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Review

How Non-nonsensical is Sukumar Ray’s Nonsense Verse?

Book review by Nivedita Sen

Title: Habber-Jabber Law:  Nonsense Adventure.

Author: Sukumar Ray; translated from Bengali to English by Arunava Sinha  

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

It is believed by and large that Ha Ja Ba Ra La (1921) by Sukumar Ray, the father of Satyajit Ray, was attempted as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Both start with the child protagonist going off to sleep out of doors on a hot summer’s day, under the shade of a tree, and entering a dreamscape in which creatures that are a mix of the real and the fantastic live out their lives. These characters are caught in situations where they constantly argue with one another and the protagonist about the strangest of words, events and ideas. Yet the very normalcy, credibility and sanity offered through the voice of the first person protagonist, juxtaposed and tested against the curious and the implausible in their formulations, is portrayed satirically, critical of some of the assumptions and values we take for granted, and interrogated for their logical fallacies.

Although Alice travels down a rabbit hole that leads her to Wonderland, Sukumar Ray changed everything from this point onward to match the ambience of an Indian, more specifically Bengali, way of life. And in the process, he not only crafted an original which is a milestone in the genre of nonsense writing in Bengali for children but offered food for adult thought to anyone who could read between the lines.

The book has an attractive cover and design and includes all the delightful original illustrations by the author. But it is a colossal task to actually translate line by line, if not word by word, this early twentieth century Bengali classic into English. Over the last forty years, language based translations have moved to culture based translations. This initial spadework was taken care of by Sukumar Ray in his adaptation of Alice.

When Arunava Sinha translates this text into English, we can assume that it is meant for an Indian readership. A crow (read human being) that traces its upper caste pedigree to the pure-blooded Rex Ravenus, a man who coyly appeals to people not to ask him to sing only because he wants his singing to be heard, and a court case for defamation in which the number of witnesses goes up because they get paid (bribed) for the ‘work’ are not unfamiliar across a pan-Indian spectrum. But the facetiousness and irony also extends to a universal human predicament in which the child encounters the worldly wisdom of ‘money is time’ that has to be factored in every calculation (reminiscent of a railway journey scene in Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass), when he iterates a multiplication table correctly but naively. Or in the utopian make-believe of making the world a happier place, when he learns, to his bewilderment, of an odd reversal in which the ages of people turn backward after they are forty, so that nobody dies old age.

Sukumar Ray’s Ha Ja Ba Ra La provides undiluted amusement to child readers but communicates more seriously to adult readers. Ashish Lahiri, an academic and writer, in an essay in 1982 in a magazine called Prabashi, had underlined the significant dichotomy between the first and second parts of the story. In the first, the current ‘scientific culture’ with its discourses of temporal and spatial relativity is tried to absurd extremes by the nonsensical utterances of the cat, the crow and the two dwarfish brothers. To start with, the handkerchief-turned-cat deconstructs our accepted structures of logic and common sense by arguing that he can be called cat chief, kerchief or capital zed, and extending its reasoning to spell out the ridiculous combination of alphabets that can identify it. Exact nomenclatures and absolute definitions are challenged in this episode.

Similarly, in keeping with findings in astrophysics and geography about the rotation of the earth, the cat says that we will never find anyone where we expect to find them, because no creature remains rooted in the anticipated spot, even if they are stationary. This hilarious observation while looking for someone called Big Tree Brother dwells on the relativity of time. It is corroborated by the logic of the crow who says that seven times two is not always fourteen because time is forever on the move and the arithmetical calculation changes by the time one works it out. Yet, all the bodily measurements of the first-person protagonist are fixed at twenty-six inches by the very creatures who make a case for the idea and practice of relativity, perhaps because he carries a baggage of absolute and rigid assumptions imposed on him by the adult world of common sense.

Hzzbuzzbuzz (whose original Bengali name Hijibijbij suggests hijibiji, a scribble that is garbled and meaningless) connects the two parts of the story with his compulsive need to laugh at the most hypothetical and incredible of situations. The second part, set in the open air courtroom of fantastic creatures, is resonant of human society at large for its dishonesty and deceit. It keeps the reader’s focus on the incongruity, dissonance and comicality of everything we ever learned or cultivated, from science and philosophy to the legal arbitration of civilised, educated, middle class life.

The court scene includes the moss-ridden coat or camouflage of the fraudulent lawyer, the book of law that epitomises a theoretical and meaningless justice and the owl-judge who cannot see things that are obvious by the clear light of day but only when they are under cover of nocturnal darkness. The crocodile’s convoluted questions for the sake of questions and his own weird interpretations suggest the ambivalences and distortions involved in the legal process. That the entire organisation of law and other human institutions and systems is based on big, unintelligible and fancy words that are absurd lies is critiqued in Hzzbuzzbuzz’s incoherent, unrelated but irreverent ramblings that tickle his funny bone. These anomalies, it suggests, are extant not only in law but every template of our civic rights and duties.

The transference of culture, except for very Bengali-specific ways of talking, social and professional behaviour, is not required in an Indian context. The simplicity and transparency of the situations would also not be difficult to translate verbatim if they were not based on tongue in cheek utterances that are apparently nonsensical. The translator’s credit lies in his translating each and every one of the nonsense rhymes, and much of the word play, including alliteration, assonance, puns, internal rhymes and onomatopaea. Evaluating what is technically termed as the aesthetic equivalence of the source text against the target text, these word and sound-related fragments are commendably done.

Sinha has, at times, morphed the nonsense expressions to equally incredible but compatibly bizarre sounding words and phrases that maintain an altered meter and matter in an attempt to integrate the English language within the coordinates of an indigenous linguistic culture. In a rhyme, for instance, that uses three different words for female ghosts – petni pishi, shankchuni and ultaburi, for example, the translator uses banshee aunty, ghouless and crone to cover all of them. Rhythms and cadences can hardly be the same in both languages, but Sinha struggles with and juggles the nonsense vocabulary by muting certain words, mutating others but also ends up mutilating a few. That, of course, is unavoidable in the linguistic upheaval of such a landmark of nonsense prose.

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Nivedita Sen is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She works on Bangla children’s literature, and has translated authors like Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Asha Purna Devi, Leela Majumdar and others for Harvard University Press, Vishwabharati Press, Sahitya Akademi, Katha, Tulika and more. Some of her works on children’s literature are Family, School and Nation: The Child and Literary Constructions in Twentieth Century Bengal. (Routledge, 2015), The Gopal-Rakhal Dialectic: Colonialism and Children’s Literature in Bengal (Tulika, 2015), translated from Sibaji Bandyopadhyay’s book, and articles on Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass in Alice in a World of Wonderlands (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2015) and Libri et Liberi: Journal of Research on Children’s Literature and Culture (2016).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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