Week-end Book Review: Wordygurdyboom! The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray by Sukumar Ray

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

Sukumar Ray, translated by Sampurna Chatterji
Wordygurdyboom! The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray
Puffin Classics (India), 2008.

Ages: 8+

Sukumar Ray was a Bengali writer born in Calcutta in 1887.   After being educated in India and England, he returned to his father’s printing press business U. Ray & Sons in Calcutta. At that time, the older Ray had begun publishing a children’s magazine called Sandesh. When Sukumar took over the press in 1915, he began to write for the magazine, producing poetry and stories, as well as illustrations for SandeshWordygurdyboom! is a collection of Ray’s writing and illustrations, translated from the original Bengali by Sampurna Chatterji. As noted in the introduction by Ruskin Bond, Bengali is a language that ‘lends itself to rhyme and rhythm, to puns and wordplay.’  Ray, influenced by the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, carved out his own unique style of verse in Bengali and, thanks to Sampurna Chatterji’s excellent translation, readers can really enjoy his ‘non-sensibility’ in this English anthology.

The book is made up of a selection of Ray’s writings which include poems, stories, and even a made-up hunting diary of a Professor Chuckleonymous. Throughout the book, strange creatures abound like the Limey Cow which is “not a cow, in fact it’s a bird” or the Billy Hawk calf who “is forbidden to laugh.”  There’s the Wonster who is a pining, whining, ‘nag-nag’ or the Pumpkin Grumpkin who looks like a walrus-manatee. In the poem Mish Mash, there are all manners of creatures combined to become such oddities as the ‘duckupine,’ the ‘elewhale’ or the ‘stortoise.”

In Ray’s stories, various odd characters appear like the calculating Raven of Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law or the mischievous school boy Dashu of “Dashu the Dotty One.” There’s Professor Globellius Brickbat who experiments with cannonballs made up of “nettle-juice, chilli-smoke, flea-fragrance, creeper-cordial, rotten-radish extract,” the result of which, as you can imagine, is not flattering to the appearance of the man post-experiment.

Wordygurdyboom! is a delightful collection of writing. What is astonishing, however, is the fact that this is a work of translation. Non-sense verse relies heavily on the nuances of language; that the Bengali could be translated into English in this manner is truly, as Bond points out, ‘deserving of a medal.’ Much credit has to be given to Sampurna Chatterji for bringing this lively, witty writer’s words into English for a new generation of readers to appreciate and enjoy.

Sally Ito
April 2012

Week-end Book Review: The Land of Cards by Rabindranath Tagor

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Radha Chakravarty,
The Land of Cards: Stories, Poems and Plays for Children
Puffin Classics, Penguin Books India, 2010.

Ages: 10+

Puffin Classics’ anthology of Rabindranath Tagore‘s work for children takes its title from his famous play. The Land of Cards is a country populated by the stiff, unbending cards of a traditional four-suit deck. They believe in and are rigidly ruled by rules. During the course of the play, the cards begin to realize their limitations, break through their bondage to superstitious beliefs, and claim their freedom. “The Land of Cards” exemplifies the humor and satire that make Tagore such a beloved literary figure, but the rest of this collection is also strong.

Radha Chakravarty’s translation begins with a selection of eleven poems. They capture for English readers some of the puns, rhythms and rhyming patterns that Tagore’s poetry is famous for in the original Bengali. The poems also present the themes of his work, including the outsmarting of the pretentious, the abuse of power, the silly wastefulness of bureaucracy, and the restorative power of the natural world.

Following the poems are three plays, “The Post Office” and “A Poetic Mood and Lack of Food” as well as the title play. It’s easy to imagine a talented teacher coaching a middle school class into a rousing performance of any of these. Even the shortest, “A Poetic Mood,” packs a punch, as a wealthy, pious hypocrite advises a penniless man to pay more attention to the beautiful day than to his hunger.

The final third of the book comprises eight stories, all both entertaining and morally instructive in Tagore’s witty way. “The Parrot’s Tale,” for example, describes the extravagant efforts of the king’s servants to “educate” a parrot by putting it in a golden cage and stuffing its mouth with textbook paper. The ridiculous situation ends with much money in the pockets of the king’s yes men–and a dead parrot. But since the bird no longer annoys people, no one cares.

The back matter includes a translator’s note and a “classic plus” section with a thoughtful Q&A on Tagore’s work, study questions and a brief glossary of Bengali words. Non-Indian children will need some orientation to the cultural context of Tagore’s writing; this anthology could be an excellent classroom resource or reference book as well as a pleasurable, instructive read for older children.

Charlotte Richardson
April 2012