Making Sense, Nonsensically: Sukumar Ray

As the AW Chain Ship (see sidebar) sails its way through the fifth round, it’s landed at my dock after crossing BK 30’s harbour. BK wrote about how you can never trick her into exercising or dieting, unless you mask those evil things as something else. Makes complete sense to me. Her post is hilarious. If you are in need of a laugh, go read it.
I admire people who can make you laugh with their writing. It requires a special skill and the ingenuity to view the world in a skewed manner. Writers who trigger a tickle in the funny bone time and again are, in my view, geniuses. And no, I don’t use that term lightly. The writer we meet today is a master of those funny missiles. He is the versatile, uproarious, and nonsensical Sukumar Ray—Bengali literature’s very own Lewis Carroll.

I am so glad I learned reading Bengali as a child. Otherwise, I would have been denied the magic of this master of nonsense. My first brush with his strange worldview took place when I was a toddler. That was around the time I was made to learn by heart some poems from Abol Tabol or Gibberish, Ray’s repository of nearly 50 balderdash verses. I didn’t hate memorizing these poems; if anything, the converse was true. To the innocent and unbridled mind of the little me, such weirdness was delicious and worth getting serious about.

For, who would not delight to learn about the activities of the royal folks and subjects of Bombagarh, a fictitious kingdom, where the king keeps dried mango candy framed on his walls, the queen roams around with a pillow tied to her head, the citizenry does cartwheels on catching a cold, the king’s aunt plays cricket with pumpkins, and the minister beats an urn while sitting on the king’s lap?

In Gaaner Gunto or Musical Knock, he talks about the voice of the great Bhishmalochan Sharma—who starts singing on a scorching summer day—traveling from Delhi to Burma. People fall off and die by the dozens, unable to survive the “good vibrations” rampaging through the streets. Scores of animals fall prey to this thunderous singing session too, until a crazy goat knocks Bhishmalochan down with its menacing horns. That’s when his savage vocal chords are finally laid to good rest.

Sukumar Ray becomes a child’s friend in the most effortless way, just as Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear do. For here is someone who gives them the license to not only ponder on nonsense, but also to have limitless fun with it.

Ha Ja Ba Ra La or Mumbo Jumbo is a novelette peopled by strange creatures who are governed by even more outlandish rules. This complete nonsensical story is often compared to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in style and presentation. Yet, Ha Ja Ba Ra La, which is actually a random ordering of six Bengali consonants, remains peculiarly Bengali in its idiom and rendition.

While in your childhood, Sukumar Ray and his creations entertain you as dear friends, as an adult, you begin noticing the subtle satirical undertones in his works. He takes a dig at corrupt politicians in Ha Ja Ba Ra La, pokes fun at non-laughing pseudo intellectuals in the poem Ramgarurer Chhana (Ramgarur’s Offspring), and even some of the images in Bombagarher Raja insinuate the lack of activity that leads members of the royalty to find inane vocations to busy themselves with.

Over the course of the next few posts, I will introduce you to Dashu, a character created by Sukumar Ray. Be alarmed; Dashu is a bundle of surprises, accidents, and craziness. If you don’t like laughing, you may not be interested in knowing about him. But otherwise…stay tuned!

And now, keeping this a strictly funny business, may I anchor the AW Chain Ship at Andrea’s port, situated in the charming town of Southern Expressions.

Note: Illustrations by Sukumar Ray

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23 thoughts on “Making Sense, Nonsensically: Sukumar Ray

  1. Hello, Bhaswati!I absolutely loved “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” as a child, and just like you discovered with Sukumar Ray’s work, I find “Alice…” continues to surprise me with more and more revelations. Please tell me that Sukumar Ray’s work has been translated into the English language! I would love to read some of those stories that enamoured you so much when you were a child and which continue to do so.

