Decoding Literary Heritage Icons

ThakumarJhuli-01 high res cover

By Sutapa Basu

Just like Grimms Fairy tales or Andersen’s Fairy Tales are part of World Literature, Thakurmar Jhuli is intrinsic to Bengali Literature. No other book beats closer to the heart of a true-blue Bengali than this unique collection of children’s folktales. Wherever they may live today, every Bengali’s reminiscences of childhood are diffused with the flavour of its stories.

Mesmerized by oral narratives of exotic characters heard from simple village folk, Author Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar, penned down these stories to preserve them. He retained the voice and style of the renditions and even drew pictures for them. Eventually published in 1907, under the title, Thakurmar Jhuli or Grandmother’s Bag of Tales, the book sold three thousand copies in a week!

Captured in perpetuity the old, oral traditions of storytelling made Thakumar Jhuli synonymous with the cultural heritage of the region from where the folktales are sourced. Consequently, this anthology now holds the position of a literary legacy. Tagore’s foreword to the book elaborates on how these stories will serve to spread in young minds the consciousness of their country’s rich heritage.

I entered this magical world with my grandmother. She narrated these stories to me when I was too little to read. But the enchantment of brave princes, beautiful, bold princesses, rakhosh (monsters), midgets, cunning foxes, flying pakshiraj horses, peacock ships sailing across seven seas and thirteen rivers has tinted my consciousness ever since.

For ages, I have dreamt of translating Thukurmar Jhuli into English. My goal was to break the language barrier and take my favourite childhood stories to a wider, global audience who could enjoy them in English.

Obviously, I was elated when Readomania Publishers offered to turn my dream into reality. I aimed to adhere completely to the original, use imagery to the hilt retaining the enchanting word pictures of the original Thakurmar Jhuli. To attract young readers habituated to western notions of fairy tales, I decided to call my book, Princesses, Monsters, and Magical Creatures.

Garnering a Bangla-English dictionary, a hard-bound blue and gold copy of Thakurmar Jhuli and my laptop, I dived in. Only a few pages into the stories and the challenges hit me hard. 

Challenge#1 Linguistic equivalent

Bengali and English are both extremely evolved and expressive languages. However, they have specific nuances as well as extensive differences in language, jargon, style, vocabulary, idioms, voice, and vernacular verbalization. How could I make the translation express the same ideas as in the original while not losing any of their aura? Given that my aim was to translate and not transliterate, I had to be very careful to adhere to the impressions, emotions and ambience of the original work and find their equivalent expressions as closely as possible that the linguistic complexities of English language would allow. As you can imagine, it turned out to be a very painstaking task. Sometimes, I spent hours looking for an exact word to reflect a specific expression, then had to give up and look for a compromise. Nevertheless, with perseverance, I found my way and managed to create this 240-page epistle.

Challenge#2 Matching linguistic ability of young readers

I was constantly alert to the fact that the vocabulary of the translation had to cater to the linguistic ability of children generally aged between 7 and 12 years. For instance, to express a river’s gentle movement between hills, I felt ‘meandering through the hills’ as too difficult and preferred writing ‘twisting through the hills’ as more appropriate. I had to constantly search for synonyms and concepts that were simpler and yet fitted the meaning or situation. I had to ensure that vocabulary, ideas, and all conversations had to consciously match the intellectual grasp of the readers.

Challenge#3 Creating melody

Bengali and possibly many Indian languages are very melodic due their auditory inflections. Onomatopoeia is commonly used as verbs and adjectives to enhance nouns in Bengali. However, English language did not have such a vast range of reverberating words. At the same time, children enjoy saying, reading, and chanting sound words because they are naturally inclined to rhythm and music. How should I cope with this aspect? I overcame this dearth of onomatopoeia in English by creating expressions that by themselves would be meaningless but when attached to specific nouns would create pictures for readers to imagine, such as ‘Angrily, the rakhoshi queen gnashed her teeth…grrunch, grrunch, grrunch! Furiously, her nails clawed her skin…skratch, skratch, skratch!’

Challenge#4 Sustaining original expressions

However, certain Bengali onomatopoeic expressions are so inherent to the story that replacing them would destroy its bewitching appeal. But retaining them in totality would make them incomprehensible hurdles for a reader with no knowledge of Bengali. So how much of the expressions should I retain without frustrating the average reader? I decided to sustain the Bengali expressions commonly heard and extend them with explanatory text in English. Here is an example:

‘Haou! Maou! Khau!

Will eat up our foe.’

Challenge #5 Retaining the irreplaceable

There are a few words that I have retained in their original form for there is no equivalent for them in English language with the same meaning. Some of these are ‘Rakhosh’, ‘Khokosh’, or ‘pakshiraj’ and more that are irreplaceable. I have described them extensively in the stories so that the readers can easily picture them in their minds.

