The genius making sense with his 'nonsense' | The Daily Star
09:50 PM, October 30, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:02 PM, October 04, 2016

The genius making sense with his 'nonsense'

“In the land of Bombaria         

The customs are peculiar.         

The king, for instance, advocates        

Gilded frames for chocolates.         

The queen, who seldom goes to bed         

Straps a pillow round her head.         

The courtiers- or so I'm told-         

Turn cartwheels when they have a cold:         

... The King's old aunt- an autocrat-         

Hits pumpkins with her cricket bat         

While Uncle loves to dance Mazurkas         

Wearing garlands strung with hookaha.         

All of this, though mighty queer,         

Is natural in Bombaria.”

(Translated by Satyajit Ray. The Bengali version is "Bombagarer Raja".)

If you are wondering who could have written such “nonsense” (which is very unlikely if you are a Bangalee), I believe what you are actually wondering is, who has been able to put the “nonsense” happening around us everyday into words and at the same time make poetry out of it! It is none other than the great Bangalee poet, story writer and playwright Sukumar Roy who mainly wrote for children. This 19th century poet, founder of the “nonsense club” was born on this very day in the year of 1887.We Bangalees would have been deprived of the thought invoking, heart touching, brain feeding humorous writings like “Khichuri”, “Gof churi”, “Sot Patro”, “Katukutu Buro”, “Kumro Potash”, “Aahladi”, “Note Boi” and many more if not for him. This writer and poet had huge impact on the history of Bengali literature in his short life of 36 years.

Sukumar Ray was the second child of the writer of stories and popular science; painter and illustrator; musician and composer of songs; a technologist and hobbyist astronomer, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, so it is not illogical to say that his genius though incomparable, was hereditary. His father had the greatest influence in his life. Satyajit Ray in one of his documentary films, said Upendrakishore was the only Bangalee of his time whose writings and photography used to be published regularly in the then famous foreign magazine called Penrose Annual . Upendrakishore had never been to abroad but he made sure that his son Sukumar had the chance. 

Sukumar is also the father of Indian Oscar winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray and grandfather of Bengali filmmaker Sandip Ray. Ray was born in a Brahmo family in Calcutta, India. Born in the era which can be called the pinnacle of the Bengali Renaissance, he grew up in an environment that fostered his literary talents.

Sukumar Ray was the second among six siblings. He graduated with honours in both Physics and Chemistry from Presidency College of Kolkata after passing entrance from City School. While in college, he established a club named ‘Nonsense Club’. This club used to publish a hand written magazine on humour called ‘32 and ½ fries’ .It was here where his first humorous poem was published and the world came to know of Sukumar’s specialty. On 1911 at the age of 23 he went to England on a fellowship to study Photography and Printing. It was in 1912 when Rabindranath Tagore went to England with his translation of Gitanjali which later got him the Nobel Prize for literature. Sukumar was one of the young admirers of Rabindranath in London at that time. He wrote an article introducing the great poet to the west which was published in the Quest. He returned to India in October 1913 with a bronze medal for his success in study. Within two years he got married with Suprobha, the daughter of Jogot Chandra Das .

After the death of his father, Sukumar took up all the responsibilities of the children’s magazine called "Sandesh". He did not face any difficulty matching the high standards set by his father. His first poem written for Sandesh was “Khichuri” which was later published in his book Abol Tabol. His humorous writings along with his unusual paintings got widely popular among children. This particular poem “Khichuri” is very popular and familiar with children, along with many others. The name itself is significant and foretells what is inside (Khichuri is a common dish all over India and among the Indian diaspora, a flavorful mixture of rice and dal cooked with spices; also used figuratively to mean a hotchpotch or mixture). Sukumar’s sense of humor is very evident here.

                                 STEW  MUCH

         A duck once met a porcupine ; they formed a corporation

         Which called itself a Porcuduck ( a beastly conjugation ! ).

