Sampurna has translated Sukumar Ray, the master of Bengali nonsense poetry and prose, loved for his word-play, his absurd and all-too human creatures, and his crackling humour. Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray was published in 2004 by Penguin Books India under the Puffin imprint, and quickly went into a reprint.
From the launch at Oxford Bookstore, Mumbai
In July 2008 it was reissued with a brand new cover and an Introduction by Ruskin Bond as a Puffin Classic titled Wordygurdyboom!
Here’s an extract from Bond’s introduction:
“What Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll did with English, Ray could do with Bengali. Readers were treated to a cascade of humorous verse, satire, wonder tales and just plain nonsense. … But no less entertaining were Sukumar’s drawings – his sketches of fussy schoolteachers, errant schoolboys, pompous pundits, eccentric family members, and of course weird creatures such as the animals in Professor Chuckleonymous’s hunting tales, or the wild-eyed monster with an elephant’s trunk, a lion’s mane and a lizard’s tail. The creatures he created for his poem ‘Mish-Mash’ are truly out of this world. But some of his humans are among my favourite characters – the rascally schoolboy Pagla Dashu, the inventive Uncle with his crazy gadgets, and Tickling Tom who drives you crazy with a feather.
The translator Sampurna Chattarji deserves a medal (and more) from Chandidas’ Uncle … She has given the upside-down world of Sukumar Ray a new lease of life. This is obviously a labour of love, and thanks to her labours there are now many readers who will love this wonderful world of nonsense.
- Ruskin Bond, February 2008
When the translation first appeared in 2004, here’s what some reviews had to say:
Rare is the literate Bangali who does not smile at the mention of Upendrakishore Roychoudhury and Sukumar Ray. About Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne Satyajit Ray, grandson of Upendrakishore and son of Sukumar, wrote to Marie Seton, “It is extraordinary how quickly it became part of the popular culture. Really, there isn’t a single child in the city who doesn’t know and sing the songs (from the film).” The same can be said of Sukumar’s Abol Tabol, although his work has more adult resonance than Upendrakishore’s. Sukumar’s satirical characters include children who have been forbidden from smiling (a dig at the extra-seriousness of the members of Brahmo Samaj), and an anglophile cow that loves everything English (a depiction of the black sahibs who viewed with contempt anything Indian). In a dig at the laws of the then British government, Sukumar also described a land where one can be punished for coughing or sneezing or slipping on the road. Puffin India, which is a subsidiary of Penguin India, has published these two very good translations of both the writers – especially of Sukumar’s Abol Tabol, whose translator Sampurna Chattarji notes that, “The most marvellous thing about Sukumar Ray’s poetry is, of course, the sound. What we call onomatopoeia in English suddenly starts seeming pale in comparison to the whole riotous caboodle of effects that he conjures up in Bengali. My effort has been to get that experience across, even if it meant resorting at times to outrageous word-making.” The reader can read the results for him/herself.
- Khademul Islam, The Daily Star, April 24, 2004
‘Abol Tabol is satirical in nature but contained within the subtle and often obvious humour, is a vast tragic vision.’
The stork told the tortoise, ‘Isn’t this fun!
As the stortoise, we’re second to none!’
As a writer of verse ironically termed “nonsense”, replete with complex metaphysics as disarmingly offered as the quality of childhood, Sukumar Roy was certainly second to none. Language for him was not a creature of whimsy or mere wordplay. Abol Tabol in Bengali means nonsense but there is little of the intangible in his combination of the stork and tortoise that make a stortoise or the unhappy hornbill with no horns who merges with a deer and “no longer mourns.” His ideas move with amazing swiftness and these poems and illustrations are alive with a potent vibrancy like
And the other day the whole night thrusome
was it you who snored so gruesome?
Even when Pagla Dashu in “Dashu the Dotty One” quietly refrains from reacting, the atmosphere is charged with anticipation. There is a sense of pulsating energy very integral to his creative process. It is fantastic in its characterisation with personalities like Woody, “Kathburo” in the original, who lives on boiled wood and can discourse on the varieties and flavours of different kinds of wood and “Pumpkin Grumpkin”, originally “Kumropotash”, whose various moods have terrible repercussions. Satirical in nature, contained within the subtle and often obvious humour, is a vast tragic vision. The use of sound, incorporated within the rhyme scheme, forms the essence of his poetry and is therefore more than just the poetic tool of onomatopoeia and draws an instant response. The humour is never black and the simplicity never forced for life is all but waiting to happen and of course things can be “A hanky one minute, a cat the next!” Published just nine days before the author’s death, Abol Tabol is actually an adult world of chaotic disorder where a child can slip in with ease because it is “Not a shoe, not a clue, nobody and no one am I!”
The best thing about Abol Tabol is the translator Sampurna Chattarji’s seeming effortlessness in maintaining to a great degree the flavour of the Bengali original. The rhythm so essential to Roy’s poetic creed is brought out and the rhythmic beat is well maintained. Savour this:
The parrot-faced lizard felt rather silly—
Must he give up insects and start eating chilli?
- Paromita Pain, The Hindu, March 7, 2004
If translating verse is a tough translation assignment, translating nonsense verse must be tougher still. Sampurna Chattarji has, indeed, done a commendable job of translating Abol Tabol. Even so, non-Bengali readers cannot help wondering how much better the book must be in the original.
Part prose, part verse, the common thread running through the book is its unbridled sense of fun. It has none of the staple ingredients of children’s books. There are no morals here, no preaching either. What you have, instead, is a roller-coaster ride with characters who are as fun as they are weird, as interesting as they are outlandish. With their simple charm and wacky wickedness, they can bring a smile to adults as easily as they can to children. You meet Wise Old Woody who sits in the sun “eating boiled wooden bits.” Or take a peek inside The Ol’ Crone’s Home where “In a rickety-rackety house, a clickety crone is stomping.” You can crack a joke but must not expect any response from “The Billy Hawk Calf (who) is forbidden to laugh.” You might want to run from Tickling Tom, though, because “If he catches you alone he feeds you tales till you’re a goner.” You will probably laugh yourself silly at the antics of two hunters named, hilariously enough, Hurly Singh and Burly Singh in The Diary of Cautious Chuckleonymous.
Fortunately, Sukumar Ray has done strikingly accurate drawings of his out-of-the-world characters to go with each piece. These evocative renderings bring alive a never-never land that might otherwise have been lost on those unable to imagine bizarre characters in outrageous situations like the ones in Mish-Mash.
The most wonderful thing about Ray’s verse is its sound. Sample this from a poem aptly titled Wordygurdyboom! or better still say it out loud:
Whack-thwack boom-bam, oh what a rackers—
Flowers blooming? I see! I thought they were crackers!
Whoosh-swoosh ping-pong my ears clench with fear,
You mean that’s a pretty smell getting out of here?
Hurry-scurry clunk-thunk — what’s that dreadful sound?
Can’t you see the dew falling, mustn’t move around!
Critics call this use of sound onomatopoeia — but never mind unpronounceable literary terms, Ray would have probably wanted it known as jolly good fun. If each of his verses has a couple of fun-filled fantastic characters, the stories, especially Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law and The Diary of Cautious Chuckleonymous, have a whole assembly of them. Though shorn of the acoustic gymnastics that make the poems so remarkable, the stories are nonetheless unforgettable for their bewildering array of madcap characters in the unlikeliest of situations.
- Prerana Trehan, The Sunday Tribune, April 4, 2004
The full versions of some these reviews can be read at the following links: