In his introduction to Dakshinaranjan Majumdar’s 1907 children’s classic Thakumar Jhuli (Grandmother’s Bag of Tales), while complaining against the gradual disappearance of the Bengali fairy and folk tale, Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “…when the Bengali boy listens to fairy tales, he isn’t just pleased listening to the stories — the melody of the whole of Bengal’s affections enters his young mind, as if spellbound by the spells of Bengal”. This translated collection of Tagore’s writings for children gives more than a fair idea of what he had in mind.
Three years before writing the above-mentioned introduction, in The Hero (Birpurush) — translated wonderfully in this book by Sukanta Chaudhuri — Tagore had described the adventures of Khoka as he accompanies his palanquin-borne mother through the ‘Plain of the Twin Lakes’ (Joradighir maththey) and how he protects her from robbers crying out ‘Ho-ho-ho!’ (although I would have preferred to stick to the signature ‘Ha-re-re-re’ rather than Santa Claus’s signature greeting). It is a sentimental tale describing a boy’s wish to prove his valour to his mother and the world at large.
But Tagore does not leave it at that. He dips into the very essence of the Bengali imagination — from the hero riding the ‘great chestnut horse’ (ranga ghora), and the detail of ‘a red hibiscus’ in each robber’s ear, to the boy’s desire to hear the neighbours say, “What luck/Khoka was with his mother!” — and paints a vision that has all the elements of classic children’s and juvenile literature — and all its ingredients from the real world.
This book is divided into various sections containing verses, stories and plays. Under the separate section, My Childhood, Tagore conjures up an ‘alchemy of memory’ through anecdotes, observations, and recollections seamlessly linked to each other. It becomes clear after reading these extracts from Memories of My Life (Jiban-Smriti, 1912) and Childhood (Chhelebela, 1940) just how important the child’s vision in general and his own in particular shaped his creativity. Particular areas of the family house in Jorasanko are turned into mysterious grottoes (like the never-seen ‘King’s Palace’ in the story with the same name) or fearful places (like the dark water storage room “where creatures with huge gaping mouths, eyes on their chests, and ears the size of winnowing fans” apparently lurked).
For readers stuck with the image of Tagore as a poet-mystic, the stories under the title That Man (Shey) showcases the writer’s wicked sense of humour. Written for his son Rathindranath’s adopted daughter Nandini, these stories are written in the story-within-a-story format with a girl listening to her grandfather’s tales (and constantly butting in). In one of these stories, ‘That Man’ of the title drops by to state that he can spin out a much more outlandish tale than the narrator. What follows is a narration of the ultimate shaggy-dog tale:
Smritiratna Mashai, who as goalkeeper for Mohun Bagan Club, becomes ravenously hungry after letting in five goals and starts licking the Ochterloney Monument — “from the bottom up, all the way to the top”. After being berated by a passerby (who heads for The Statesman office to report the matter) for his disgusting behaviour, Smriratna realises that he has “polluted his tongue” and walks across to ask the watchman of the Museum nearby, a brahmin, for a remedy. “Pandeyji saluted him and said, fingering his beard, ‘Comment vous portez-vous, s’il vous plait?’” and goes on to tell Smriratna (after lighting a cigar) that he would “check out Webster’s Dictionary” to find a remedy for the after-effects of licking the Monument.