A hundred years and two weeks ago appeared Abol-tabol, perhaps the most iconic Bengali book after Tagore’s Gitanjali. Its author, Sukumar Ray, had died just nine days earlier. He had seen the book through production — a great boon, as he was an accomplished printer and illustrator.
How could a book of nonsense verse gain such eminence? There was nothing in earlier Bengali literature to make us foresee Abol-tabol. Bengali has a robust tradition of wit and satire for adult readers. Its children’s literature, though abundant by that date, was on conventional lines. Apart from prefigurings in Sukumar’s own earlier works, the nearest approach, and that a far cry, was in Jogindranath Sarkar’s books. Tagore’s rhymes in Khapchhara (not quite nonsense) and his exquisite whimsical fantasy Se came later.
But my question concerned not the origins of Abol-tabol but its reception. What was special about these poems?
It is virtually impossible to write pure nonsense. We think in the language we know. When making up nonsense words, we cannot quite forgo the familiar, meaningful ones hard-wired into us. Some of Lewis Carroll’s famous coinages are ‘portmanteau words’ like slithy (lithe + slimy), or at least rooted in a real word, like gimble in gimlet. Genuine puzzles like vorpal and manxome show Carroll’s genius.
Nonsense animals pose a special challenge. It is hard to visualise a life-form unlike those we know. We picture Martians as little green men because we cannot seriously conjecture what shape life on another planet might take. Carroll’s toves, raths and borogoves, as illustrated by John Tenniel, are assembled from familiar birds and animals. Edward Lear’s Dong, Pobble, Jumblies and Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò are all humanoids.
Unlike Tenniel and Lear, Sukumar Ray was not a trained artist; but as his son Satyajit observes, his unbounded imagination made good the lack. The fauna inhabiting Abol-tabol matches that encountered by Sukumar’s intrepid explorer Professor Heshoram Hushiyar. Both ecosystems harbour portmanteau animals — sometimes conjoint from two species with portmanteau names, as in the opening poem of Abol-tabol (aptly titled “Khichuri”), sometimes with more complex anatomies drawn from several creatures. Remarkably, Sukumar endows their features with human expressions.
That is not surprising, for their existential problems are very human even if their appearance is not. Their physical form itself might cause them angst. Kimbhut’s assorted limbs impair his identity, while Huko-Mukho Hyangla has only two tails, poor thing. Or they may be immersed like the Ramgarur in a philosophic sense of the world’s sorrows. Schopenhauer would have empathised, or the poet Virgil who talked of “the tears of things”.
Angst can also invade those encountering such creatures. A dhoti-clad umbrella-clutching babu flees in terror from a gigantic monster composed of caveman, dinosaur and porcupine in equal parts. He is trying to lure the man into his lair with blandishments. He is the gentlest of beasts, he declares; his fangs, horns and cudgel are all harmless. But if the reluctant guest hurts his feelings by declining the invitation, he won’t answer for the consequences.
This spine-chilling reassurance recalls many despotic regimes, not least in our subcontinent, today no less than a hundred years ago. Many poems in Abol-tabol reflect conditions in the real world. “Ekushe ain” recounts bizarre punishments for various innocent actions: inter alia, for writing verses, looking about you as you walk, and sneezing without a permit before six in the evening. There are equally arbitrary penalties for offending that redoubtable being the Kumropatash, half pumpkin and half turtle. Ignore my warnings at your peril, says the poet: you’ll catch it if Kumropatash finds out. Turning to social issues, there is a send-up of arranged marriages: the prized groom Gangaram is sickly, penniless, a school dropout, but high-born with good connections.
But focusing on these pieces draws us into a hermeneutic trap. We may come to value Abol-tabol primarily for its serious content, its bearings on the ‘real’ world of sense. That is to miss Sukumar’s rarest poetic vein, which makes the book what it is. In his prefatory words, he presents “all that is fantastic, bizarre and impossible” — the “rasa of whimsy”, not one of the nine classical rasas of Sanskrit poetics. The opening poem strikes the same note: “Come and hear mad songs without meaning or tune, rule or tally.”
Many others have written successful political and social satire. No one, possibly excepting Tagore in Se, has written anything to rival Abol-tabol in Bengali, and few in any language — perhaps Dr Seuss and Shel Silverstein, besides Carroll and Lear.
In Sukumar’s world, the mother spook lavishes charmingly uncouth endearments on her baby son: my smily owl, my dancing monkey, my rootling skunk — and on a different lyrical level, my dream-horse rider on a moonlit night. A love-lorn owl woos his beloved with similar piquantly sweet nothings. A weird scientist records the taste of various species of wood. The king of Bombagarh hangs broken bottles from his throne, his aunt plays cricket with a pumpkin, his subjects turn cartwheels if they catch a cold — all this without retribution, unlike the random punishments for normal actions in “Ekushe ain”.
These free-wheeling fantasies belong to a rarer world where the grotesque becomes romantic and the absurd is entirely normal. They assert our right to a free life of the mind where, at least in imagination, we can do what we please, however outlandish, provided it is not evil or anti-social. In such a world, one assumes, cartoonists and stand-up comedians would not be persecuted; we could eat and wear what we like, marry the partner or worship the god we choose; and we need not hush our voices when discussing our rulers’ charades. From this vantage-point of the free spirit, the poet identifies paradigms of nonsense in the real world, as in the first poems we saw.
In a better world, the poet’s nobler nonsense would laugh the destructive absurdities of society and politics out of court. As it is, we can find in these poems the space for a mental life of our own.
Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University