         A stork to a turtle said, "Let's put my head upon your torso ;

         We who are so pretty now, as Stortle would be more so !"

         The lizard with the parrot's head thought : taking to the chilli 

         After years of eating worms is absolutely silly.

         A prancing goat - one wonders why - was driven by a need

         To bequeath its upper portion ta a crawling centipede.

         The giraffe with grasshopper's limbs reflected : Why should I

         Go for walks in grassy fields, now that I can fly ?

         The nice contented cow will doubtless get a frightful shock

         On finding that its lower lombs belong to a fighting cock.

         It's obvious the Whalephant is not a happy notion :

         The head goes for the jungle, while the tail turns to the ocean,

         The lion's lack of horns distressed him greatly, so

         He teamed up with a dear - now watch his antlers grow !

     (Translated by Satyajit Ray. The Bengali version is "Haans chilo sojaru".)

Sukumar’s creations are timeless. They are still widely read almost more than one and half centuries later. His charecters like “Pagla Dashu” or “Vobodulal” still represent life’s reality. “Laxman er Shaktishell” can be interpreted as a comment on the callous political practices typical to this day. “Cheenay Potka”, “Gorur Buddhi”, “Bujhiye Bola”, “Note Boi” etc are the examples of his concern regarding the education system. 

The matters of Sukumar’s writings are relevant still today. And the manner is most pleasant.

“In Shiva's homeland, the rules are quite strange, as I can truly attest,

If someone slips, and falls by err, police come by to arrest.

Your ordeal continues inside of a court room, 

Where judges are ready to fine you a fortune -

21 rupees is the price you must pay,

But wait till you hear what they charge in the day -

For sneezing before six, a ticket is needed,

Without this in hand, you will be ill-treated -

They beat you like drums, and snuff up your nose,

You sneeze not just once, but 21 blows!

The fine for teeth-chattering is 4 rupees flat,

For growing a mustache a bit more than that - 

A hundred nickles, paid out in cash,

Plus 21 prayers with both hands clasped”

(From The Bengali version is "ekushe ain". Translation by Sujoy and Chandana Chatterjee) 

Sukumar Ray was also a leader of the reformist wing in the Brahmo Somaj. He wrote a long poem "Atiter Katha" which was a popular presentation of the history of the Brahmo Samaj- it was published as a small booklet to introduce the rationale of the Brahmo Samaj to children. Sukumar also campaigned to bring in Rabindranth Tagore, the most famous Brahmo of his time, as a leader of the society.

On 10 September 1923 at his Garpar residence in Kolkata, Ray died of a severe infectious fever, leishmaniasis, for which there was no cure at the time. He left behind his widow and their only child, Satyajit, who was only two years old at that time. In his last poem of Abol Tabol, Sukumar clearly foretells his death.

“Today before I leave

I will speak out my heart

Even if it is meaningless

Let people not understand

I have let my imagination flow today

There is nobody who can stop it anymore”

And the last two lines are:

“It’s time to sleep

My song is over today”

Satyajit Ray later shot a documentary on Sukumar Ray in 1987, five years before his own death. There he says Rabindranath Tagore visited Sukumar at his last days. After Sukumar Ray’s death, Rabindranath Tagore, in a speech at Santiniketan, said about him, “I have seen many deaths, but I have never seen anyone like this young man who facing death nevertheless sang songs to life. Sitting beside his death bed I have heard that song and my heart is overflowing with it.”

Other than the poems, this talented writer’s few other famous pun-riddled writings are novella HaJaBaRaLa, short story collection Pagla Dashu and play Chalachittachanchari. These are considered equal in stature to Alice in Wonderland.

As long as Bangalee exist (or at least their sense of humor does) this writer will always be read and remembered for his everlasting contribution in Bangla literature.

We wish a happy birthday to this short lived genius, who truly was one of a kind. Bangla literature will forever be indebted to him.

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