In between Babbles and বকবক: A Reading List on Bengali Chatterboxes
To talk and be heard—together they formed the perfect Kryptonite to my Superwoman. Even as I write now, I have to stop myself in the midst of it and remember to scribble a hurried “wo” before “man.” The thrust of my argument could have been, and partly is of course, that heroes manifest the strength of hetero-patriarchy at the expense of its other, at the expense of almost the entire spectrum. Yet, such an easy binary measured in terms of their actions portrayed, decisions undertaken, has always left me a disgruntled reader. I remember wanting them to speak more and more; speech that pirouettes through the air, speech that attempts to unravel an “I” for me, speech that does not necessarily end in: “I will save the world.” When one carries through childhood the insurmountable fear that wrestles the urge to talk, dismembering it, I believe there grows an attraction and awe towards them whom teachers have shot glances atop their spectacles, disappointment galore, branding their report cards with one operative word: Chatterbox. Is their universe different from mine? Are shapes more poignant there, words not merely words but the possibility of a fantasy to be? These questions have laced my childhood, my adolescence and the age I am in, and the age to come. I have quenched them, in turn, with the help of words themselves—tomes and tomes of words. The reading list enclosed deals with heroes, saving the world one question, one word at a time.
1. Pakdandi- Leela Majumdar (Ananda Publications)
When I was pursuing my under-graduate degree, bildungsroman would inevitably call up, first off, the title Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, as a child and yet not so, caught in the loop of sixteen-going-on-seventeen, Pakdandi had and will always be my first example of a bildungsroman. Pakdandi’s loose translation can be read as meandering pathways, cutting across mountains. Majumdar’s Pakdandi meanders as the narrator speaks; not necessarily a chatterbox (in the sense in which we understand the word), not necessarily running away from home on a canoe but talking to the mountains and growing up as she does so. The sense of calm that manifests energy, constructive energy is replete throughout the text, as the narrator answers or attempts to answer the questions that adolescence brings—the trepidation of a future to come and an inexorable joy in the moment as it is.
2. Tutul—Mahashweta Debi (Ananda Publications)
Tutul, the childhood memoir of Mahashweta Debi, is less a memoir than a fountainhead of stories to which every child in a regular Bengali household can relate and most definitely, has participated in. Tutul, the pet-name of the narrator is duronto; a truant child but a truancy heaped with adoration. From her pestering need to know---how, why and when to side-splitting laughter accompanying tales of a non-vegetarian cow, Nyadosh, Tutul is and presents a universe unto itself.
3. Bhombol Sardar- Khagendranath Mitra
Bhombol Sardar cannot be made to fit the adjective of naughty. Translation even as it adds, also detracts. Hence, danpite in the Bengali dialect hints at something beyond naughty; an excess that is full of potential. What I want to take note of herein is that Bhombol, before being read as a man and hence inaccessible to readers of a different orientation, needs to be understood as a child foremost. Hence, when the novel became my staple read at the age of ten, the wanton abandon with which he conversed with his environment, enumerating all the traits of Iswhar Chandra Vidyasagar’s stereotypical “bad boy”—Rakhal—and proudly so, seized me by my shoulders. Bhombol Sardar, as it is a find in itself, asks a child, a child-no-more and for that matter everyone, to keep finding with no concern for the specificities of the search whatsoever.
4. Ranur Pratham Bhag—Bibhutibhushan Mukhopadhyay
A question that keeps plaguing me now is that as a twenty-two years old, the need or the love for studying comes organically; yet, on winter evenings of ages ten to sixteen when the razais were a bit too comfortable, to study meant to survive, once again, a quick turn in the seven circles of hell. It is “I” at twenty-two as I was then, but this time living with this paradox. The short story is rife with customs that draw their support from patriarchy but at the center sits Ranu, a joy of a girl, realizing this paradox way before I did. For Ranu, I believe it was not the love for studying, per se which secures a promise from her to her uncle to diligently continue perusing her Pratham Bhag as she leaves for her in-laws. As a child, a child who is inquisitive but apathetic towards books, her promise is a declaration of love for what, for whom she is leaving behind; a situation, an age riddled with uncertainty but wanting to grow its roots in the past while also branching out into a future from the selfsame roots.
