If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 25 June 2010

Printed letters

“That morning, I was reading ‘Jal pode, pata node (Water trickles, the leaf trembles.)’. To me, that was the first poem written by the Original Poet. … water kept trickling and leaves kept trembling on my whole consciousness through the day.” – Rabindranath Tagore (Jeevansmriti)

I was introduced to the fascinating world of printed letters through a comic depicting the Ramayana. Those days, every Bengali child began with a few books by Upendra Kishore Ray Chaudhuri: Tuntunir Boi and Chhotto Ramayana. After a few years, they would read Abanindra Nath Tagore. Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma’s bag) and a few more books with similar eponymous names were collections of fairy tales that smelt of the earth and waters of Bengal. Generations of Bengali children read the books, until a gust of “English medium education” – long after the Englishmen had left – changed their language, and to an extent, their cultural moorings. According to oral history, Thakurmar Jhuli was originally told by a village drummer or dhuli in a remote village in the district of Mymansingh, East Bengal.

Sona Dhuli sat under a pipal tree and narrated the stories to his bemused listeners. He became famous, but as he stopped drumming to tell his tales, he also became poorer. It happens if you leave a secure career in search of the esoteric. Sona Dhuli didn’t have enough to eat, but told his tales till the end. Dakshina Ranjan heard the stories during his visits to Dighpait, his mother’s village. [Dayamayir Katha, Sunanda Sikdar, Gangchil, Kolkata, 2010, pp 64-65].

Dakshina Ranjan did a great service to Bengal by recording the tales for posterity. One would never know how many such gems have been lost forever. It would be inevitable in a society where knowledge is passed on through speech. It reminds me of the Thomas Gray lines that my father was fond of quoting:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Till I reached the sixth standard, my school used to be over by 10.30 in the morning. I returned to an empty home as sister studied at a day school and mother too would be in hers. I spent the afternoons alone. The long solitary hours helped me create a world in my mind which I venture into even now, although not very often. As the languid street cries of the men offering many domestic services floated in from the deserted afternoon streets and crows cawed to accentuate the loneliness, I spent hours watching ants undertaking trans-continental journeys in the cracks and crevices of the parapet wall on our terrace. The room on the terrace had all kinds of junk, but it was also a space ship that explored galaxies.

I would also read a storybook lying prone on a mat with a pillow under my chest. The books in our house helped. More importantly, ma introduced me to the treasure trove that was her school library; in the evening, I would search her bag to check what book she had brought for me.

Dickens, Jules Verne, Robert Luis Stevenson and Alexander Dumas were my favourite. I read Bangla translations of The treasure island and the adventure stories of Jules Verne many times over. Captain Nemo was the obvious childhood hero, more so because he was an Indian who ruled the depth of oceans. Bibhuti Bhushan’s Chander Pahad (The mountain of the moon) was another book I loved. (I rate it among the finest in the world literature for children.) Besides, there was Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol (Abracadabra), a collection of nonsense verse which I think remains unmatched to this day in the two languages that I seriously know, even after taking Edward Leer and Ogden Nash into account. And of course, Sukumar Ray’s prose: Hajabarala (Abracadabra again) and Pagla Dashu (Dashu is nuts) etc. Sukumar Ray was Upendrakishore’s son. And his son, Satyajit Ray, created the legendary Feluda and Professor Shanku. Children’s literature would have been poorer but for this trio.

I was a subscriber of the children’s magazine Ramdhanu (The Rainbow). It was a matter of pride to see the periodical delivered at home with my name printed on the cover. The editor of the magazine was Kshitindra Narayan Bhattacharya, who also wrote lovely stories for children, particularly science fiction. (I read an article on him recently. He was a topper in M.Sc. in applied chemistry from Calcutta University and taught at Ashutosh College.) The magazine-office-cum-printing press-cum-the editor’s-residence was near ours, in Townsend Road, although the place was no longer at the town’s end then. (One of my best friends, Damodar Menon lived there too, although unfortunately we met only as adults.)

