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Review

Whose Land is it Anyway?

Book Review by Nivedita Sen

Title: Nomad’s Land.

Author: Paro Anand.

Publisher: Talking Cub (an imprint of Speaking Tiger Books), 2020

We live in times when the business of children’s literature increasingly turns towards desanitising the world around child readers to expose them to real life accounts of hatred, violence, othering and numerous other ills that are perpetuated around them in a way that they can decide for themselves who or what they want to be amidst all this. In a universe torn by war and the hostile drawing of lines, Paro Anand’s writings are sentient, sensitive and sensible exemplars of portraying the child reader’s realm as one that can subsume the world within it if s/he wants it to. In her book of stories Like Smoke, or her novels No Guns at my Son’s Funeral and now Nomad’s Land, she has let her child protagonists tread on and explore many of the concerns in the lives of adults.

Anand has talked about two ethnic groups – the Kashmiri Pandit community that had fled the valley in the eighties due to terrorist violence that often targeted them, and the imagined Qhushvaha people in the higher plateaus who had got dislodged from their homeland due to the political upheaval in which they had been ostracized by their own kinsmen, a combination of many such marginalized groups of children that the author has been interacting with. The Qhushvahans have come and resettled in what can perhaps be recognised as Majnu ka Tila, the Tibetan resettlement colony of Delhi, although Delhi has been named in the entire novel only once in relation to the Kashmiri Pandit girl Shanna’s grandparents’ residence.

The refugees have made it their camp, their home away from home, by severing their link with their own ancestral territories, reinventing the colony’s open sewer lines as the river that flowed in the lap of Mother nature back home, and reinforcing their disconnect with their own land of not so long ago. Anand claims that this group is based on a combination of children from Tibet, the North East, the Rohingyas, the Syrian child who had been left to die between shifting sands, decriminalised tribes like the Pardhis, and finally the children of the migrant labour who had to flee the cities to walk back to their villages immediately after the declaration of the lockdown with no sense of belonging to any definite region. When Anand mentioned the last group in an interview, one could sense a goosebump-raising contemporaneity about the story. The Qhushvahans represent what Anand calls the ‘Everyman of Nomad’s land’.

Amidst all messages of acrimony that children receive from their parents, Anand, who works with children of various backgrounds, says that they do not necessarily internalise those abrasions, fissures and fractures. She uses a beautiful metaphor when she says in an interview that she wants to spread the message of love and peace by teaching children addition and multiplication rather than subtraction and division. Shanna the Kashmiri girl is one such child who overcomes her diffidence in the subtle manner in which she connects with the other children of her school when Pema her friend is away and suggests to them that we could all be trees. What she means is that even if we have lost our own roots, we could grow not only branches but new roots, a message of inclusiveness that makes them rethink their inherited prejudices about the Nagas. It suggests a review of inbuilt bad blood passed on by our parents.

Pema, the Qhushvaha girl in the refugee colony, is preoccupied with something else — liberating her old grandmother or mola from her racking cough and releasing her into death through an ancient practice of ‘breathtaking’ that is performed on those who are leading vegetable lives in the twilight of their lives. It has, of course, been banned by the government because it is a kind of mercy killing. Anand points out that when laws and policies are framed in a country with a multicultural canvas like that of India, we do not take into account that one size cannot fit all. Interestingly, Shanna is included in this project. She is entrusted with the task of enabling Pema’s mola cross the bridge to death because a kinsman is not supposed to do it.

The cough becomes a motif that unites the frail and elderly across the book — Debek Dan, the only man who can teach Shanna how to perform the breathtaking ritual, Shanna’s grandfather who significantly learnt indigenous medication from a Muslim hakim friend, and Pema’s grandmother. Shanna realises that the cough that links these three people has to do with the pollution in a big city, which is where they had had to resettle after having been natives of “forever skies and endless horizons”. 

An ecological concern over the abuse of the environment comes through in the images of the open drain choked with plastic wrappers that acts as a surrogate for a river or the respiratory distress that affects the elderly across communities that were inhabitants of the mountains. That is when Shanna and Pema hit upon the idea of going back to Kashmir to procure some ingredients like roots and herbs for Nanaji’s medicines from the higher reaches of the Himalayas.