5. Purbosmriti—Shanta Nag
Purbosmriti, as such, cannot be categorized as falling under the wing of children’s literature. Yet, as a bildungsroman and most importantly, an autobiographical narrative, the text need not adhere to any particular genre to convey its potential. The stress on the autobiographical aspect of the text is particularly important given the time when she was writing—a century churning out autobiographical accounts, predominantly sounding a man’s coming-of-age. Shanta Nag and the narratorial personas that the text finds as it traces the full arch of her life, flags off from the norm, almost shoehorning into the canon the petulant questions of a child as she accompanies her family, shifting from one place to another, learning the alphabet, household duties and discerning the world immediate to her, and actively so.
6. Meyebela—Taslima Nasrin
Growing up in Calcutta, West Bengal, the name Taslima Nasrin would draw forth reactions, diametrically opposed to one another. Reports and television broadcasts would latch on the term “political refugee” to her name, almost as if it was a seamless continuation of her “her”-ness. As children reared up on Rabindranath, many have had the opportunity to read Chelebela. Nasrin’s Meyebela has and can be dubbed as politically, socially fissiparous and the jargon may continue but it does not reduce the strength in subverting the normative and fashioning a term to simply qualify experiences of a girl, experiences which tend to be peculiar to the female sex only. Though it falls, once again, within an easy binary, one does need to address the nuances of the binary before trying to do away with it.
7. Samapti—Rabindranath Tagore
The interpretive load in reading Tagore, I believe, can be tad cumbersome. For to call a story as belonging to the young-adult genre, particularly a narrative by Tagore would require it to pass through a number of qualifiers and by the time a verdict would have been reached, the spontaneity of joy would have petered out. As a child, reading Tagore made me happy, plain and simple. Mrinmoyee in Samapti, as I want to remember her and emphasize upon, manifests happiness, requiring no qualifier to bulk the emotion up. Mrinmoyee is ultimately reconciled to a married life where the shoe-thief, the untamable child, willingly as it seems, drops the prefix “un” to tamable. Yet, it need not obscure the Mrinmoyee, an adolescent, whose happiness is radically destructive, projecting out towards the creation of something new; a creation dormant in the happiness of an adolescent girl who seizes upon the world with her senses, in all its pungency.
8. Rajarshi—Rabindranath Tagore
As a text, Rajarshi has always fallen prey to binaries of juridical power vis-à-vis theological power, of Gobindamanikyo and Raghupati—binaries overworked and overused by now. What I find interesting is the short-lived but rapturous and rupture-ous presence of the two children, Hashi and Tata. I say rupture-ous because Hashi’s questions to the sovereign Gobindamanikyo register a rupture in the fabric of sovereign life (the abdication of bolipratha) and by extension, social life and the product to come becomes, in the process of the rupture, incommensurable to what has been before.
9. Pratham Protishruti; Subarnalata—Ashapurna Debi
The two narratives follow one another. Though Subarnalata went into publication first, Pratham Protishruti acts as a prequel to the former. Pratham Protishruti opens with the articulation that Bokul, Subarnalata’s daughter and the narrator’s friend, believes in paying homage to the lineage of women she has descended from, women without whom the accomplishments, whatever little they may be, of her life would have been anything but her reality. I, too, echo Bokul’s sentiment when I write about Subarnalata and needless to say, Ashapurna Debi herself. To be able to write today, demanding without an iota of inhibition, answers, tools of existence rightfully ours, always already includes these women who right from their childhood have dared to make themselves heard, let alone educate themselves within the rigid folds of a Brahminical patriarchy; beginning somewhere at least, even if it did not have the accoutrements of an “ism.”
Published: February 1, 2021
Author: Sneha Chatterjee
Sneha Chatterjee is currently in the second year of her post-graduate degree in English at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests branch out into Dalit gender studies, especially narratives produced in and around the state of West Bengal, the cultural politics of 19th century Kolkata, specifically the oral narratives and customs specific to the country.