Memories of Reading: The madness and magic of Sukumar Ray and Leela Majumdar

After the Upendrakishore-Jogin Sarkar era, my elders tried to wean me off the epics by introducing me to the writings of Upendrakishore’s brilliant son, Sukumar Ray.

Sukumar Ray eclipsed everyone — including his own siblings, who were fairly talented in their own right — with his dazzling wit and scintillating sense of humour. I promptly fell in love with Abol Tabol, which filled my little head with ideas and animal hybrids that had till then beyond my wildest imagination. Lions got clubbed with deer, cows with roosters, elephants with whales…it was a magical, hilarious menagerie. What made Sukumar’s writing that much more fun was that it wasn’t just for kids. Grown-ups relished his writings too (or at least they did in my home). I remember Sukumar was initially read out to me by my older siblings.

Till Sukumar arrived on the literary scene with his irreverent nonsense verse, poetry for children was essentially made up of instructions to bow down to God Almighty and pledges of good behaviour. Sukumar broke that goody-two-shoes mould once and for all. His books were filled with mischief, both in his words and the weird illustrations he drew.

Soon enough, I could recite all of Abol Tabol from memory. All these years later, I can still remember large chunks of that book. It’s never hard to find an occasion in which one can quote “Gonph-churi“, “Baburam Sapure”, “Gondho-Bichhar”, “Thikana”, or “Narod! Narod!” Even now, I think I can reel off at least 80% of Abol Tabol without stumbling. Sukumar’s imagination enchanted Bengal and his creations have become familiar figures for all of us who speak the language. And so, it seems but natural to refer to a fat man as kumropotash even though this is a word that Sukumar coined.

After Abol Tabol, I received Khai Khai, also by Sukumar Ray. It was a tougher read, but I devoured it delightedly. Sukumar’s fantasy worlds were adorable and endearing because for all their inventiveness, they were grounded in everyday life. Let me give you an example.

In “Jhalapala”, a Sanskrit teacher is asked what is meant by the English phrase, “I go up, we go down”. He explains it means there are termites in the godown and that’s reduced a cow to tears. If you thought that sounds impossible, let me assure you that although the Sanskrit teacher mangles English and Sanskrit, there’s a logic to his translation and when he explains it, it all sounds rather plausible. I won’t explain the reasoning because you should read “Jhalapala” if you haven’t, but here’s a hint: I and eye are homonyms.

I’m also reminded of how Sukumar demystified mythical characters. For example, in his version of the Ramayana, whenever there is a crisis, Jambuman the prime minister would go to sleep. Bibhishon was at a loss with his bag and umbrella, exactly like our next-door neighbour. The Royal Messenger was always late, because he’d eaten a forbidden pumpkin. There was always a method to the madness in Sukumar Ray’s world.

This saga continued when I was introduced to his genius creation, the unforgettable Pagla Dashu. The edition of Pagla Dashu that I had was, I remember, reprinted by Signet Press. It was essentially a collection of stories about school and it’s worth mentioning that when I first heard Pagla Dashu’s stories — initially, I demanded they be read out to me — I was not even dreaming of going to school.

This wasn’t only because I was too young but because my father didn’t think much of formal primary education. He believed it made much more sense to begin by learning in a familiar space rather than in an unfamiliar environment. So my elder brother first went to school at Class VII. I started relatively early by our family’s standards: at the age of 10. It sounds like lunacy, doesn’t it, especially since these days, parents seem to enrol children in schools the moment they’re out of the womb? And yet, we, with our unconventional schooling, have not done too badly in life!

But coming back to Pagla Dashu — Sukumar set these stories in the classroom of a regular, Bengali school. Even though I had no idea about what school meant, Pagla Dashu was outrageously funny and I had no trouble following the stories.

In Bengali, pagla means crazy and true to this epithet, Sukumar’s hero, a boy named Dashu, had an element of lunacy to him. There is an innocence to Dashu’s antics that makes him utterly loveable. Even now, I find myself in splits of laughter when I think of Dashu feeding mihidana — a kind of sweet dish — to the gatekeeper’s pet goat or Dashu’s bright idea of getting all the children in a class to recite poems they’ve composed, in unison, to impress a visiting dignitary. The stories were utterly credible and yet entirely absurd all at the same time.