Kshitindra Narayan was the first author I met in flesh and blood, and naturally, I was a nervous. But he put me at ease in minutes and talked for quite some time as if he was talking to an equal. Besides, there was another magazine, Suktara (The evening star) that our newspaper supplier, Master Moshai delivered. In Suktara, there were many mushy stories that described orphan boys, badly treated by guardians or masters, run away and return years later after they made it big.

My friend Ashish Sarbagya ran away from home when we were in the sixth standard. Ashish had been afflicted with polio and walked with a limp. He lived near my house and we walked to school together after we were promoted to the secondary school. He walked fast and was none the worse for his physical challenge. It is not known if he made it big. No one has heard of him since.


  1. Sir, your post brought a lot of memories back of my childhood days. I suppose the feeling of joy, excitement, adventure and some times even pain that the world of books offers to a child goes a long way in building his character.

    I particularly remember an incident that happened when I was perhaps about 8 or 9 years of age. After getting promoted to the fourth standard, my father gifted me the book 'Chaander Pahad'. There have been innumerable things that my father has given me till date but I would probably rank this book as one of the most cherished ones. It probably opened a new world to me. I still remember that evening while I was going through a particular section of the book where Shankar gets lost in a dark cave and had to survive with out food and water. As it was quite late by then, I was forced by my mother to stop reading for the day and go to bed. Sleep though was the last thing that was in my mind then. Will Shankar be able to find his way out?...How will he survive with out food and water?...Is this going to be his end?...I was tormented by all these questions probably through out the night. The next morning the first thing that I did was to rush to the page where I had left the night before. The relief that I got by knowing that Shankar could finally see light at the end of the tunnel is unexplainable.

    I shall be ever grateful to my father and Bibhuti Bhushan Badopadhyay for giving me such a wonderful experience.

  2. And Anirban, incidentally, Santanu da has made a very lovely translation of Chaander Pahad, 'The Mountain of the Moon' (Katha publication)

    Bibhutibhushan would have been immensely happy! You shouldn't miss it, dear!

  3. Thanks Kaushik da for sharing this information. I was not aware of it. Would love to get it at the earliest. In fact I would suggest Shantanu da to post at least a couple of snippets of it on this blog. I am sure a lot of us would be delighted to read it.

  4. Even as one born quite late in the last century, I did taste some of the classics you mention. My book collection consisted mainly of bengali children's fantasy till my early teens - most of the books were birthday presents. I don't know if children born in the 21st century read those anymore.

    I was even a Shuktara subscriber once upon a time, which I confess buying mainly for Batul The Great.

    Oh, I forgot to tell you jethu. Your translation of Chaander Pahad was fantastic! It retains the easy flow and charm of the original.

    And what did Edward leer at? :P

  5. Sir, this was a lovely post, like all the others I have missed over the past couple of months. I am sorry for the lack of comments but the training at my job gave me next to no time for the blogging world. This one reminds of the stories my mother told me of her reading days as a kid. She had aunts who worked at the local school who would bring back books from the library for her too :)

  6. Thanks a lot, Anirban, Kaushik, Sudipto and Vaishnavi. It feels great to hear from you.

    Thanks, Anirban, for your suggestion. I will post a few chapters from the novella on my blog soon.

    And like you, Sudipto, I wonder why no one gives books as gifts to anyone anymore. The last time I gave a book to a nephew who had just passed the secondary exam, I watched a shadow of disappointment cross his face. But let's not give up. If things around us are to change, one of the prerequisites will be that people read books! Let's chip in in our small ways!

  7. 'The last time I gave a book to a nephew who had just passed the secondary exam, I watched a shadow of disappointment cross his face'
    Interesting. But let me tell you how different here in NY kids are groomed to develop the taste for reading. My daughter is kindergarten and its amazing how much emphasis is given to reading. Every week teacher sends a book home and we have to read with her. Also parents are encouraged to buy books from a company and the company donates a book to the class library.
    Whenever i travel i see americans always reading something, in the flight or airport or train. Now i know where it come from.

  8. Thank you, Sujith, for sharing your thoughts and for adding a new dimension to the issue. Your comments set me thinking, resulting into something that has been posted as "Printed letters - A postscript" on my blog today (2 July). I request you to read it when you can.


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