By Nishi Pulugurtha
Title: Khirer Putul (The Doll of Condensed Milk)
Author: Abanindranath Tagore
Translated by Amita Ray
Publisher: Hawakal Publishers, Kolkata, 2018, Rs. 250.00
One of our first memories of childhood is possibly that of listening to stories being told by grandparents and parents. As we start to read, the first kind of stories we read are those that make us wonder, that create a world that lets our imagination wander. These stories remain with us forever and colour our reading, our thoughts, and our lives. Regional Indian literature has a treasure house of such tales that almost every Indian child growing up in India and abroad will be acquainted with. These stories have a universal appeal. Many of these regional stories remain confined to those who are able to read the regional languages in which they were written. Translation plays a major role here, making the rich literary heritage in different regional languages available to a larger readership.
Khirer Putul (1896), written by Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), is a Bengali fairy tale that has enchanted readers for generations. Almost every Bengali child would have heard this story and read it too. It is a tale that is inspired by traditional Bengali folklore and culture. Mythical references, rituals, rhymes, allegory, and images used in the tale are part and parcel of the Bengali literary ethos. Fantasy forms an important element and it too is steeped in local customs and beliefs. Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, was a painter who also wrote wonderful children’s narratives. These tales were illustrated beautifully too – Rajkahini, Nalak, and Buro Angla. Khirer Putul occupies an important place in Bengali children’s literature along with works by Rabindranath Tagore, Upendrakishore Roy Choudhuri, Sukumar Ray, and Lila Mazumdar, among others.
Translation makes available regional literature to a much larger audience. It expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from a different society, time, and culture. It works to expand and deepen our world and consciousness in myriad ways. It works brilliantly in the case of Indian literature where there is a rich treasure trove of great literature in the regional languages which when translated are made available to a larger readership. Amita Roy’s translation of Khirer Putul does precisely that.
In her Introduction to the translation, Sanjukta Dasgupta notes that Khirer Putul is not just a children’s tale but can be read as a “transgressive text” where the goddess Shashti is fooled and forced to give in to the intelligent plans of the monkey who so cleverly plots and devises stratagems, executes them brilliantly, and very adroitly fools the king in the tale. The hero of the tale, she notes, is not a human being. The tale has its origins in an unpublished fairy tale in a draft collection of fairy tales by Mrinalini Devi, the wife of the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Abanindranath Tagore himself acknowledges the unpublished story as his source.
Khirer Putul tells the tale of a King who had two queens – the suffering, ignored elder Duorani who lives in poverty and neglect and the pampered younger Suorani, the king’s favourite. When the king decides to embark on a journey across distant seas, to faraway lands, he takes leave of his favourite, younger queen, asking her what presents she wants – “eight bangles of ruby as red as blood” (18), “string of ten fiery-red anklets made of gold”, “necklace of those pearls,” “pearls in a distant country as large as the pigeon’s eggs”, and “a sari as blue as the sky, feathery as the wind and light as water” (19). The king promises her to get all that her heart desires. The Duorani wishes for the king’s safe travels and nothing more as material things are of no use to her as she does not have his love anymore. On the king’s insistence, she says that he could bring for her “a black faced monkey”.
On his journey, the king thinks only of his dear Suorani and does his best to get all the things she had asked for – “voyaging for another six months on seven oceans and thirteen rivers the king with his seven ships reached homeland with the queen’s ruby bangles, golden anklets, pearl necklace and her much cherished sari” (25). Engrossed in his thought of the younger queen, he forgets about the monkey that his elder queen asked asks his minister to go look for one. Suorani tries the gifts which are ill-fitting and uncomfortable and gets angry and sulks. The king is crestfallen because he has taken so much pains to get her gifts. It is here that the monkey says, “Unless one is fortunate and virtuous, the sari woven by a nymph and necklace crafted by a mystical serpent princess cannot be worn” (28-29).
The black-faced monkey soothes the Duorani, almost becomes her son and confidante, and acts as a messenger between the elder queen and the king. He deftly warms himself to the king as well by a clever plot and wins hearts along the way. Even the goddess Shashti is tricked by the monkey. Shashti is the goddess of fertility and is worshipped by women who have children or want to have children. The king does not have children and the monkey’s plot makes sure that the neglected queen has a child, thereby restoring her rightful place in the king’s affections.
In her introduction to the translation, Amita Roy notes that the prime reason she chose this text was its endearing values, something that generations nurtured on it will vouch for. The tale, she notes, is interwoven with myths, rituals, nursery rhymes and folk traditions, immediately obvious to the Bengali reader. The element of fantasy adds to the charm of the tale.
Amita Roy has been able to recreate the lucidity and charm of the Bengali original by Abanindranath Tagore. Capturing nuances of the original text can be tricky at times and the author has retained some Bengali words which if translated would have taken away some part of the charm of the tale. There are “Word notes” (actually, a glossary) at the end that give the meanings of Bengali words retained. Written in an easy flowing, lucid style that children will be comfortable reading, the translation works well in presenting the nuances of the original. Ray uses italics to present certain words which she does not translate – “lakhs,” “Heart’s Secret,” “Brahmini”. The meanings of these words are assumed to be understandable to the reader. In another place, Heart’s Secret is used as an endearment and is not italicized. The Bengali word “kheer” does not translate into condensed milk that is referred to in the title. However, it is interesting to note that it is possibly because of this difficulty of translating the word “kheer” into English that Roy uses the original title of the tale along with the translated one. The illustrations in the book by Jayanta Biswas, in black and white, add to the reading of the text. Abanindranath Tagore was a painter and the use of sketches in the translation adds an extra dimension to the written word.
The translation of this children’s classic makes available this engaging story not only to children but also to scholars and researchers in the field of gender studies, folk literatures, and children’s literature.
Khirer Putul is available here.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Travel: Cities, Places, People’, edited by Nishi Pulugurtha, academic, Kolkata, India.