And then there was Sukumar’s evergreen classic Ha-ja-ba-ra-la, in which his love for nonsense and absurdity reached a new, genius dimension. In the world of Ha-ja-ba-ra-la, there was a measuring tape that had just one number on it (26), so whatever you measure with it is automatically 26″. Do you want to go to Tibet from Calcutta? Well, you’ll have to travel via the suburbs of Diamond Harbour and Ranaghat (which is technically probably accurate, but it’s fair to say that there’s a long way to go from Ranaghat). There were characters like the Byakaron Singh B.A. (the Grammatical Goat.) and Nayra, or Baldy the Singer, who have since become immortal. Lavishly illustrated by Sukumar, this book remains a gem.

My personal favourite was the courtroom sequence at the end of Ha-ja-ba-ra-la. One lawyer asks a witness, “Where does the road go?” Pat comes the answer: “The road lies where it is. The road does not go from X to Y, or saunter to Darjeeling in summer.” How perfectly logical!

All the dramatis personae of Ha-ja-ba-ra-la are birds and animals that we saw around us back then — the owl, the fox, the cat (who popped out of a handkerchief). And yet, they were still mysterious and unpredictable, which is what Sukumar tapped into while writing this wonderful story. In the end, pandemonium erupted and it turned out that the whole escapade had been a dream, which was a perfect explanation of Ha-ja-ba-ra-la’s mad delights.

This keen appreciation of lunacy must have been in the Ray family’s genes. Around the same time that I was rolling around laughter because of Pagla Dashu’s exploits, Sukumar’s niece, Leela Majumdar, made a grand entry. When Majumdar wrote Padipishir Barmibaksho (Aunty Padi’s Jewellery Box), she was well known as a “baroder lekhika”, an author of grown-ups’ fiction. However, it was this slim book that really established her. Padipishir Barmibaksho would go on to become one of Bengali kiddie literature’s best-loved titles. You could say she was one of our first Young Adult authors.

Back then, I wasn’t very comfortable with what we call “juktakshor” in Bengali. These are conjoined letters that both look and sound quite complicated.One of my elder sisters read it with me — she read a lot of books out to me — and she also remembers enjoying it immensely.

Padipishir Barmibaksho was about a family that’s trying to find a jewellery box that belongs to the Padipishi of the title. It’s been missing for a century, but everyone knows it’s somewhere in her old house. The story was filled with many funny turns and twists.

The first edition of Majumdar’s novel was profusely illustrated with full-page cartoons by the artist Ahibhushan Malik. He was a respected illustrator who had learned his craft in Paris. Even without the drawings, Majumdar’s characters felt utterly alive and rooted in Bengal. Everyone knew what she was talking about when she wrote about the “chimre bhadrolok” (“the scrawny gent”) and Panchumama with his very Bengali passion for purgatives.

Ultimately, the Padipishi’s box is found in a pigeon coop. Scrawled on the wall is one sentence: “Iti Sri Gojar ekmatro asray.” (“Here lies Sri Goja’s last hope.”) That line became a catchphrase. Decades later, after my daughter read Padipishir Barmibaksho the first time, she went through a phase of referring to everything as “Iti Sri Gojar ekmatro asray”, casting herself as Sri Goja. From the last piece of fish at dinner to her pencil box, everything was her last hope. It seems like such an inconsequential line on its own, but because of where and how it appears in the book, Majumdar made that sentence unforgettable.

Incidentally, when Majumdar’s novel became popular, the Governor of West Bengal was Padmaja Naidu. Because of the similarity in names, people nicknamed her Padipishi. It didn’t help that the prevailing gossip was that she, a spinster, was pining for the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In reality, the two were good friends.

After Sukumar Ray and Leela Majumdar, I moved on to another celebrated family of Bengal: the Tagores. But that is for next time.

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