Chasing cutlets: on the warmth of food in children's literature

Rather than being weighed down by pedagogy, children’s literature must set you free — to imagine, to recall, to revel in the warmth of shared food

My daughter, Ruya, and I were walking down the street in Delhi a couple of weeks ago. “Look Baba, Ramgorus!” she said in Bengali, “And none of them are laughing.”

Then she broke out in verse: “Ramgorurer chhana/ hashte tader mana/ hashir kotha shunle bole/ hashbo na na na na.” (Ramgoru’s kids/ are forbidden to laugh/ when they hear a joke/ they say No No No No!)

I looked to where Ruya was pointing, to a line of big castrated billy goats — or ram chhagol, in Bengali — tied to a fence, being fattened for Eid. Ruya was right; the expressions of those goats looked like carbon copies of the ramgoru in her Abol Tabol.


Chasing cutlets: on the warmth of food in children's literature

A ramgoru is a creature that exists only in the well-stocked menagerie of Sukumar Ray’s imagination. Abol Tabol, his classic book of comic verse, has been beloved by generations of Bengali children, and adults, since it was first published in 1923. It is the first book that any Bengali reads or has read to them. Sukumar Ray was the father of Satyajit Ray, but in a sense, he is the father figure of all Bengali writers and artists.

Many children’s books in English these days are full of pedagogy. They focus on teaching children how to wash their faces, brush their teeth and tie their shoelaces. This is not the job of literature. Literature should teach kids how to be, not what to do. The greatest children’s book writers, like Sukumar Ray, Lewis Carroll or Dr Seuss, provide us a sensibility, a way of being, by drawing us into a world of wonder. And, not surprisingly, many of their books centre around food. What could be more useless, frivolous and also wondrous, than a book devoted to green eggs and ham? Ruya is three years old. She can’t read more than a few letters or count beyond 10. Yet, she already knows her way to the local sweet shop and samosa shop. I believe it has to do with her close reading, or viewing, of Abol Tabol. Ray’s characters are always eating, chasing food or under the threat of being eaten. There’s Bombagor’s Raja, chhobir framey badhiye rakhe aamsotto bhaja, who keeps dried sweet mangoes in picture frames. Or the monster in Bhoe Peyo Na (don’t be scared), who feigns weakness and then threatens to devour the reader. And of course, there’s Khuror Kol, (which could be translated as chacha’s contraption), a rhyme about an invention intended to make you walk faster by dangling food in front of you that you can never reach.

Shamne tahar khaddo jhole, jar je rokom ruchi

Monda mithai chop cutlet khaja kimba luchi

mon bole tae ‘khabo khabo’, mukh chole tae khete

mukher shonge khabar chote palla diye mote.

(Food hangs in front, according to your tastes

Sweets, chops, cutlets and luchis

The mind says ‘yum yum’, the mouth goes to gulp

The food rushes away and the mouth gives chase.)

Chasing cutlets: on the warmth of food in children's literature

I first saw the Khuror Kol illustration when I was around Ruya’s age, before I could read. Ray’s iconic image was seared into my brain. It taught me a lifelong lesson, about what is worth chasing, and what is not. I am convinced that it has helped me on many occasions to refuse to run the rat races of adult life.

There is a rhyme in Abol Tabol called Bhalo Re Bhalo — It’s all good — enumerating all that is good in everyday life. Polao bhalo korma bhalo/ maach potoler dolma bhalo. Pulao is good and korma is good/ And so are fish and potol dolmades.

It ends with this oft-quoted line: Kintu shobar chaite bhalo — pauruti aar jhola gur. (But best of all — is bread with palm gur.) On Sunday mornings, Ruya helps her mother make pancakes. She stirs the pot with great concentration. Then she sits at the dining table dipping each pancake in honey and serves them one by one to everyone present. As we eat Ruya’s version of pauruti aar jhola gur on a lazy Sunday morning, time slows down. A rare sense of well-being spreads around the table and through the house, and reminds me of the elemental power of all great literature.

The writer is the author of The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, published by Bloomsbury

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 9:20:57 PM |

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