Both of them want to become doctors of indigenous medicine when they grow up, and Debek Dan’s daughter, Doyang, is willing to be an accomplice in their enterprise. The starting point of the fantasized venture would involve a reconnaissance trip to Kashmir themselves to stay with Huma and her family.  And the novel ends with Shanna and Pema undertaking a  mission that seamlessly and happily weaves together so many disparate strands in the novel — Shanna’s mother’s stops mourning to start a new life by accompanying the two girls, the reunion with Huma on whom Shanna had perpetrated communal hatred without any provocation, the understanding that Huma’s family has also been the victim of terrorist violence, the fusing together of Ayurvedic, Unani and Qhushvaha medicinal practices to solve a medical crisis in which the elderly in the novel suffer due to the hazardous air quality index in the urban pockets of the plains, and the children’s environment-friendly command over the ambience we live in. As Anand admitted herself, despite her effort to expose her child readers to sordid truths about the life around them, she ends her stories on a hopeful note so as not to leave them feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Pema is a doer to begin with, and both the girls go up and about towards the end, therefore, to act positively on something that needs to be done to make the world a better place to live and breathe in.

Anand’s invention of the race of Qhushvahans involves not only creating a history and a geography about them, representing a protagonist, Pema as the ‘Everyman of Nomad’s Land’, but constructing a language that expresses itself in the quaint Qhushvaha deathbed rituals and chants, and making up nomenclatures (like Mola for grandmother) and facets of their culture like clothes. The English language is used by the possibly pre-teen protagonists in a way that shows real children imitate their peer group and improvise. Shanna, it is shown, feels progressively proud of being included in a group that uses adolescent colloquialisms like dude, swag, grandmom, wanna, whack, lezzies – what she calls “real TV language”.

The book deploys an anachronistic time scheme in which internet and cellphones exist in the early eighties in which the story is set. She says that this is to enable the children of the here and now to identify and feel more at home with its setting.

Paro Anand’s themes and portrayals have been such that a lot of censorship has been imposed on them by the adult gatekeepers of children’s morality. One of her books was banned from school curriculums because two adolescents of different communities share a fleeting kiss in it, and Anand justifiably calls such censorship the banning of books “for the love of hate.”

It is a work for children that is not only food for thought for children who are trying to find their feet around in a big, bad world but also makes adults pause and revisit the biases with which we inadvertently indoctrinate our children. 

Nivedita Sen is an 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. 

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

Categories
Review

Ray’s Goopy Bagha Revisited

Book Review by Nivedita Sen

Title: The Adventure of Goopy the Singer and Bagha the Drummer

Author: Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, translated from Bengali to English by Tilottama Shome. Illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee.

Publisher: Talking Cub, an Imprint of Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.

Upendra Kishore Ray Chowdhury’s name was well-known as an innovative children’s writer, painter, musician, photographer and a pioneer printer-publisher in the late nineteenth century. His grandson, Satyajit Ray, immortalized his long short story for children ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ as a reputed film that deployed a lot of music, dancing and fantasy elements.

This graphic version of the story, particularly its musical score that was penned and directed by Satyajit Ray himself, had almost obliterated the children’s tale that was a household word in Bengal earlier. Since it is a story about two naïve, rustic boys who desperately try to be a singer and a drummer respectively, Satyajit Ray worked on and elaborated the musical potential of the story by writing lyrics for songs that could be sung by Goopy, with Bagha’s drumming as accompaniment. The songs like Dekho re Nayan Mele ( Opening Your Eyes and Look), Bhuter Raja Dilo Bor (The King of Ghosts Grants a Wish) and Maharaja Tomare Selaam (Salute to you Maharaja) have been all time favourites for the last fifty years. The two sequels to the film, Hirak Rajar Deshe (Hirak King’s Kingdom) and Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (Goopy Bagha Return) were written by Satyajit Ray himself, although the latter was directed by Ray’s son Sandip Ray. The innocuous Bengali story therefore surfaced on the celluloid screen, and then extended through sequels to follow the adventures of Goopy and Bagha through time.

