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The cat that turned into a handkerchief: Sukumar Ray’s nonsense verse

Sukumar Ray   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Plato, it turns out, was a bit of a Ramgorurer chhana or a “son of Rangaroo” for whom laughter is taboo. “A funny tale will make them wail: ‘We’re not amused, boo-hoo!’” Plato was upset that Mount Olympus rang with the laughter of the gods in the Greek epics. He felt “men of worth”, especially gods, should not be seen as being “overpowered by laughter”. One wonders what he would make of the venerable Calcutta University making Sukumar Ray, the master of Bengali nonsense, a part of its English syllabus.

Even academic and critic Ananda Lal, who runs Writers Workshop, the publisher of Sukumar Ray: Nonsense Rhymes, Translated by Satyajit Ray, sounds a little bemused. University syllabi have a reputation for being prim and proper, not unlike the Rangaroo’s lair “bereft of sun and air” and “doomed to be a monastery of permanent despair.” “What is interesting is that they chose the translations by Satyajit Ray. These are trans-creations, neither literal nor faithful to the original, an aspect of Satyajit that many people don’t know,” says Lal.

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Always simple

Satyajit has written that he knew his father, Sukumar, only through “writings and illustrations, a volume of drafts, some notebooks, two numbers of a hand-written magazine” and the accounts of family members. Sukumar, a pioneer in photography and lithography, also ran the family printing business and the children’s magazine, Sandesh. He died of leishmaniasis in 1923. Nine days later, his classic collection, Abol Tabol, was published. Satyajit was two and a half.

One of Sukumar Ray’s illustrations from ‘Abol Tabol’

One of Sukumar Ray’s illustrations from ‘Abol Tabol’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Satyajit translated 10 poems from Abol Tabol for a radical weekly called Now in 1969. Purushottama Lal, the founder of Writers Workshop, persuaded Satyajit to let him publish a limited edition, which came with a frontispiece photograph of a beaming baby Satyajit on his mother’s lap.

Satyajit autographed 100 copies, which are now collector’s items, says Ananda Lal. Those poems are also part of a new book called Three Rays, collecting the writings of three generations of Rays — Upendrakishore, Sukumar and Satyajit — all translated by Satyajit. In its foreword, Satyajit’s son Sandip remembers, “Baba started translating Sukumar’s nonsense rhymes quite unexpectedly, while waiting at an airport lounge due to a long flight delay.”

There have since been other translations. Sukanta Chaudhuri’s The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray was a more ambitious attempt than Satyajit’s. Chaudhuri remembers going to Satyajit for feedback. “He was so generous. He said my phrasing in Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law was occasionally sounding grown-up. He reminded me that Sukumar’s language is always simple because it’s being told by a young boy,” says Chaudhuri. As an English professor, Chaudhuri was drawn not just to Sukumar’s imagination but also to “the sheer technical excellence of the verse. In nonsense poetry, more than other kinds of poetry, the form, the metre, the rhyme is very important.”

Shuddh desi glee

Years later, when poet Sampurna Chattarji brought out Wordygurdyboom! The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray, she says she

One of Sukumar Ray’s illustrations from ‘Abol Tabol’

One of Sukumar Ray’s illustrations from ‘Abol Tabol’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

relished the aural challenge posed by Sukumar’s wordplay and onomatopoeia though, she adds, the word onomatopoeia cannot capture the “riotous caboodle of effects that Sukumar Ray conjures up.” Her translation of the opening poem of Abol Tabol begins, “Come happy fool whimsical cool come dreaming dancing fancy-free, Come mad musician, glad glusician beating your drum with glee.”

This shuddh desi glee has ensured Sukumar Ray has never gone stale. Sukanta Chaudhuri points to Jogindranath Sarkar, whose books like Hashi Khushi were popular in the early 20th century. “His humour is predictable, simple inversion. The grass is blue, the sky is green. But when Sukumar writes, why does the king’s aunt play cricket with a pumpkin, you think why indeed.”

Why indeed? With Nonsense Rhymes in the syllabus, students have to actually ponder these grave questions. Assistant professor of English, Sanghita Sanyal, who has been teaching the new syllabus, says she has to delve into the social context of the poems to make sense of the nonsense to a generation of students many of whom know Sukumar chiefly through Satyajit.

