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A dash of Dashu

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A pair of twinkling eyes, large ears like a pixie, a tangle of dark hair and a mischievous smile — Pagla Dashu looks back at you from the red-yellow cover of The Crazy Tales of Pagla Dashu and Co. published by Hachette India. This collection of 25 English translations of Sukumar Ray’s much-loved tales was launched by academician Sukanta Chaudhuri on November 1 at Starmark, two days after the author’s 125th birth anniversary.

The book evolved from a workshop conducted by Arunava Sinha in March-April 2011 as part of the Jadavpur University English department’s Centre of Advanced Study Programme.

Sinha, a JU alumnus and now a translator, told Metro over the phone from Delhi that he had suggested “the workshop as a practical experience for the JU Translators Collective. The participants had been asked to choose a writer whose works are of universal appeal and pose no copyright issues, so Sukumar Ray was a natural choice. The workshop manuscripts were later edited and presented as this book.”

The book, with a beautiful foreword by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, compiles the work of 17 translators — JU students, past and present and teachers — Sinha, Abhijit Gupta, Rimi B. Chatterjee, Nilanjana Chakraborty, Upasana Dutta and Samik Dasgupta, among others.

The cover has been deliberately made to resemble the one designed by Satyajit Ray for the Signet Press edition and with the permission of Sandip Ray, a number of Satyajit and Sukumar Ray’s illustrations and family photographs have been included.

Dashu gets away with a lot, not only because he is considered crazy but because he is well-loved. He lights crackers under the teacher’s chair, teases his mates by turning their weaknesses against them and disrupts the school play with his antics. Sharing the laughter with him are his friends: Jogidas, who invents an uncle of heroic proportions, Shyamlal, who starts a poetry epidemic, Duliram the know-all, Jaladhar the school sleuth, the cocky Bholanath and the wannabe artist, Kalachand. There are also other stories like The Diary of Professor Heshoram Hunshiyar, a spoof of Conan Doyle’s Lost World which Ray wrote towards the end of his life, and other stories.

Beautiful Country

They started their journey in 2004, traversing the length and breadth of the country to discover real India and its people. Both represented the government, namely the Planning Commission, and did not want to write an indifferent, statistics-heavy report from within the airconditioned walls of their office.

Gunjan Veda and Syeda Hameed at the launch. (Pabitra Das)

During their six-plus years of extensive travel — from the Sunderbans to Varanasi, the tribal hamlets of Maharashtra to the forests of the Andamans, the flooded villages of Barmer to the tea estates of Jalpaiguri — they saw poverty, malnutrition, gender bias and deprivation, but also hope shining in the darkest corners. So when they decided to write about their experience, Beautiful Country — Stories from Another India seemed an apt title.

Gender activist and Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda, a former journalist and the CEO of INDIAreads.com, released their book at Oxford Bookstore last week. Ruchira Gupta, activist and founder of the Apne Aap Women Worldwide, and Hari Vasudevan, professor of history at Calcutta University, were present at the launch.

“This book was like an unplanned baby. I was then an officer on special duty in the Planning Commission. We set out because we wanted to see the lesser-known India and how government schemes and yojnas have benefitted the target groups,” said Veda.

To Gupta, the book was like a sari that had the fabric of India embedded. “Through the tales they weave, there is an underlying tale of violence and courage. Government reports are all about numbers. But Hameed and Veda have brought alive the statistics through the stories,” she said.

Utopia and beyond

The launch of The Politics of the (Im)Possible: Utopia and Dystopia Reconsidered occasioned a scintillating discussion recently at Oxford Bookstore, led by the book’s editor, Barnita Bagchi, and her former teachers at the department of English in Jadavpur University, Supriya Chaudhuri and Swapan Chakravorty, who unveiled the book.

Barnita, who now teaches at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said her interest in the theme was kindled while working on social worker and women’s education stalwart Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.

The book brings together Eurocentric and non-Eurocentric perspectives on utopia, offering a gendered analysis and exploring the relationship between utopia/dystopia and time/memory.

Talking of the relation between utopia and history, Chakravorty, the director of National Library, pointed to the contrary pulls in a tradition of earthly paradises which talk of an exit from human time and which, at the same time, are grounded in an unseen history. “You invent a past or tradition to rationalise the novelty.”

“The idea that one can take a place out and imagine it in time as both the future and now, and perhaps even fitting into the past but located elsewhere has a tenuous connection with the Foucauldian idea of heterotopia,” said Chaudhuri.

Bagchi said utopia was not just defined by desire but needed a social-political grounding. Drawing from an essay in the book by a Swedish contributor, she spoke of Lizbeth Salander, the brilliant but disturbed hacker in the Millennium Trilogy. “We know of the social control she was subjected to, the rape, her attempts to fight back, the circuit she formed through the Internet, how she stole money in revenge.... She found ways of constructing new maps that bridge heaven and hell, giving us a narrative that indulge in dystopian utopia.”