Untranslated: What Fruit to Laden the Kul Tree with in English? Reading Chalo Dekhe Ashi After Twenty Years — Sohini Basak

Come, come. Hurry up. Running out of time. Storm’s almost here. Forest is thick. Road is long. River Ajay is wide. There, the water rises!

A spreading tree. So much shade! Her leaves are large. Baby-goat munches on leaves. And munches on soft grass. Baby-goats, impossible to catch. They jump all the time!

The white heron catches fish. Then runs out of fish to catch. So they retire to their nests. The whole night they don’t eat.

*

The premise of Chalo Dekhe Ashi is simple: the book is an early reader for children who have just learnt the Bangla alphabet and are slowly learning to stitch syllables together, read words, form sentences. Each paragraph is a vignette comprising words corresponding to the vowel-sounds of the alphabet (our alphabet, like most languages with roots in the Sanskrit and the Magadhi Prakrit, is divided primarily into vowel sounds and consonant sounds). The first vignette is therefore made up of words with the neutral a-sound, the second with the long aa-sound, the third with e-sound, the fourth with ee-sound and so on for the twenty pages of the book. We are taken through forests and villages, amongst trees and animals, introduced to friends and family of the narrator as well as their everyday joys and sorrows – all in the spirit of the title of the book, an invitation to set out together and explore the world: Chalo Dekhe Ashi or Let’s go and see! Although Rabindranath Tagore’s Sahaj Path is the most popular early reader in the language, I never read it. It was always Chalo Dekhe Ashi, which my parents bought for six rupees (yes, six, not sixty) at the Calcutta Book Fair in the early nineties.

*

The first page always drew me right into the book, with wonder, with giggles because who can resist sprightly baby-goats? There was an immediacy: the long road ahead, the mysterious gaps between the trees, and then an intimacy: the soft grass, the tender failure of trying to catch goats, the meditating herons. The second page took me from the path of wilderness to a small habitation, the narrator talks about folks he knows, and slowly but steadily humans interact with the natural world: the uses of wide leaves in a time and place without electricity, a hint of domestication, but we’re still outdoors and the animals still flee from us…

 Late afternoon. So many birds. Rows and rows of trees. We make hand fans out of the leaves. Three annas each. If you’d like, here’s one. Enjoy the breeze for three months.

Mini-mashi had a cow. Loved her a lot. Called her Malini. Her body was white. One day, blue sky turned red. Ants took to air. Malini was terrified. Tore her rope. And never returned.

Afternoon. Huu-huu, howls the wind. A tree full of kul. Lalu and Bhulu picks some. Out of nowhere, Bhuku presents himself. Lalu’s dog, Bhuku. Kui-kui, Bhuku pleads. Lalu throws a kul at Bhuku. Bhuku sniffs it two or three times. And then sprints! Those kuls were too sour.  

*

Almost after twenty years, I look at this browned copy, observe the tears, pencil scribbles, the discoloured white thread that Mum stitched the book with (staple binding must have come loose), the plastic jacket (these we invariably recycled from the elaborate packaging of new shirts which also included tracing paper, plastic clips, and stiff-collar bits that would be my superhero-eyewear for a day) she’d put on the thin paper cover to make the book last longer in the hands of restless children. The back cover has two paragraphs about the author Kanailal Chakravorty and the history of the book. It was first published in parts in a little magazine in 1967, and then published as a book in 1970 when it also received the National Prize for Children’s Literature. The author had penned columns for children in various popular magazines including Anandamela (this one was my brother’s staple in the nineties and is still running), Katum-Kutum. He died on 26 May 1985.

*

On the IBC, the publisher, Swarnakshar (literally, Golden Letters) has listed its other books, of which Hiru Dakat by Amarendra Chakravorty is another landmark in my childhood. Hiru Dakat is a suspenseful story about three little boys who get stuck in a forest and encounter the Robin-Hood-esque dacoit leader Hiru, who has a bounty on his head. But back to the present, although almost nothing is available on Kanailal Charavorty online, my searches yield the surprising fact that Amarendra Chakravorty runs the small press Swarnakshar. From his website, I glean an email id and shoot one instantly with a list of questions: if Chalo Dekhe Ashi has been translated at all; where I can find more on his press; if the setting of the book is based on a real village and so on. I tell him that I’m trying to find out more about Kanailal Chakravorty, and ask him: Can you tell me more about working with the author? As his publisher, do you have any anecdotes to share?

