepdaughter, Konkona Sen Sharma, is a well-known Indian actress who has appeared in both independent films and Bollywood spectaculars.
Despite those accomplishments, when asked what he finds most rewarding, he always returns to his teaching. “I feel great affection for CCM. I hope I have been able to give as much to the college as it has given to me. The whole CCM community is like a family, and I have grown older with all the other faculty members.”
What would he say to incoming students at CCM? “Trust yourself enough to pick up a book and read it, even though you have never come across it before. Nobody is stopping you from reading the greatest books in the world and watching some of the best movies in the world. Enrichment is what we make of what we find in life.”