Rediscovering the unfettered genius of Sukumar Ray and Lewis Carroll

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on May 15, 2020

An Alice in all of us: Generations have grown up reading Lewis Carroll’s classic   -  WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Sukumar Ray’s ‘Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law’ see the world from a perspective that is free of restraint, and full of wonders

*Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Sukumar Ray’s Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law are household classics, marked by zany twists and leaps of imagination

*Ray’s story is influenced by Carroll’s story, but both are distinct in the worlds they create

In two gardens, over 50 years apart, two children sit, on a slow summer afternoon. One of them is a girl. As her elder sister naps, she sees a White Rabbit hurry by. The Rabbit is in a waistcoat and is worriedly checking his pocket watch. She follows the Rabbit who vanishes, and the girl falls down a rabbit hole.

The other child, we don’t know his name, or indeed if it’s a boy or a girl yet, is sitting on the grass on a very hot and humid day. It’s the sort of day we all know — a still, quiet afternoon when nothing moves, when your home slumbers, and you feel as if you could be the only person alive.

This child picks up a handkerchief lying on the grass next to him. But oh dear, it’s no longer a hanky. It’s become a fat, tawny cat, staring at him with mischief-laden eyes, and laughing in an insolent manner. And so starts this particular adventure, with those amazement-laden words in Bangla: “Chhilo rumal, hoye gelo beral. (Was a hanky, is now a cat.)

Parallel worlds

The first story is a beloved world classic. It has been read and re-read, adapted for stage, for film, and is part of the fabric of English language.

Have we not all at some time found ourselves in situations where we have felt we are tumbling down a rabbit hole and into a world that is bizarre, and that lives by its own rules? Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, written by Lewis Carroll, or, to use his real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, has remained continuously in print ever since. For its sheer joyful inventiveness, the leaps of its imagination, the stunning and hilarious word-play, this is a book that is required reading for people of all ages.

The other book is Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law. It is actually a long story, or perhaps a novella, and is a household classic in Bengali. Almost every Bengali child grows up either reading it, hearing about it, or being subjected to choice lines from it. It is as familiar to a Bengali as a plate of maachher jhol. Written by Sukumar Ray in 1921, it appeared in the iconic children’s magazine Sandesh that Ray used to publish and print. He wrote and illustrated for it as well, and poured into it a stunning amount of his sheer, crazy imagination.

Funnily, both these books reappeared in my life together a few months ago. I enthusiastically allotted myself the task of reading the proofs of a new edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. As I read Carroll’s creations after many years, I found I was either helplessly giggling at my desk, or putting down the pages to sit back and think over the beauty of lines in the book.

It was mid-March when I read it, and the March Hare seemed an appropriate person to have in my life, whispering crazy teatime rules in my ear. I read and re-read chapters such as Advice from a Caterpillar and marvelled at its wit anew. The two Alice books are the perfect antidote to sadness and worry, and as we hunkered down into a lockdown, these words were entirely fitting: “‘So you think you’re changed, do you?’

‘I’m afraid I am, sir,’ said Alice. ‘I can’t remember things as I used — and I don’t keep the same size for ten minutes together!’”

It was also at this time that I started editing Arunava Sinha’s translation of Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law. Ray’s story is clearly inspired by Carroll’s Alice. Both feature a child who inadvertently enters a land full of surprises. Both these lands are teeming with absurd creatures, mostly animals, living by, what appears to be, nonsensical codes for living. To briefly recap the story of Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law, one afternoon, the protagonist suddenly finds himself talking to a cat.

The cat is a know-it-all and gives him all kinds of information. “If it is hot, why don’t you go to Tibet?” To the entirely logical reply to this, “How can I go to Tibet? Isn’t it very far?”, the cat replies nonchalantly, “Not at all.” It reels off the names of a few small Bengali towns and cities and says Tibet lies that way, a mere hour and a quarter’s journey. And really, when one thinks about it, how far is any place, if you decide to go there.

The story becomes more and more bizarre from here on, for the cat suddenly disappears (after pretending to give the child some sums), and in its place appears a raven, followed quickly by a bald old man named Udho.

Doing math: A raven sits on a tree doing accounts   -  ILLUSTRATIONS: SUKUMAR RAY


The delightful part about Udho is though he appears old, he says he is just 13 years old. Why? Because in this land, after you reach 40 years, your age moves in the reverse direction till it reaches 10. And then it moves up again. Like this, Udho’s age has gone up and down a few times, and he is currently at 13.