*

A reply comes in a few hours. Amarendra Chakravorty is glad to receive my email, but has a busy schedule. Before signing off, he writes: In appreciation of your deep interest in Chalo Dekhe Ashi, which is written by my father, I will make myself free for a telephone conversation.

My world stops for a bit and then lights up as I realize that the writers of the two books which defined my early childhood are father and son. The phone call, of course, is another story. It begins with Amarendra Chakravorty telling me, Shishu sahitya bole kichu hoy na. (There is no such thing as children’s literature.) I couldn’t agree more.

*

Baba often scribbled for hours on at night. I had no idea what he was writing then.

Amarendra Chakravorty recalls the making of Chalo Dekhe Ashi. One day, his father handed him some pages with the stories and asked him to read them. Then the illustrator Raghunath Goswami drew the pictures, and once the stories gained popularity as well as high praise from literary critics such as Manabendra Bandyopadhyay and Subir Roychowdhury through the little magazine Saraswat Prakash, young Amarendra decided to publish the entire text as a book and in the process started a small press. His father had not dreamt that his book would be loved by so many children.

We talk and talk about various things, and I find out that the writer of Hiru Dakat is a globetrotter now, has a travel show. He also paints. Then he recalls my list of questions and says that indeed there was a village where his father had stayed for a few days, which had possibly inspired the village in Chalo Dekhe Ashi. Khoshbash Mohalla. I don’t catch it the first time, so he breaks it for me. Khosh–bash, and I say yes, yes, smiling a little as I scribble down the name, its etymological closeness to the locality I spent my early childhood in: Anandapuri. Ananda is joy, happiness. A name that I always found a little make-believe, a little unreal. A bit like Nischindipur, where Apu grew up. But that’s another story.

*

It’s impossible to write about Chalo Dekhe Ashi without mentioning Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali. Another childhood-landscape defining book, all the more special because I studied it slowly over months with my father. Another story of fathers and sons, another story of serendipities and Sunday singing, a house named Aranyak in Barrackpore … but that’s another universe of a story. Here is page 15 from Chalo Dekhe Ashi, a picnic that reminds me of the picnic sequence in Pather Panchali, and perhaps this is indeed a tribute, from one author to another.

Month of Poush. Cold touches our bones. Christmas holidays. The boys will go on a picnic. The Chaudhuris’ farmhouse will be ideal. There are huge mango trees there. As well as saal and silk-cotton. What a treat to watch sunlight frolic amongst those leaves!

What enthusiastic boys! Bhola shall come bearing kindling on his shoulder. Apu shall bring fish and eggs. Bright red tomatoes. To make chutney. There will also be some curd.

They will eat on saal leaves. No need for plates and bowls. Haridas will help clean the pots and pans. He shall eat his fill and get eight annas. The boys have collected twelve rupees for their picnic.

A game of hide-and-seek in the late afternoon. Who’s that in the shadow of the mango tree? Oh no one – just a fox who’s disappeared now. Amloki branches sway. Who’s that there? Just a bird alighting. Who’s whistling? Oh, just the wind. Wasn’t that the sound of a cuckoo? Nope, not a cuckoo, that was Amal. Where’s Amal? No reply.