In ‘Gonf Churi’ or ‘Missing Whiskers,’ the head babu of an office raises hell thinking his moustache has been stolen. “When I am talking about it, I have to talk about babu culture or the colonial idea of ‘boss’,” says Sanyal. A closer reading of Sukumar’s poems shows that he took great pleasure in skewering the pompous Bengali babu and his false sense of pride and status, always aping the white sahib. Kimbhut or the Super Beast wants a cuckoo’s voice, a lizard’s tail, an elephant’s trunk, but in the process loses his own identity, lamenting, “Oh what can I be?” The Kumro-potash or Pumpkin-Grumpkin is a dead-ringer for every petty bureaucrat obsessed with peculiar rules. As T.S. Eliot wrote about Edward Lear, to whom Sukumar is often compared, Lear’s nonsense “is not a vacuity of sense; it is a parody of sense and that is the sense of it.”

Many of Lear’s bizarre misshapen creatures acquire new shades of meaning when we learn of their creator’s epilepsy, his bankrupt childhood, how he felt like a misfit in Victorian high society.

But the odd couple of the Owl and the Pussycat finding happiness together becomes a poignant love story when you realise that Lear himself was lovelorn, tormented about his homosexual desires. Sukumar Ray, in his short life, left behind no personal accounts and diaries that can be mapped against his poems; just a few notebooks like hijibiji khata (doodle notebook) and emni khata (aimless notebook).

Ray and Lear

Perhaps it’s just as well. Too much psychosocial analysis could ruin the magic of what Satyajit called a rasa beyond the usual nine — kheyal or whimsy. Michael Heyman, who edited The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense, says Sukumar isn’t the only Indian literary nonsense poet around. There are the likes of Nabakanta Barua (1926-2002) in Assamese or Mangesh Padgaoankar (1929-2015) in Marathi. But Sukumar, he says, has such a “depth and breadth of nonsense” that “comparisons outside Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll tend to diminish his accomplishments.”

Lear visited Calcutta, which he called “Hustlefussabad,” before Sukumar was born. Sukumar himself transcreated Lear’s Father William as an 88-year-old man who likes to dance upside down. But Sukumar produced something whose soul was utterly madly Bengali, biting but never malicious. He inspired so much Bengali nonsense, Heyman worried about a “Bengali nonsense hegemony” in his anthology. Yet Sukumar was never provincial. Poet Ranjit Hoskote says Sukumar’s work, which he read in translation, is “at once intensively engaged with the local and cosmopolitan in its expansiveness.” The real power of nonsense is that it offers a refuge where we get to make up the rules — a cat can turn into a handkerchief and nobody blinks. Sukumar, even in his sick bed, understood that. His last poem in Abol Tabol embraces death but “with crazy rhyme and puckish note” and somersaulting elephants. This is, says Welsh poet Eurig Salisbury, playfulness elevated to its full potential.

Even before I could read, Sukumar Ray’s magical illustrations (like Lear’s) sucked me in, despite scary cudgel-wielding monsters who simpered “To eat you alive is beyond me, I swear on a thousand moans”. As a boy I would while away afternoons with Abol Tabol, imagining ducks and porcupines fusing into porcuducks/ porcochards/ duckupines (depending on your preferred translator). As I grew up, like countless other Bengalis, I could recite with a flourish the talents of Gangaram — the matric-fail, debt-ridden, sickly yet still eminently marriageable groom — without understanding its social satire fully. In adulthood, I keep returning to Sukumar Ray not just for silverfish-riddled nostalgia but also because the poems offer, as Chattarji puts it, “a far more capricious and subversive version of reality”. As in ‘Rule of 21,’ where ‘in Lord Shiva’s native land, the laws are hard to understand’. Or, as Chaudhuri translates it:

You also need a special lease

Till six o’clock to cough or sneeze

And those who sneeze without permission

Are thrashed in gentle admonition

And twenty one compelling doses

Of snuff rammed up their streaming noses.

I keep thinking of this poem these days when I read the news,” says Chaudhuri wryly about ‘Rule of 21’. “Especially in this 21st year of the 21st century.”

Even the sons of Rangaroo might be grimly amused.

The writer is the author of Don’t Let Him Know.


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