Review: The Collected Stories of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury - Hindustan Times

Review: The Collected Stories of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury

May 24, 2024 10:51 PM IST

Human beings, animals, birds, fish, insects and super-natural beings mix as equals, talking to each other and being mutually understood in The Collected Stories of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury

I first heard Bengali folk tales in the most atmospheric way. Some years ago, I was on holiday with an older friend, a Bengali lady. We were the only guests at Maheshkhan Forest Reserve rest house deep in a jungle in Uttarakhand. It was about nine o’clock in the evening. We had had dinner and were sitting on the verandah of the 19th century house. The cook and durwan had disappeared to their village downhill. Torrential rain began to pour suddenly, curtaining the view of the lawn and the forest behind it. And suddenly, the electricity went off.

A scene from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which was based on a story from Golpomala by his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. (HT Photo)
A scene from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which was based on a story from Golpomala by his grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. (HT Photo)

360pp, ₹599; Rupa
360pp, ₹599; Rupa

“It’s a perfect setting for spooky stories,” I laughed. “Then I’ll tell you some,” said my friend. She had the gift of storytelling and went from one charming, funny Bengali folktale to another, in English. Some starred a foolish Bagh Mama (Tiger Uncle), some a human character called Kittu Mama who tumbled into all sorts of scrapes, and some were the required ghost stories. It was a fascinating two hours on that dark, rain-swathed verandah. We were almost sorry when the electricity came back.

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So it was with keen anticipation that I began reading The Collected Stories of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (1863-1915). Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury was an accomplished writer, painter, violinist, composer and publisher. He was the father of the famous writer Sukumar Ray and grandfather of that titan of Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray.

This book contains 63 stories by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury from the original Bengali, translated into English by anthropologist-writer Lopamudra Maitra. The first 27 stories are from his work Tuntunir Boi (1910) and the rest from Golpomala (1910-12). Satyajit Ray made the film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne in 1969 based on his grandfather’s story from Golpomala about Goopy and Bagha, two musicians who land in all kinds of trouble. Goopy and Bagha are driven from their villages for being bad musicians and meet in the forest. However, with their dubious skills, they succeed in pleasing the king of ghosts who grants them three wishes. Satyajit Ray did the voice for the ghost king himself. It strikes me that a good way for young readers to enjoy the film would be to read the story first and then catch up with this “fantasy comedy film” as it’s been described.

What may strike the Indian reader is the absence of a binary moral code in many of these stories, just as in the Panchatantra, whereas a few preach explicitly as in The Man Who Loved to Criticize. The world, in both Tuntuni Boi and Golpomala mainly belongs to those who can cleverly outwit others, with dark, stark shades. Tuntuni the bird takes revenge on a mean barber who won’t lance her boil by a number of stratagems. Bagh the tiger and Sheyal the fox have an uneasy relationship, sometimes as collaborators and sometimes as adversaries. Clever animals get the better of human simpletons. Demons destroy each other thru guile and cunning, as do humans and animals. The raja of Shundi tries to burn Goopy and Bagha alive, just as Duryodhana tried to burn the Pandavas (but Goopy and Bagha get the better of him most satisfyingly at the end of the story).

Human beings, animals, birds, fish, insects and supernatural beings mix as equals, talking to each other and being mutually understood. So, besides the operative principle of “Wit wins” in these stories, we also get to inhabit an ideal world where all creatures can communicate with each other. Again, this facility seems to be very much in the tradition of ancient Indian story collections, be it the Panchatantra or the Hitopadesa, which reportedly interacted over time with the Indian mother tongues and took vibrant regional forms, each with their local colour and flavour. Or, for all we know, it may have been the other way around, that it was the mother tongues that yielded a rich harvest of themes and tropes for the Panchatantra and Hitopadesa.

You feel close to the original because Ray’s stories follow that particular, familiar folk tale template shared across languages and cultures. Also, Maitra wittily includes typical sounds from the original, both natural sounds like Mosha the mosquito going “peen peen peen peen” and onomatopoeic sounds, which are imitations of natural sounds, like “khhawchh mawchh”, the sound of someone noisily waking up.

Very notably, the stories are written in the simple, conversational active voice, as though someone was directly telling you the story. In my view, this makes for a good audio book. It also makes this collection ideal for read-alouds to children, elders and book clubs. Read-alouds not only connect with the great Indian oral tradition, but also revive one of the oldest bonds on earth, that of the teller and the listener. Moreover, dare one say it, read-alouds can provide a refreshing change from the passive entertainment of TV and OTT.

Author Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (Wikimedia Commons)
Author Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (Wikimedia Commons)

There are also some international anecdotes, which seem quaint to read more than a hundred years after they were written. Ray Chowdhury asserts the superior phonetic efficacy of the Bengali script over other languages with an anecdote about a Japanese writing about Trafalgar Square in Japanese. But he writes the word “Trafalgar” itself in English. When asked why, he says it is to maintain its pronunciation, otherwise it would become “TraFaruGaru” in Japanese. In another anecdote, a Bengali asks a Chinese man to write his name, “Dhruv”, in Chinese, and the Chinese produces “DuLufa”. Were these meant to be funny or were they merely cultural notes? We must consider, as with other translated writers, that Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury wrote in his language for his people a century ago, so he was talking to them, not to the larger world.

A word of warning, finally. Don’t attempt to read the whole book in one go or it may start feeling slightly repetitive. Instead, I would suggest that you read a few stories at a time to keep things fresh and lively. That said, there is a lot to enjoy, which I thoroughly did.

Renuka Narayanan is a journalist and author. Her latest book is Learning from Loss.

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