*

Over the phone, Amarendra Chakravorty tells me that his father was a man of simple joys, someone who was at ease in forests and felt claustrophobic in cities. It’s easy to gauge this from the book too and I turn to pages 17 & 18 – the long paragraphs in the book about the city and wonder why page 18 is the only page without illustrations. Chock-a-block words. The story on these pages is about Atanu who has migrated to Kolkata recently, to enroll in a college, and the narrator hasn’t heard from him in some time. So he wants to send Nirapod (literally, the name means Without-Danger, or Safety) to get news of Atanu. The narrator asks the daughter-in-law, possibly Atanu’s mother, to write down the address for Nirapod. And suggests she sends a jar of mango pickle, and Atanu’s wind-up wrist watch with him. Since the monsoons have hit, the narrator asks his family to buy an umbrella for Nirapod and advices him to cross the streets carefully, and to find some time to meet Himanshu, who is a patachitra artist. This vignette rambles on unlike the others and I can’t remember reading the pages as a child. I may have skipped them as was my habit back then with pages that didn’t appeal because of lack of illustration. You know, like Alice, who asks what’s the point of a book without pictures. The page with only text upon text still looks alien to me, the packed paragraph wants breathing space. The illustration on page seventeen, showing the Howrah Bridge and buildings in Kolkata has a similar effect. Window upon window, crowded skyline, lines collide with lines, no curves nor circles, and if you look hard you spot a communications tower, a giant sewer pipe, and boxes that are possibly cars, but no people.

*

Can Chalo Dekhe Ashi be translated? Surely it can be, right? Especially into other Indian languages where the alphabet progression should not be impossible to be faithful to. Amarendra Chakravorty did mention that attempts were made in Assamese and Odiya.

Yet, a certain kind of living, the dialect of seasons and festivities, a certain simplicity, certain indigenous occupations like patachitrakar (artisans who tell stories for a living, using the aid of their hand-painted scrolls); baul (mystic minstrels who sing with their one-string instrument ektara), a very Bengali palate – some of these will not be easy to transfer culturally, especially since, with a picture book, the text cannot be overwhelming. Succinct sentences should ideally be kept succinct. So, while translating a few vignettes for this essay, I let go of most articles. And of course, I was stumped by simple word choices: kid or baby-goat? Baby-goat seems closer to chhagol-chhana. Egret, crane or heron? To explain the old currency denominator anna, or not. And what fruit to laden the kul tree with in English? Ziziphus mauritiana. Indian plum, Chinese apple, Indian jujubes … absolutely not! This is an old, old obsession: the transference of names of animals, insects, trees, flowers, fruit from one culture to another. Tropical to temperate, sand to snow, when powdered, caressed by the sun or picked by the wind, they both glisten. So kul remains. As does amloki. The curious will always google. Gooseberry sounds too exotic and reminds me of a book I loved as a child about a motley group of animals in a park in the northern hemisphere (possibly New York?). Anyway, to say that a book is ‘untranslatable’ is by no means to indicate any kind of failure. Or express nose-in-air cultural pride or even a possessiveness of a language, claiming something as only its. It’s perhaps only to draw attention to the thin but permanent gaps that exist between each of us, and how we write, or draw, for that matter, to make these visible, open conversations about our differences and keep talking despite them, sometimes come across unlikely similarities, and overlaps, how we think in patterns. The old analogy with glass, being opaque or translucent, the degree of light that can pass through. Have you seen shadows of leaves dancing on a window pane? Or ripples of a puddle outside the window trembling as circles on the ceiling?

*

This book taught me specific words for the rain. Ilsheguri: the kind of rain that falls in a drumming drizzle – guri is both size and sound – and marks the season of ilish (hilsa, a favourite fish of the Bengalis, now dwindling because of overfishing). Or words like chinipata doi and alankar. Curious words like idaning, which, until I was about four, I thought was an English word because of the -ing sound.

I remember learning the alphabet, both English and Bangla. The orange tinted squares in Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar’s Barnaparichay. But what happened in between: how words and their meanings came together in the brain, I have no recollection of. Suddenly there was Little Jack Horner and I was puzzling over the plum. Why was he declaring his goodness over a pie? I loved my first Radiant Reader. There was Pat and his mother in a beautiful green dress. Pat who could sing. Sing, sing, sing. Sing, Mother, sing. Pat can sing, Mother can sing.

