Thursday, December 23, 2004

"I"ll take two of those": The Cloned Cat, Sukumar Ray, and Putu

Let us begin small: I'll take two of those.

In other Cat news, there is also Putu, whose world-domination schemes have finally come to light after five months, not of mere "cat-blogging," but rather the much more philosophically challenging blogging-as-cat. Putu is, I believe, a Bengali cat, but Putu's gender is a secret. Is it possible Putu is really two cats, one male, one female?

Speaking of mysterious Bengali cats, I was reading randomly in The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, and I came across Sukumar Ray, a highly prolific writer of surrealist children's stories in the 1910s and 20s. He was part of the Presidency College circle of Bengali intellectuals in Calcutta, and he was the father of acclaimed film maker Satyajit Ray (who even made a film about Sukumar in 1987--I haven't seen it). Ray spent some time in England, where he studied printing technology, which enabled him to make some beautiful illustrations for his books [example]. He seems to have been a bit of a Bengali Lewis Carroll!

Today I have an excerpt for you from The Topsy-Turvy Tale (1921). In Bengali, the story is called Hajabarala or Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La -- six Bengali consonants arranged at random. I gather (from Amit Chaudhuri) that in Bengali the phrase is still synonymous with 'muddle' or 'jumble'. Here is an excerpt:

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 replied.

'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?'

Yes, isn't it. Note that it's not that the cat was hiding under the handerchief. The cat became the handkerchief!

Anyway, more Sukumar Ray:

The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray, which you can get from Amazon.

The best biography of Sukumar Ray I've found on the web

Times of India link

Excerpts from Abol Tabol (in Bengali)

Another Sukumar page, with a helpful bio.

Poems (in English, followed by Bengali): Khichuri, Woodly Old Man, Mustache Thievery

More poems:
Three poems

The King of Bombaria

Stew Much

Lots of Bengali poems (in Bengali)


Anonymous said...

Sukumar Roy writings, even today, are among the most beloved by Bengalis. This is especially true of his book of 'nonsense poems' Abol Tabol (which literally means gibberish). Kids love their 'silliness' while adults love their double entendres which lampoon casteism, snobbery and other lampoonable stuff.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous said...

Even though I am in my 30s I love reading Sukumar Ray. His work appeals to all ages. Though I don't think his works can be translated that easily. It is so much fun to read his original works in Bengali than in English.

3:30 PM  
Anonymous said...

It is real sad when Sukumar Roy is referred to as something of a Bengali Lewis Carroll. He was better, of course. There is no way of comparing nonsense literature from one language with another, but Roy comes across as a superior craftsman because he included some real time issues in his nonsense. Unlike the creator of Jabberwocky, he forced meaning in nonsense, and, though bereft of the quality of lending themselves to semi-metaphysical interpretations,his works are absolutely delightful. He has nothing comparable to Alice but the whole corpus of his works beats the mathematician by a fat margin. Yes, there is something mathematical about Alice..I never thought about it though!
I have illustrious company though. Mujtaba Ali thought the same. Not about the mathematics bit, of course.

9:25 AM  
GinSoakedBoy said...

Just read your post and felt that you could help me out. I am looking for the name of a Sukumar Roy story which has a cat called "Mojontali Shorkar." I am desperate to know the name because i associate that character with childhood memories, grandfather,:, etc. So it would be great if you could help me out or put me through someone who can help me out.

5:44 AM  
Sayantani said...

hello GinSoakedBoy,

Majantali Sarkar was not from Sukumar Ray but Upendrakishore. See this link:

2:43 PM  
Sayantani said...

Also see this link for Majantali

2:47 PM  

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