Sukumar's Myth and Magic | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 24, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 24, 2017

literature

Sukumar's Myth and Magic

THE SONS OF RAMGAROO

Sukumar Ray

(Translated by Satyajit Ray)

To the sons of Ramgaroo

Laughter is taboo

A funny tale will make them wail:

“We're not amused, boo - hoo!”

They live in constant fear

Of chuckles far and near

And start and bound at every sound

That brings a breath of cheer.

Their peace of mind forfeiting

They sit and keep repeating:

"We believe in only grieving;

Happiness is fleeting.”

They shun the summer breeze

That whispers through the trees

For fear the stir of leaf and bur

Their funny bones should tease.

They keep a wary eye

On the autumn sky

For signs of mirth above the earth

In foaming cumuli.

The darkness of the night

Brings them no respite

As fireflies extemporise

Their dances of delight.

Those of you who are jolly

And feel to woe is folly

Must not refuse the Ramgaroos

Their right to melancholy.

The Ramgaroosian lair

Bereft of sun and air

Is doomed to be a monastery

Of permanent despair

Silly rhymes, nonsensical verses, absurd characters - that's how Sukumar Ray introduced poetry in to my life with his book Abol Tabol (Rhymes without Reasons), an amazing collection of classic Bengali nonsense poetry. 

I don't remember who got us a copy of Ray's Abol Tabol, but I can still clearly picture the copy we owned. Over the years it has become crinkled, its spine bent, a coverless copy, earning an iconic status in our bookshelf. Crinkled because we would read it over and over again. Coverless because we used it as a tantrum diffuser for my little brother who loved the poems, and who, once, in anger, peeled off the cover. 

The book remained a favourite to us, nevertheless. We could quote verses from Baburam Shapure (Baburam, the Snake Charmer) and Katukutu Buro (Old Tickler) anytime and anywhere. 

The very name of the book implies that its contents made no sense, but despite the poet's apparent intent, the poems were not mere gibberish. In fact, poetry has an entire genre reserved for nonsense, and in Bengali literature, nonsense poetry, especially those meant for children, has had a long oral tradition. It has been a common practice for Bengali households to pass down rhymes to the younger generations, as a tool to placate them, to ignite the seeds of imagination, to encourage reading. These poems mostly had rural settings, and would detail the everyday, seemingly mundane events of life, and contain made-up words that only make sense in context. 

Sukumar Ray earned his fame, and a special place in Bengali literature, for his nonsense poetry in Abol Tabol and Ha-ja-ba-ra-la. While he was in college, Ray ventured into the world of nonsense by publishing his hand-written magazine about humour called Thirty-two and a half fries. Later, he took over his father's magazine Sandesh and enriched Bengali literature with a vast collection of nonsense literature.

Ray's poems defied all logic and made us believe that there is no absolute reality. Through his poems, we learnt pun and word play. To imagine and believe in mystical lands and absurd creatures. In fact, soon after reading Khichuri, one of our favourites – a poem where he introduced portmanteau words and anthropomorphic characters much like Lewis Caroll and Lear, the legends of nonsense – we would call each other Hasjaru (swan+porcupine), Girgitia (chameleon +parrot) or Singharin (lion+deer).   

Through his poems, Ray opened up a realm of new words that were absent in the mainstream dictionary back then. I learnt that the absurd, the odd and the exaggerated had its own beauty. Along with other characters, I would embark on a journey to Bombardia, where everyone, starting from the king to a musician, had their own peculiar customs. The king of the land kept his precious aam shotto (dried mango) safe by having it encased in a gilded frame. The queen, on the other hand, preferred going to bed with pillows strapped around her head. What is the reasoning behind their peculiar actions?  He gives his readers the freedom to comprehend. For me, I felt an affinity for the peculiarity of the people of this land who do and say what they please. 

My siblings and I grew up with Ramgarurer Chhana, and I remember my younger cousins eager to join in our impromptu performance of the poems. They would try to enunciate the bizarre words long before they could even recite the rhymes. We would share them while getting ready for school, or when we sat for a meal together or at family get-togethers, clapping along, following its steady beat. 

The funnier the poems, the crazier our enactments. 

As a child, Ray's nonsense verses, filled with whim, totally made sense to me. After all these years, even today I find it worth flipping through and delving a little deeper into his unusual poems.  

Because that's how I fell in love with poetry. 

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