Early childhood reading for me was mostly in translation. Russian fairy tales in Bangla. Ivan and the firebird. Or Mayakovsky’s ‘What is good and what is bad’ made into a lovely hardbound picture book. Most of the Soviet books were hand-me-downs, a common story in Bengal if you ask around. Cinderella too, as a tiny stapled Bangla booklet bought at a fair. A tome of Bengali ghost stories that my grandmother loved reading out loud from. A book of mythical creatures, Ajob Chiriyakhana, which gives me the chills even now, with its peculiar smell and the Sphinx staring out from the cover. The Arabian Nights in Bangla, which was on the upper-most shelf and out of reach. The Earlybird 1000 Words (Blue, Green, Red) series which taught me how to draw. A year later, when I turned six, my brother’s collection of those delightful illustrated abridged classics, Moby Books with the whale on the spine. Asterix & Obelix. Posy Simmond’s Fred.

What also happened in the process was that many of these stories fuelled a resentment in me, a secret but growing resentment with the geology of my hometown. You know how it is, the children in storybooks and in cartoon shows always lead more interesting lives, they suddenly get caught up in adventures, get transported to parallel universes, or at the least save the neighbourhood during their summer holidays. None of that for me. Of course, my brother and I warded off an alien invasion with our thermocol laser-guns once, but no one lauded our heroism. And the gang at school, we had a whole plan chalked out to exorcise the ghost that lived in a bunch of bones that vultures had left behind in the school grounds, but that fell through too. Washed with routine, Barrackpore looked rather plain to me. It was neither here, nor there. Not city, nor village. No hills in the distant, no sand, no sea. In retrospect, I realize that Chalo Dekhe Ashi, amongst other things and events, changed my outlook. For one thing, it was easy to relate to: what I had for lunch was what they were planning for their picnic; our seasons matched. There was a fair every winter in the field opposite my grandmother’s house like the one described in the book. The train’s whistle was always in the air. Again, a touch of Apu-Durga.

And then, slowly, like the narrator, I learnt to listen, to watch for movement amongst branches from the vantage point of a balcony. Soon, a hundred kind of birds. A hilarious family of cats. If you’re lucky, or patient, mongoose and fireflies. Hyacinth. Pampass grass. Too many water buffaloes, egrets on their backs. Fields of rice if you went a little further. Ponds with lichen, lotus in season. The old river a small detour from school, and old, old trees. I decided I would become a wildlife photographer. I took to documenting the lives of the animals around my neighbourhood. Not wild. No camera. I took notes. Here’s a page from my notebook. Easy to see what inspired the layout of the page…

*

As I translate bits and pieces from the book for this essay, I’m in love with the pattern of the words all over again. The sudden switches from singular to plural – a lone heron waiting on one leg suddenly joins his flock returning home at dusk. The sudden switches of tense – the probability of a picnic turning, without warning, into a game of hide-and-seek with a cameo-role fox. Not many conjunctions, not even the usual narrative markers of and then, and then suddenly as one expects in stories for young readers. Instead, Chalo Dekhe Ashi revels in media res surprises tucked in the images and events, not in punctuation.

Apricot trees exist. Think of the book like Inger Christensen’s alphabet. Here too each paragraph follows a linguistic pattern, the narrative progresses in complexity of register and vocabulary according to the Bangla alphabet. A bit like Szymborska too. That poem in which nothing happens (‘No Title Required’). Chalo Dekhe Ashi has shaped my own writing in ways that I can only begin to see now. Something about Barthes and the land of childhood. Although, I am always sceptical about and know the dangers of nostalgia. Our easy recourse to a pleasanter past. But also, the dangers of forgetting. Some years back, I stopped using the word nature and started using the word ecosystem. Nature sounds too glades-and-woodlands and sweet-dusk-afterglow, ecosystem is more 2017, wrapped in plastic. A similar unraveling with Chalo Dekhi Ashi, reading the book after twenty years, I see things that I didn’t before…

*

I tell Amarendra Chakravorty I’m a fledgling editor. We discuss sales. I turn to the now-sacrosanct copyright page, something I had probably not even spared a second for twenty years ago. This time, I’m fascinated. Next to the list of editions is marked the number of copies printed. Between 1970 and 1992, 25,400 copies. I also find out that a second illustrator, Prithwish Ganguly, had drawn some of the pictures and the cover illustration is his. And at the end of the copyright page is a clever little note from the author about his choice of inconsistent spelling.