The story gallops along, adding even stranger creatures and ideas. All of which makes as much sense to the child in the story as to us, the reader, till we stop trying to make sense and let ourselves go in the gently flowing waters of the ocean of nonsense.

Like Alice in Wonderland, I read Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law many times as a child. I remember on a slow, hot afternoon, when my mother was asleep, I finished the book and then went to check on the new kittens in the backyard. We stared at each other. I willed them to talk. They looked at me with their green-grey eyes. We had a silent conversation that I have never forgotten.

I was transported back to that world as I read Ray’s book in English and Bengali once more. This time, I cornered my teenage son, and together, he and I read it in Bengali. We deliberately stretched it out over a few days, not willing to let the afternoons refreshed by gales of laughter end.

Later in the evening, we told each other lines from the story and laughed once more. How the billy goat Byakaran Singh BA gave a speech on ‘what goats eat’, and the idiotic Hijibijbij imagined all kinds of far-fetched stories, and nearly killed himself laughing.

Odd ball: The billy goat Byakaran Singh BA, who is also a food connoisseur   -  ILLUSTRATIONS: SUKUMAR RAY


Twists in the tale

Ray, who also wrote completely fantastic nonsense poems in his earlier works such as Abol Tabol and Khai Khai, packed Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law too with curious lyrics. Most of these are sung by a dandily dressed man who insists on singing. He carries around a sheaf of songs to choose from.

Out of this world: A defamation suit is argued in front of a sleep owl, the presiding judge   -  ILLUSTRATIONS: SUKUMAR RAY


Here are a few lines from one:

“The bat said to his friend the hedgehog

Tonight I will show you a ledgedog

You will see the owls and insects fly

Around us, the poor mouse will die.”

(From Habber-Jabber-Law, translated by Arunava Sinha, Talking Cub)

Ray’s language is rhythmic, lilting, colloquial. Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law is teeming with puns, and to the delight of almost every child, it is full of weird mathematics.

It starts with the raven’s grave question, “Seven twos are?” Of course, it’s not 14. It’s not 14 till you catch it and write down 14 at exactly the right time. It may rise to become ₹14 and some naye paise. Time is money, my friend. The sheer wit of Lewis Carroll and Sukumar Ray have left readers delighted and wonderstruck for a century now. Ray, who passed away at the young age of 36, left behind — apart from his son Satyajit — a treasure trove of stories, poems, plays and essays. It is, therefore, very sad that unlike the abiding popularity of Carroll’s works, this joyful creation has remained relatively unknown outside of Bengal.

Given its nature, translating it is a task that will daunt any translator. Sinha, who recently translated Ray’s classic, says, “Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law is my personal guide to the people of the world. I inevitably classify everyone I know as one of its characters, at least from the point of view of their quirks.”

Mirrors to the world

In a world where a virus can bring normal life to a grinding halt, shake us out of our apathy and make us take stock of our lives and thoughts, it seems entirely okay that hankies can become cats, that goats can give speeches, that judges are forever sleeping in courts that are a chaotic mess and where justice takes the form of three months of jail and seven days of hanging.

Hidden in the layers of Carroll and Ray’s works lie some eternal truths — the joy of esoteric knowledge, music, happiness, and the very best parts of being human. But that’s if you are a boring adult who needs to dig for meanings. What if you are a child, seven years and three months like the child in Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law? How do you go about convincing your grown-ups that such a world exists and that you have been there?

The very last paragraph of Alice in Wonderland is a work of beauty. Her sister, on hearing Alice’s adventures, contemplates Alice’s life many years hence. She will be one of those who will gather children around her, giving them glimpses into that wonderland far removed that she once roamed in as a seven year old. And to make that perfect balance, the child in Haw-Jaw-Baw-Raw-Law thinks the billy goat is nibbling his ear and he wakes to find his uncle twisting his ear. “You fell asleep while pretending to read your grammar book, you good-for-nothing,” his uncle roars.

No one believes his little tale of the cat and the goat and the raven and Hijibijbij. Except other children. For they will always read the story and laugh and wonder when such adventures will happen to them. And really, the recipe for these adventures is quite simple. Let these stories enter your life.

Then shut your eyes and as the hot afternoon settles around you, wait for Tweedledee and Tweedledum to appear, or for a small bald man to slide out of a hole in a tree and measure you with his tape. You will always remain 26 inches, no matter how old or how young, how tall or how short you feel at the time.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

Published on May 15, 2020

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