If there is one thing that distinguishes the world of Bangla writing from the literature of the rest of the Subcontinent’s languages, it is the abundance of works written for children in modern times. There is not one reputed writer or poet of this language who has not written significantly for children. Soon after the arrival of modern printing technology in India, in the 19th century, magazines for children began to appear in Bangla. Today, Kolkata’s Pujobarshikis, the annuals published during Dassehra (as also perhaps for Id in Dhaka) for children, carry quality works by writers that are read and cherished by lakhs of Bengali children.
Today, there are several notable children’s magazines that have been running successfully for many decades. Sandesh, for instance, has acquired something of a heritage status, first published by the writer and composer Upendrakishore Raychowdhury in 1913. After his death in 1915, his eldest son, Sukumar Ray, took over as the editor of the magazine. Of Upendrakishore’s many works for children, Goopie gayeen bagha bayeen (Singer Goopie, Drummer Bagha) was made into a film by Sukumar’s son, Satyajit. This was the first of several films for children that Satyajit Ray made. Though lesser-known outside Bengal than his son Satyajit, it was Sukumar who transformed children’s writing in Bangla by creating a world of witty nonsense prose and fiction.
Sukumar Ray was an exceptionally gifted writer who died at just 36. An accomplished scholar, he won a scholarship to study photography and printing technology in England and, while there, was active in literary circles. He may have been influenced by Lewis Carroll’s writings, but as Satyajit Ray said, “while the creatures of [Carroll’s] ‘Jabberwocky’ belong to the world of imagination, Sukumar’s creations, whatever they may look like, belong to our familiar, everyday world. And many of them, like his lug-headed loon (the hukumukho haingla), actually belong to Bengal” (see pics). The following verse, from Abol Tabol (Rhymes without reason), brims with Sukumar Ray’s fantastic creatures:
Haansh chhilo, shojaru,(baiykoron mani na)
hoye gelo‘haanshjaru’ kemonay thaa jani na.
bok kohe kochhope – ‘bahoba ki foorthi’
othi khasha aamader bokochhop moorthi.
tiya-mukho girgiti monay bhari shonka –
poka chheday sheshay kigo khabay kancha lonka?
chhagoler petey chhilo na jani ki fondhi
chaapilo bichhaar ghaadey, dhode moodo sondhi.
Giraffeyr saadh nayee maatthey-ghatey ghoorithey
phodinger dhong dhori sey o chaaye udithey
Goru bole, “Aamarey o dhorilo ki o rogay?
mor peechhey laagey keno hothobhaga morogay?”
hatimir dosha dekho thimi bhahbey jolay jayee
hathi bole “yeyee bela jongole cholo bhayee”
Shingheyr Sheeng neyee, yeyee thaar koshto –
horiner saathey meelay Sheeng holo poshto.
The duckwas once porcupine (I don’t follow grammar)
It became a duckupine, how I wonder.
The crane says to the turtle, “What fun, see!”
What a grand sight we as crantle be.
The parrot-faced lizard in a quandary sulks
Shall I begin to chew chillies in place of bugs?
Who knows what the goat had his mind on?
Rapidly it climbed up the head of a scorpion!
The giraffe wishes to abandon his grazing plight
And instead follow the grasshop per in its flight.
Has the disease got me too, asks the cow
Why is the cock fixing itself to me now?
Look at the elewhale – water, the whale yearns
The elephant only towards the jungle runs.
Having no horns is the lion’s grief
Becoming one with the deer brings him relief.
– Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh
To a native Bengali, what Sukumar Ray wrote was without doubt the best in nonsense, although there has been little critical review of this genre. Indeed, though children’s stories have contributed enormously towards building a quality readership for adult literature in Bangla, there is surprisingly little critical analysis of children’s writings. There is little attempt to look at the origins and social contexts of these works. Perhaps literature for children is simply not seen as worth much thought.
Lyrics of the impossible
Sukumar Ray was a rationalist, and wrote essays for children critical of superstition. But he is mostly remembered for his nonsense poetry and prose, mixing new ideas and words borrowed from the modern lexicon, including technical words in English. In the process, he created creatures that fit naturally into the psyche of both adults and children. When he wrote, the literacy in Bengal, better than other places in India, was still very low, and the readership was thus constituted mostly of the bhadralok, or educated elite, and their children. Later, as a larger population became literate, Ray’s works such as Abol Tabol became household reading.
In his poetic preface to Abol Tabol, he invites readers to enter the world of nonsense. “Osombhober chhondete,” he wrote, “Enter the lyrics of the impossible.” Right from the first poem, the reader gets a taste of the bizarre, with hybrid animals created by mixing, for example, a duck with a porcupine. Sukumar was also a master illustrator, and frequently inserted comical drawings to reinforce the wit in his text. In some of his writings, as in the poem “Tainsh Goru” (The immovable cow), his wit took a dig at the bureaucratic structure that the British had given to India. He was also inspired by the nationalist movement.