  2. Can’t wait for Dashu. Indeed it feels like something fun to read that shouldn’t be missed. You’re lucky you came across it when you were little.Excellent post!! (More please ;;) )

  3. I love it when Authors hide nuggets of satire in there work that you can not understand until you are older :), heck some of the Authors I read now get me all the time.Great post, I’m with Cesar on Dashu

  4. Lewis Carroll! Alice in Wonderland!Yay! Love! For some reason or other that particular story is sitting with me- I haven’t even read it recently or anything but now I can’t stop thinking things like: “Will you won’t you will you won’t you will you join the dance? Will you won’t you will you won’t you won’t you join the dance?”Anyway, the literature you mentioned sounds very interesting. I’d love to read some of it sometime.

  5. Great post as usual Bhaswati! Sounds like I’d really like reading Sukumar Ray’s (in English of course). Looking forward to Dashu too.I haven’t heard the word “balderdash” for some time now. It’s actually a board game her in the US. Before that the only other time I heard it is when a friend of mine got me interested in Harry Chapin adn one of his albums is called Verities and Balderdash.

  6. Thank you for this educational slice of a wit in mastery, Bhas. What a wonderful enchanting post and I like your choice of illustrations too.I’ll return later to take my time, reading the links.Hope you’re well.I also left a comment for your entry over at Lonely Moon a couple of days ago. You’re writing so well, you really are.love

  7. Now my mind is rambling through all my favourite authors who write nonsense. It’s like a banquet and I have no idea who I want to re-read next because they are all so much fun. One of my favourite French authors writes this style in a peculialrly French way (like Sukumar Ray is peculiarly Bengali) is Marcel Ayme. His short stories kept me reading French when the boredom of study class nearly convinced me that I hated learning languages.

  8. Lotus, you’ve made me determined to read Alice…now!Sukumar Ray has been translated. Abol Tabol (his book of nonsense poetry) and the novelette Ha Ja Ba Ra La are both available on Amazon. I sure hope you can get your hands on those titles. Do let me know if you need more help finding them. Cesar, I can’t wait to bring Dashu to you all. He is what Americans often call a “hoot.” :P. BK, aren’t these authors geniuses? Thank you for inspiring me to write about Sukumar Ray, btw. It was your funny post that did it. ;)Tiffany, you had me in splits there! I haven’t read Alice…but now I see every reason to do so. LOLSimran, thanks! Like I told Lotus, you can find some of S Ray’s works in translation on Amazon. Oh and balderdash–it means nonsense. Thanks to you I just learned it’s also a board game. :)Peggy, I couldn’t agree more with you. Susan, I am so glad you liked the post. It’s my pleasure to share some of my favourite writers with you allHuge thanks for your kind words on my Lonely Moon entry. And for your endless encouragement. :)Gillian, what an interesting piece of info on the French writer. He sure sounds interesting! These writers are a special breed, aren’t they?Matt, I have to agree with you on that. The peculiarities of languages can never be translated, and it’s in those parts that the real fun lies. Glad you liked the post. 🙂

  9. Jeff, thanks. :)Bernita, you led me to find out more about Stephen Leacock. Good thing, a lot of his writing is available on the Gutenberg site. Thanks for the heads up.

  10. Marti, thanks. Happy weekend to you too!Orhan, welcome to my blog. Thanks for the heads up. Bill Bryson sounds right up my alley. I am going to buy one of his books real soon. Can’t wait!(I am neither British nor American, but I guess I would enjoy his writing nonetheless.)

  11. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” holds special meaning for me. I moved in my fourth grade year of elementary school to a very different town from where I had lived. My teacher that first year said he held a ‘contest’ (which he told me about in ‘confidence’) and whoever he saw smiling the most the first day got a prize. Well, I smiled all day long and was awarded the prize of…yep, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. Great memory.

  12. Harbormaster, thanks. You can always check out the translations available at Amazon. Laurie, thanks. Alice…does sound wonderful. The book is on my reading list now. Serenity, That’s a lovely memory indeed! And what a wonderful teacher you had. Thanks for sharing the great story. 🙂

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