The status of an internationally acclaimed film also enabled the story to traverse across space by getting translated in different languages, particularly English. Among recent translations are those by Swagata Deb (Penguin, 2004) and Barnali Saha (Parabaas, 2012). Perhaps in order to communicate a different tone and emphasis, in this one, Tilottama Shome took up another translation. She has stuck to each and every word of the original. Although Upendrakishore’s stories have been translated by well-known scholars, editors and translators like William Radice, Madhuchhanda Karlekar and Arunva Sinha, this translation is also very fluent. The use of casual vocabulary in English that is used on a daily basis, like ‘vocal warm-ups’, ‘country bumpkins’ and ‘spooked’, add to the readability of it. The illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee, which include a lot of the ghosts, is brilliantly evocative of the ghostly fun and frolic in Ray’s film.

The story, which is something between a folk tale, a benign ghost story and a fantasy around a realistic setting with two ingenuous protagonists, has many violent episodes. Most of Bengali children’s folk-fairy tales like those in Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli portray such unpleasant interludes, which is not different from Grimms’ or Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales depicting brutal human behavior and blood and gore. Such violence and deaths go back to the earliest children’s stories, possibly to equip children with the overpowering truth that is an important, if an unsavoury, aspect of life. The violence becomes an indispensable component of children’s stories, since children need to be aware of what they might confront in the real world.

Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist who tried to read fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, said that children need to be exposed to fairy tales with grim episodes in them. He demonstrated that these dark happenings, fantastic as they may be, expose and initiate the child to real life that is inclusive of the ruthless and the arbitrary and contribute to children’s holistic understanding of life. In this story, when Bagha goes home, he finds that his parents have died in the interim he was away. Goopy’s parents remain alive, perhaps to signify that deaths in real life are ubiquitous, imminent but random. But there is greater cruelty than death in children’s stories.

According to Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud’s biographer and a psychoanalyst in his own right, the savagery in children’s stories represents expressions of the unconscious mind like the jealousy and hostility inherent within family relationships. He elaborated how abstract moral concepts like anger, fear and guilt are ‘physicalized’ and ‘externalized’ in children’s tales to enable children to conquer them. Also, after acknowledging these harsher primal feelings and instincts, the child gets to make sense of what is happening all around.  Goopy and Bagha’s boat loses balance and capsizes due to their cacophonous singing and drumming, causing the passengers to tremble and roll around. This drowns and kills all the passengers except the two of them who are also terrified but keep afloat by clutching on to Bagha’s drum. But Gidwitz, a twenty first century children’s writer, explains how violence is deployed as a didactic tool to reinforce the moral certainty of good triumphing over evil, which must be punished. For example, in another episode where the garden house of the king is burnt down by the guards in accordance with royal injunctions, everyone who was responsible for proactively setting fire to the house dies but Goopy and Bagha, who are inherently good,  escape with the help of their magic boots.

Goopy Gyne is also a ghost story with a difference. Ghosts appear in such a story within a realistic backdrop, not by invoking them or within a supernatural setting, but out of the blue. They also do not haunt an individual human being, a particular place/ house or a specific object, and are therefore aliens who are removed as suddenly as they appear from the forest in which they are discovered, after they have performed their task. They are not characters who take part in the narrative.

Goopy and Bagha initially get panic-stricken on seeing the glowing eyes of the ghosts that are like burning coal and their radish-like teeth. However, these are not the spirits of the dead that have revived to take revenge or to try to fulfill their unfulfilled desires in life. These ghosts continue to act as external agents who empower the two friends, much like the fairy godmothers in fairytales who grant boons to the protagonists and rescue them from perilous situations.

The terror that these ghosts have the potential to invoke is one that instead becomes a pleasant experience because Goopy and Bagha learn very soon that these spirits are extremely generous. The film is also enlivened with the scene with the ghosts. The narrative describes a curious reversal in which Goopy and Bagha are themselves mistaken as ghosts, thanks to all the miraculous scenes associated with their magical powers.  But their achievement of raining delicacies and sweets, their accoutrements in looking like princes or the magic episodes of the two friends fleeing from any difficult situation with the help of their enchanted boots is actually an outcome of the three wishes granted to Goopy and Bagha by the ghosts. The ghosts are responsible for bestowing melody and rhythm to Goopy and Bagha’s music that used to be tuneless, jarring and noisy before.

The music in the story is wholly their contribution, something that has been underscored by Satyajit Ray in delightful compositions in the film. It might, in fact, be a pioneering enterprise, copyright permitting, to translate the screenplay that includes the songs.

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.

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