By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/newsin.asia
Nonsense literature dares one to dream the absurd, move away from the ‘normal’ and create a niche of expressing ideas, concepts and thoughts which break free from the mould of realism.The Bengali short story ‘Hajabarala’ occupies a prominent place tin the world of nonsense literature. Written by Sukumar Ray, father of Satyajit Ray, in 1921, Hajabarala celebrates its centenary in 2021. This is an ode to one of the finest examples of nonsense literature in Bengali.
Sukumar Ray was an author, poet, illustrator and publisher. He had made notable contributions to children’s literature in Bengali. Among his creations, ‘Hajabarala’ has a special place for its contribution to Bengali language. His renowned film maker son, Satyajit Ray wrote in his introduction to the ‘The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray’ (1997), that ‘Hajabarala’ is the “The finest piece of nonsense in Bengali prose…nothing could be more quintessentially Bengali than the latent spirit of the topsy-turvy world.” Incidentally, Satyajit Ray was also born in the same year 1921 on May 2. The world of cinema will be celebrating the centenary of this great storyteller-film maker.
Sukumar Ray was born on October 30, 1887 to Bidhumukhi Devi and famous author, poet, illustrator and publisher Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. With a double Honours in Physics and Chemistry from Presidency College, Kolkata, and advanced training in printing technology in England, he had a penchant for experimenting with lyrics, storylines, illustrations and publishing.
The earliest English translation of ‘Hajabarala’ spoke of it as ‘The Topsy Turvy Tale’. A rough and direct translation of the Bengali term ‘Hajabarala’ is muddle or a jumble. In order to understand the world of ‘Hajabarala’ and its medley of characters, here’s an excerpt of the beginning of the story in English translation ‘The Topsy Turvy Tales’ (1997) by Sukanta Chaudhuri.
- “It was terribly hot. I lay in the shade of a tree, feeling quite limp. I had put down my handkerchief on the grass: I reached out for it to fan myself when suddenly it called out, ‘Miaow!’
Here was a pretty puzzle. I looked and found that it wasn’t a handkerchief any longer. It had become a plump ginger cat with bushy whiskers, staring at me in the boldest way.
‘Bother’ I said. ‘My handkerchief’s turned into a cat.’
‘What’s bothering you?’ answered the Cat. ‘Now you have an egg, and then suddenly it turns into a fine quacky duck. It’s happening all the time.’
I thought for awhile and said, ‘But what should I call you now? You aren’t really a cat, you’re a handkerchief.’
‘Please yourself,’ he replied. ‘You can call me a cat, or a handkerchief, or even a semi-colon.’
‘Why a semi-colon?’ I asked.
‘Can’t you tell?’ said the Cat, winking and sniggering in a most irritating manner. I felt rather embarrassed, for apparently I should have known all about the semi-colon.
‘Ah!’ I said quickly. ‘Now I see your point.’
‘Of course you do,’ said the Cat, pleased. ‘S for semi-colon, P for handkerchief, C for cat — and that’s the way to spell “Spectacles!” Simple, isn’t it?’
And simple it is indeed, if one visits the topsy-turvy tale of ‘Hajabarala’. The young boy of “eight and a quarter” age, thus, has a vivid experience as he gradually meets a cat who is transformed out of a handkerchief, a raven who is an expert in calculations which is best understood to the raven alone, a bald-headed man, one and a half foot in length with a long, green beard, a theatre lyricist, who loves to carry around his stack of verses and sings even when not requested by others, a goat who fashions himself as an academic and delivers soulful non-academic lectures and so on. The list of characters goes on, till the climax of the story with a court sequence, where a verdict is delivered, unlawfully by a judge, who is an owl of “three month’s imprisonment and seven days hanging.” The story ends with the little being rudely awakened from his summer-afternoon slumber, by his maternal uncle, who caught him napping, while he should have been ideally studying.
With its assortment of characters and non-linear narrative, it is a short story that still holds a prominent place in the nonsense and satirical literature of the world even after a century. The story of ‘Hajabarala’ is set in the beginning of 20th century- an era, which also witnessed the compilation and subsequent publication of folklore from various parts of Bengal region (including the present Bangladesh)- both in English and Bengali.
Like ‘Hajabarala’ there are tales of animals doing all kinds of things, speaking, laughing, getting angry, narrating poetry and explaining complex mathematical equations in their own way. ‘Hajabarala’ is influenced by several prominent folktales from the region as well as local Bengali poems or ‘chharas’. ‘Hajabarala’ ‘creates’ and subsequently has successfully popularised anecdotes, phrases and characters, including protagonists and deuteragonists (the second most important character in a story—often called a secondary main character).
It was also the period which saw works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, Rabindranath Tagore and other literary figures. Sukumar Ray had read them with great interest and even founded a ‘Nonsense Club’. However, his own creations were uniquely different. This has also been mentioned by Satyajit Ray in the introduction of ‘The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray’: “The tale is obviously influenced by ‘Alice in Wonderland’. There is the same falling asleep on the grass; the same dream; the same pageant of known and half-known beasts and humans; the same hits at linguistic lapses, social customs and legal procedures; and finally the return to realty….”- and yet it remains an integral part of the socio-cultural ethos of the region, which makes it essentially a part of popular culture even after a century.
It is noteworthy that Sukumar Ray meant the storyline of ‘Hajabarala’ to be for very young readers, who according to him, can dare to dream impossible scenarios. This is also reflected in the very last paragraph of the story, where Ray mentioned- “I told my uncle the whole story, but he only said, ‘Nonsense, my boy. You’re making up stories out of some silly dream you’ve had.’ People turn funny as they grow old; they just don’t believe things anymore. But you aren’t very old as yet, so I thought I’d tell you all about it.”
However, Ray’s creations were as much for the young as for the old or the young-at-heart. About this, Satyajit Ray, wrote in the introduction of ‘The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray’: “There has been wit and humour in Bengali literature, both poetry and prose, from the earliest times; but there is little or no nonsense. This is not to say that Sukumar derives nothing from his predecessors. He uses puns, alliterations and onomatopoeia (words based on sound) for humorous effect just as others had done earlier. But the special quality of his nonsense is largely his own creation…the preface to Abol Tabol (1923) carried an apologia:- ‘This book was conceived in the spirit of whimsy. It is not meant for those who do not enjoy that spirit’…”
(The lead picture is that of Sukumar Ray)
(Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai is an Indian cultural and visual anthropologist specializing in South Asia)