Sukumar Ray had a profound impact on the Bengali psyche, but he was also a product of his times. Humour in the expressions of individuals in a class society carries existing prejudices, and Ray does not escape them. Yet his writings are so delightful that one tends to ignore the prejudices reflected in some of his works. Consider, for example, the description of a less-than-perfect groom, from a poem titled “Sat Patra”, meaning ‘the perfect groom’:
…not bad, he is a fine groom – well, quite a dark one
…and his complexion, kind of like an owl really
…failed to graduate nineteen times, and that is when he
…property? He is very poor, manages somehow in
…his brothers are no kind fellows, one is insane and the
other an illiterate
It is difficult to say whether these are mere sarcastic attacks on prevalent values or whether they build on them. Either way, Ray’s works are replete with such descriptions. In keeping with middle-class sensibilities of the times, he avoided the use of scatological terms or toilet humour, but he frequently utilised derogatory terms. For instance, the word haingla is used as an acceptable verbal abuse (sometimes in the sense of a ‘cheap’ person who cannot control his desire for something tempting), and Ray used such words in what have become classic expressions: hukomukho haingla (a haingla with a face like a hookah), nongramukho shutko (dirty-faced pale-body), etc. He would also use commonly accepted violent expressions against animals, for instance ‘Sei sap jainto gota dui aanto, tede mere danda, kore di tthanda’ meaning ‘Bring me two such snakes alive, I will hit them with a stick and take the life out of them.’
Similarly, Ray’s works were grounded in the gender dynamics of his times. The verb forms in the Bangla language do not depend on the gender of the subject. As a result, unless the subject is named, the context is important to figure out the gender of the subject. Inevitably, a Bengali reader is aware of the gender-discriminated contexts. For instance, in Ray’s famous prose work “Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La”, the narrator is a child who falls asleep and, similar to the Carrollian fantasies, encounters and converses with creatures of the bizarre (often with idiosyncrasies astonishingly similar to those of real mortals). If you ask a Bengali how they know that the child in the story is a boy, most will not be able to tell you. An activist friend once told this writer that it is because when the child wakes up, an uncle comes and pulls one of the child’s ears, implying that the ears of young girls are not generally pulled.
Reinforcing stereotypes aside, Sukumar was a master at satirising unusual-looking people. One of his characters, Pagla Dashu (crazy Dashu) is described thus:
from his looks, speech, and movement you could tell Dashu was a bit off in the head. He had big round eyes, unnecessarily long ears, and a scrub of scruffy hair. Whenever he walked fast or spoke in a busy manner, it reminded one of lobsters for some reason.
One cannot outright characterise these as malice towards the disabled, especially in the context of the relevant era. In fact, some might argue that there can be no humour if everything is evaluated on a scale of political correctness. But exactly how this material is being used by a reader in the present day is something one needs to be alert to; psychological studies on the impact of such readings on children would probably yield rich material.
Tree of words
Ray’s larger choice of language is also interesting. Like other North Indian languages, diction in Bangla derives its richness from Sanskrit, Persian and native colloquial sources. Parallel to the Young Bengal Movement or the Bengal Renaissance of the mid-19th century, there was at the time a revivalist tendency taking place with regards to language. Many have noted the serious efforts afoot in the late 19th century to Sanskritise the Bangla language, consciously discarding words of Persian origin. For instance, the word nikah or nikey, meaning marriage, was apparently quite a common word even among Hindus at the time, but is now confined to the Muslim community in Bengal. (The equivalent word used by Hindus is biye, from vivaha.) Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, a ‘no-nonsense’ revivalist writer of the 19th century, led this tendency. While Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporaries simplified the language by getting rid of obscure verb forms, the Sanskritised sanitation was largely retained. For his part, Sukumar Ray, as a 20th-century modernist with a great sense of wit, used the phonetic beauty of Sanskrit words remarkably, for example in his poem “Shabdakalpadrum” (The tree of words) in Abol Tabol, and his diction borrowed largely from the colloquial. However, the volume of tatsam (Sanskrit origin) vocabulary remains much larger than the words of Persian origin.
In his prose, Sukumar stretched his ability to pun. For example, in the line, ‘Phool photay? Tayee bolo, aami bhabi potka!’ (Is it the flower blossoming, I thought it is a cracker), the word photay could mean a firecracker making a loud sounds, and yet it is used for the opening of petals of a flower. He also played, with great linguistic competence, on the slapstick sensibilities of readers. For example, his play Laksamaner Shokhtishell (The power bomb of Lakshamana), remains highly readable and humorous. Sukumar Ray was indeed a rare genius, whose fantastic creatures will survive the onslaught of videogames and Walt Disney.
~ Harjinder Singh has published three anthologies of poetry and one of fiction, in addition to translating literature to Hindi. He writes as ‘Laltu’ in Hindi.