Challenge#6 Navigating old ideas

The original stories were collected by Dakshinaranjan Mitra nearly hundred years ago from oral renditions. We can safely assume that the stories were much older than 100 years. We know that customs, traditions, and societal norms were very different from what they are now. The original Thakurmar Jhuli reflects much of the environment in which it was first conceived. Would those conventions seem incomprehensible to young readers today? I did not think so. I believe that it would make children aware of how people lived or their attitudes more than 100 years ago. They will become conscious of how much society, traditions, the beliefs of people have changed since then. Only when they know about the misguided customs that people followed in the past will they realise how much more enlightened people are today. For them it would be a study in comparisons and the realisation that they live in a much better world today.

Challenge#7 Diluting patriarchy

No doubt, the stories also reflect misogynist traditions of the past, such kings with many wives or attitudes of male domination. While the young readers will themselves be able to discern how these customs raised the many problems and difficulties around which the stories revolve, as a writer I have tried to tweak the flow of the stories so that they profile the remorse of the wrong doer, efforts are made to make up for mistakes committed, justice is doled out to the wicked and rewards to the virtuous. As concerns the patriarchal attitudes of those times, I have diluted them by stressing on how much women, girls and princesses influenced the events and the male characters of the stories through their cleverness, bold ideas, and brave deeds. Many stories portray women as heroines. While I have a strong opinion that storytelling is solely for the entertainment and enjoyment of young readers nevertheless, I have subtly woven in the right attitudes and honest, honourable behaviour in the conversations of the tales.

Challenge#8 Profiling heritage

Since the original Thakurmar Jhuli has done a yeoman’s task in capturing for perpetuity the oral tradition of storytelling, I intended my translation to carry on the legacy. With this translation, a larger audience will become conscious of the history and cultural heritage of the region. Purposefully, I have set each story in a different geographical location for Bengal as a region in India is renowned for its topographical variety. So, a discerning reader will be able to identify stories set in the fertile plains of River Ganga, the green, hilly terrains of North Bengal and even the Sunderbans.

Also, the descriptions of even queens bathing in rivers and streams meant there was no running water in palaces or rooms lit with smoking lamps meant no electrical lighting; amenities that children take for granted today. Some glimpses of political environment surface where kings were concerned about the welfare of their subjects who gave back love and loyalty in return to their rulers.

Folk art such as alpona floor patterns embellish Bengali homes on auspicious occasions even today. A passive attempt to draw the readers’ attention to this art form has been made through the book’s semi-realistic illustrations in the alpona style and mentions of it in the stories. Another very popular and often-heard auspicious sound in Bengali homes is the conch shell being blown. For a long time, I grappled with finding a word to express this particular sound. Using the word, ‘ululating’ seemed too elevated for the readers’ comprehension. I actually blew into a few conch shells and realised that the sound was like an elongated ‘Om’. So, in my stories, the blowing of conches sounds like, ‘Ooohmmm! Ooohmmm!’

Though I faced all these challenges, overcoming them gifted me new insights into decoding heritage literature. Like I have mentioned, this English version of Thakurmar Jhuli, Princesses, Monsters and Magical Creatures is my dream come true. This book goes out to all my readers, young and old, with great expectations. Like the winged horse, let Princesses, Monsters and Magical Creatures fly you to the enchanted realms of childhood and somewhere along the way, I am sure, it will change the way that you view the world.

Bio:
Sutapa Basu is a best-selling, award-winning author as well as an educationist, poet, storyteller, and a translator. Her historical novel, The Curse of Nader Shah won the Best Fiction Award by AutHer Awards, 2020 instituted by JK Papers and The Times of India. She is the 2016 First Prize winner of The Times of India’s Write India Campaign for Amish Tripathi while her debut, a psychological thriller, Dangle was nominated for the Anupam Kher Award for Best Debut English Novel in 2017. In 2021, she received an award for Excellence in Publishing by the Public Diplomacy Forum. She is well-known for her best-selling historical fiction, Padmavati, The Queen Tells Her Own Story (2017). Her second historical fiction initiated the Invader Series with The Legend of Genghis Khan (2018) and continued with The Curse of Nader Shah (2019). Recently, her two anthologies, Out Of The Blue, Stories with a Twist and The Anatomy of Affection, Tales That Touch You (2020) have been released. A cozy-mystery adventure, The Cursed Inheritance was published in 2021. Stepping into the genre of children’s literature, her English translation of the iconic Thakurmar Jhuli titled Princesses, Monsters and Magical Creatures was also launched in 2021.

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