Fantasy Fictions from the Bengali Renaissance
Translated and edited by Sanjay Sircar. (Foreword by Peter Hunt) New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pb, 978 0 1994 8675 5, e-book 978 0 1990 9217 8, 2018, £35.99, 372pp.
Children’s Literature Studies
This impressive and substantial volume not only provides the text of two tales by the nephews Abanindranath and Gaganendranath of the distinguished poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, but also, with a wealth of editorial material, puts the stories in their literary and historical context – to the extent of making an uninformed reader like myself suddenly aware of a previously unfamiliar rich treasury of classic writing for children.
The stories themselves, Abanindranath’s ‘Kheerer Putul’ (The Make-Believe Prince) and Gaganendranath’s ‘Bhondar Bahadur’ (Toddy-Cat the Bold) are in fact fairly short: even with the illustrations and the extensive footnotes, they total only about a quarter of the text. (Incidentally, it occurs to me that a children’s edition comprising only these two stories and the illustrations could well be enjoyed by young readers across the world. Certainly Sircar’s fluent and colloquial translations would lend themselves to such a venture.)
The structure of the first story, for which Sircar’s title differs from the original, ‘The Solid Milk Doll’, is based on a contrast between a King’s two wives. The Beloved Younger Queen lives in seven pavilions and has a retinue of 700 serving maids, while the dwelling and the life in general of the Neglected Elder Queen are miserably inadequate:
[A] one-roomed dwelling he gave her, and that tumbledown, –one serving maid he gave to attend her, and she deaf and dumb. To wear he gave her worn-out, tattered saris; to sleep on – he gave her a tattered quilt. The King used to come to the Neglected Queen one day in the year, when he sat a moment, said a word, and rising, departed.
The Beloved Queen – the Younger Queen, it was in her dwelling that the King stayed the whole year long. (p.90)
Even so, when the King goes on a voyage, he attends to the insatiable demands of the Younger Queen for rubies, diamonds and gold, but nearly forgets the single request of the Elder Queen – for a blackfaced monkey. Eventually, this monkey becomes the agent of the Elder Queen’s means of restoration to favour, by effecting a transformation which, as Sircar points out, is in fact a traditional fairy-tale device, classified in the Aarne-Thompson typology as AT 459.
The second story, with its framework of a quest to rescue an abducted child, is enlivened by a cast of elaborately dressed animals, including some geese who are off to sit their examinations; also in evidence is a moving railway station platform. The characters and their ingenious absurdity certainly recall Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and Sircar’s editorial material has a good deal to say about how ‘Carroll’s there-and-back-again quest journeys serve as templates for the structure of Gaganendranath’s fantasy quest’ (p.179). He also highlights the Bengali author’s adaptation of ‘Carroll’s cards/chess people, fabulous and linguistically derived monsters’ (p.187). Altogether he provides a very full and impressive analysis of how what might appear to be uniquely Victorian British absurdity can enliven a tale set in a very different background. The extensive use of nursery rhymes by both the Tagore brothers, again in emulation of Carroll, is also noted.
Peter Hunt’s Foreword highlights the affinity between children’s literature and traditional tales, and welcomes the contribution which Sircar, as a scholar capable of linking disparate cultures, makes in this volume. Illustrative of this is Sircar’s Preface, which usefully gives background information about the Bengali Renaissance: this began in the mid-nineteenth century, and the transition from medieval to modern occurred in a range of intellectual, technological, social, cultural and political fields. Stories such as the two in this book exemplify the iconoclasm which was directed at the time towards traditional pieties, as well as the cultural eclecticism which characterised its later years, during the earlier twentieth century. The stories also reflect the gradual emergence of literature addressed specifically to younger readers.
This book is surely destined to open its readers’ eyes to a range of different perspectives about the impressive variety of manifestations of children’s literature throughout the world.
 Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales. https://sites.ualberta.ca/~urban/Projects/English/Content/ATU_Tales.htm