That’s the other thing, I realize. Much in the book is unsaid. The short two- to five-word-long sentences don’t spell out everything. For example: One day, blue sky turned red. Ants took to air. Malini was terrified. Tore her rope. And never returned. How can ants fly? The storm, a kalboishakhi to be precise, is only implied. The cow running is not on the pages, but in your mind. Perhaps to pique children’s curiosity. Make them ask questions about the life cycle of insects, use their imagination and new knowledge of the world to fill up the blanks. Or maybe it implies a collective reading, perhaps the book wants the adult to read along with the child.

Then there is the narrator. More whimsy than wisdom, which makes him endearing. Always listening out for bird call, mistaking foxes for friends, children for cuckoos. Always worried about the people who will have to travel far, always thinking back to good meals eaten in the past, relishing fish, noting the subtle changes in soil and sky. Folks confide in him, about unruly sons, nasty toothaches, wedding arrangements, money woes. He knows his trees, travels to Bolpur for the spring festival, can recognize an amateur conch-player, knows who to call for bee-stings and who to run to when a poisonous snake is sighted, he also keeps an eye on growing ducklings and sly otters, ponders about the benefits of eating chickpeas every morning. He’s evidently someone older than his readers, but still retains the wide-eyed child-like curiosity. When it rains, he immediately eggs the children on to make paper boats.

*

More than the text per se, what is perhaps untranslatable are the desires the book instilled in me in my early reading days, my most-precious dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator, for example, and probable failure. My oldest what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up wish to be a teacher. Which is why I come across too many pencil markings of C.W. and H.W. in this copy of Chalo Dekhe Ashi. Classwork, Homework, Dictation, Handwriting. On the very first page, I think I had confused handwriting and homework and the result is gibberish. Perhaps, the mix of the two, home-writing, best defines the genre of the book?

I’m going to attempt a translation of the last page, as I did of the first. This too is probably a failure. Perhaps it would be less of a failure if each paragraph of this essay were written in words with dominant vowels in the order of a e i o u. But Perec’s (or rather, Gilbert Adair’s) ghost did not possess me today.

Isn’t that a lone bird calling in the distance? Will she come flying our way? Let’s go and see.

 Was that the lone rumble of thunder just now? But this is not the season for storms! Let’s go and see.

 The farmer is cutting crops of his field. The potter is kneading clay. The fisherman has just swung his net on the river. Let’s go and see.

 Raindrops are falling in patches on the river. Let’s go and see. Light is falling on the river. Shadows are falling on the river. Playing hide-and-seek. Let’s go and see.


 

Kanailal Chakravorty (1 November 1908 – 26 May 1985) is known for his book Chalo Dekhe Ashi, which received the National Prize for Children’s Literature in 1970, and has sold over 40,000 copies till date. Two other books, Kumir Hoye Jole Gelo and Choruir Sange, were published posthumously. He has written for various little magazines, fiction and memoir, most often for young readers, most often about his natural surroundings, his childhood spent in East Bengal of the-then undivided India, about floods, local games, folktales about orioles and how they came to be called ishtikutum in Bangla.

Sohini Basak’s debut poetry collection We Live in the Newness of Small Differences received the Beverly series manuscript prize and will be out in early 2018 from Eyewear Publishing. She is the recipient of a Toto Funds the Arts writing award (2017), and a Malcolm Bradbury continuation grant for poetry from the University of East Anglia (2015). Currently based out of New Delhi, she works as an editor with a publishing house and is a social media manager with the translation journal Asymptote. Twitter: @Sohini_Basak

All translations by Sohini Basak

Book images: Sohini Basak

Image: Ponsigue!, Kath Halkett, Creative Commons