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.