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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