Lila Majumdar, translated by Srilata Banerjee and with an introduction by Subhadra Sen Gupta,
The Burmese Box: Two Novellas
Puffin Classics (India), 2010.
Lila Majumdar is one of India’s best loved children’s authors, and it is clear from reading the glowing introduction by accomplished writer Subhadra Sen Gupta that she has shaped the imaginations of Bengali-speaking children for generations. Translations of her exciting stories are long overdue, and fortunately, her granddaughter and translator Srilata Bannerjee agrees.
Reading The Burmese Box and Goopy’s Secret Diary (the other novella contained in the collection) as an adult is like rediscovering a long lost childhood friend that I never actually met. The stories are fast-paced and exciting with little time wasted on set-up and exposition for, as Banerjee states in a translator’s note, “no child appreciates long-term planning.” These stories take place over no more than a day or two (despite harking back, in the case of The Burmese Box, to a family legend more than a hundred years old) and are filled with plot twists, remarkably eccentric relatives, bungling grown-ups, and the accompanying confusion so natural to childhood.
In both stories, a boy protagonist of about 11 gets pulled into the intrigue of missing jewels and family legends. At first the boys are excited for adventure, but doubt settles in once it is too late to back out and the possibility of real danger looms. What will become of the treasure? Who are the thieves? Why don’t the adults see the obvious? And what exactly is going on here anyway?
The protagonists encounter dream advice from long dead ancestors, secret tunnels in dilapidated mansions, carnivorous cows, and plenty of shifty characters, but everything turns out okay in the end. It would seem that disaster is averted thanks to the innocence and integrity the young heroes retain. Grown-ups who might have mucked up the situation never receive the necessary knowledge to carry out their plans, and justice—no, not justice but something even more important, fairness—prevails.
There will be some challenges for children not familiar with Bengali culture and family relationships as the terms for different relatives are very complicated to those of us used to the English system. Nonetheless, the book kept my eight-year-old son (who preferred Goopy’s Secret Diary) enthralled. I had to wrest it back from him in order to write this review! Fortunately, explanatory notes are included at the end of the book along with biographical data, “Things to Think About”, and a translator’s note that is particularly special considering the translator’s relationship to the author. The Burmese Box is destined to become a classic once again, this time in English.